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on 23 October 2014
Ophelia Field's history of the Kit-Kat Club is a brilliant read. As a history, it's an eye-opening tale of a pivotal period, crowded with fascinating incident and a cast of talented men who changed a culture through their love of and enthusiasm for the arts and politics. As a group biography, I couldn't stop reading as I followed the fortunes of Addison and Steele, Vanburgh, Congreve,Montagu, Walpole... the list goes on. This is not just for literature and history buffs, this is a must read for anybody who loves London.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 January 2011
Founded in the late 1690s by London bookseller Jacob Tonson, utilising the premises and consuming the food of pie-maker Christopher Cat, the Kit-Cat Club evolved into a club with a cast of prominent members of the cultural, political and social circles of the time.

In origin the Club had a literary role, with Tonson regularly feeding aspirant authors at Cat's pub in return for the promise of having first publication option on their works. Over time this evolved into the Kit-Cat Club, a pioneer in mixing politics, culture and professional interests in one Club, such areas having previously been kept separate in organisations that served but the one niche. The combination of the rich and political powerful with artists and authors in search of patronage was an effective one and, in contrast to the many highly stratified parts of society at the time, the Club was a meritocratic forum, founded and hosted by non-aristocrats.

Its place in history has suffered somewhat because, as G.M. Trevelyan put it, "All the good talk over the pies and wine, Congreve's wit, Wharton's fascinating impudence, and Addison's quiet humour, is lost forever without record. The Kit-Cat Club had no Boswell".

This lengthy work - over 500 pages including index, along with a pointer to further information online - seeks to remedy this and concentrates primarily on five men from amongst the fifty-odd members - Joseph Addison, William Congreve, Richard Steele, Jacob Tonson and John Vanbrugh.

In politics, the Club brought together a group of influential players who pursued an ultra-Whig course, whilst in poetry, theatre and music the Club helped to shift authority from the Court both by its role in patronage for performers and artists and also by its role in setting trends in fashion and manners.

The Club's role in Whig politics was reinforced by the Tory-Whig `paper wars', with the Club's marshalling of writers and patronage an important source of words for these propaganda exchanges. Government posts and sinecures were deployed to support Club members as part of a deliberate Whig policy to create a wider sympathetic climate of opinion. They aided supportive writers and encouraged complimentary cultural trends, including toleration, at a time when political disputes often featured questions of nationality or religion.

The presence on the throne of a Dutch King in William III also spurred the Club's members to sketch out a strengthening of the English identity. Their choice of food - pies - was English rather than Continental cuisine, and its members looked to develop a strong English strand in the arts. The literary magazine was born from the Club's membership, with The Tatler and then The Spectator appearing. The latter in particular championed English culture in the form of Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser. Not all their moves succeeded (an attempt to rebuff Italian opera with a new form of English opera did not take off) but sufficient were successful to help shape a new English sense of culture, including manners and styles of speaking which brought different parts of the social spectrum together rather than driving them apart.

The turn of the century saw an unusually high frequency of elections and, in a period long before the development of party headquarters, the Kit-Cat Club often acted as an informal organising point for Whigs, helping to organise and co-ordinate several key individuals who sought to exercise electoral influence. Just as electoral needs help create a role for the Club, so the later reduction in electoral pressures from the passage of the Septennial Act (which moved elections to a nominal 7-year cycle) and the dominance of the Whigs under Walpole reduced the need for the Club's political role and helped explain its decline in the second and third decades of the eighteenth century.

Tonson's death in 1736 marks a formal end to the Club's life, but the changed political circumstances and the deaths of other key initial members had long since take the edge off its role.

The Kit-Cat Club certainly brought together influential people who played a major role in shaping their age, including Robert Walpole and a clutch of peers and MPs. Nine Kit-Cat members served on the 1708 commission which drew up plans for the union between England and Scotland. Three of the four members of the Whig Junto were Kit-Cat members. In 1709 a Kit-Cat held every senior post in Ireland's colonial administration save one. For all but nine years between 1714 and 1762 the Prime Minister was a Kit-Cat Club member (and eight of those years had the brother of a Kit-Cat member in the office). And so on.

However, whilst their activities are well documented in this work, less clear is how important the Club itself was. It may have brought influential people together, but were they any the more influential for the Club's existence? Had it not existed would their influence or the cast of influential people have been significantly different?

Many of the Club's members were boyhood friends after all, and it is unlikely that the absence of the Kit-Cat Club would have resulted in them not continuing to know and communicate with each other via other means.

As a forum that brings together people to eat and drink (or, in the case of the Kit-Cat club, men - for it was an exclusively male enterprise), fostering personal relations, spreading news and offering opportunities, the Club provided the networking benefits that other clubs - and indeed particular schools and universities - have provided at other times. The Kit-Cat Club had a stellar cast that makes its story an interesting and lively one, but the book does not make the case that it had any special influence beyond that which numerous other networking opportunities provide.

What the book does unquestionably do though is provide detailed and enjoyable portraits of some of the individuals and activities at the centre of political and cultural life at the time. Detailed research is presented through vivid chronology as the people and their times are brought to live.
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on 26 August 2008
You would not want to be known as a member of a club in the sixteenth century; clubs then were seen as violent and conspiratorial gangs of men. By the eighteenth century, that had changed, and men could gather in clubs with a feeling of doing something constructive and high-minded. One of the main reasons for the change in meaning was the Kit-Cat Club, a massing of writers, musicians, artists, politicians, and titled gentlemen who met in London and flourished around 1690 to 1710. The influence of these men in politics, in art, and in forming the British character was vast. The influence of the club is detailed in _The Kit-Cat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation_ (Harper Press) by historian Ophelia Field. A big book, rich in detail pulled from diaries, notes, poems, plays, and letters to the press, this is an accessible history because although it deals in times and situations foreign to us, it concentrates on the personalities of the men, their interactions, their causes, and their successes. Readers may know Kit-Cat as only a candy bar (and in this unstuffy history, Field includes the confection in a late chapter "Later Clubs and Kit-Cats"), but they will be surprised at how much the Kit-Cat members influenced even our own time.

The name of the club comes from Christopher "Kit" Cat's pies sold in Gray' Inn Lane in London, the simple fare for the meetings. We know what Johnson and his pals said at these meetings because of scribblers like Boswell. The Kit-Cats, however, left almost no record of what was said during their meetings, and so Field has used voluminous sources to fill in the picture. The club was brought together by Jacob Tonson, a publisher who, unlike many of his fellows, had a mind to posterity and to literature. Tonson agreed to give dinners to a group of young writers if they would agree to let him have the option of first refusal of their works. Not only was Tonson there, but aristocrats came for the purpose of rubbing shoulders with the artists and perhaps becoming their patrons. Around the table would have been Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, always linked together because of their joint production of the classic essays in their magazine _The Spectator_. The magazine is recognized as second only to the Bible in forming British character, and Field says that during its publication, and numerous reprints, it was "usurping the pulpit in defining Britain's moral order". Englishmen were defined by _The Spectator_ in contrast to the foppish and pretentious French, as eccentric, humble, blunt, confidant, and decent, and that image stuck. The Kit-Cats they also favored Whig positions of a constitutional monarchy, a strengthening of Parliament, a Protestant succession of the monarchy, and support for new commercial endeavors like the New East India Company. Their political reforms, although substantial, were only a small part of how they sought to mold the nation into a Kit-Cat ideal. The playwright John Vanbrugh converted to being an architect, and Field looks at the implications for political ideology of Vanbrugh's architectural innovations and how they show a passing of power from the monarchy one rung down to the non-royal rich. The Kit-Cats were horrified by the puritanical detractors of the theater, and not only pamphletized against them but also showed up in masses at the performances to cheer on Kit-Cat favorites. They even favored the semi-wild style of gardening as opposed to the previous style filled with topiary and geometric forms, and as in most of their efforts, their style succeeded. They had less success with music, and their repeated efforts to improve British interest in opera were futile, although they paved the way for Handel.

In many artistic, social, and political realms, the Kit-Cats had the sort of power openly that conspiracy theorists ascribe to Freemasons or the Illuminati. They were not a secret organization, though, and they liked their fun. They were an eating and talking club, first and foremost, and with meat pies had to go plenty of wine and punch. Among the few words we know to have been spoken in the meetings were the poetic toasts to the most glamorous ladies of London, and sometimes to paramours. It isn't Field's fault that she cannot recreate the dialogues from club meetings, but she has given short biographies of the club's main members as well as a masterful recounting of its enthusiasms and efforts. It was not just Doctor Johnson who, despite all the Whiggery, admired the club's output, especially taking Addison as a model. Benjamin Franklin, too, trained his own prose upon _The Spectator_, and founded a club in America called "The Junto", named after a group of Kit-Kat Whigs. Field's command of masses of historical information is astonishing, and her writing is entertaining; she says, for instance, of the club meetings "the atmosphere was ludic but not lewd." Her group biography is a tribute to the trusted friends who valued the liberty of free intellectual exchange, and formed the nation thereby.
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on 4 August 2008
Every bit as interesting as I had hoped-- I just hadn't realized it would also be so fun. Field has that rare knack (especially among historians) of granting insight not only into the power dynamics of the period (and why they matter) but also into what her subjects were like as men--a much harder feat to pull off, much less while being so entertaining. Her sense of detail brings in those small notes--wigs askew! mutton pies!--that makes a scene or relationship come alive for us. I actually laughed out loud, not something that happens too often while reading a scholarly account of the 18th century. A fantastic read.
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on 7 October 2013
Having seen the many portraits of the Kit Kat Members at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and for many years I was transfixed by them, wondering who they were and what they did, and when the book was published, it gave me a chance to have a deeper insight into its membership.
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on 31 May 2016
A tremendous book, full of well researched detail and a real eye-opener on an important aspect of political and social life in the heyday of baroque London. Full of fascinating characters, extraordinary achievements, monumental successes and sad failures, leaving you breathless and exhilarated. I enjoyed this book far more than Ms Fields work on the duchess of Marlborough.
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on 25 May 2016
I recently read Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (The Favourite), which can only be described as brilliant. I am now well into the Kit-Cat Club which so far is equally absorbing but was very disappointed on checking to see what other titles were in the author's portfolio to find there were none.
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on 25 September 2015
really good book
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