Writing history is rearranging the furniture, bringing a disregarded item into the light, polishing it up, finding surprises in the drawers. That is what Ophelia Field has done in The Kit-Cat Club, a bold and hugely entertaining book. We know what the members looked like from their portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller for the publisher Jacob Tonson. At Barn Elms, west of Putney, where Tonson’s house became the club’s summer quarters, the portraits lined the walls of the room where the living originals talked and drank. Men only, of course. Women were ornamental. Chosen beauties — the Kit-Cat “toasts” — became celebrities. Marital domesticity came nowhere.
The origins of the club are apocryphal, but it appears to have been founded as a convivial literary dining club at the Cat and Fiddle in Gray’s Inn Lane in the last couple of years of the 17th century. It was hosted by Tonson, and the innkeeper was Kit Cat, a pastry cook famous for his pies. The membership comprised aspiring writers — notably Congreve, Prior, Stepney, Vanbrugh, Addison and Steele — and rich and influential Whigs, such as the Lords Somers and Montagu, the Earl of Dorset, and assorted grandees. Patronage was the key and point of the club. The aristos and politicos found glamour in befriending the young authors, who gained enormously in status — a marketable asset in itself, even if the cash flow did not always match their new social positions. Patrons found it easier to get jobs for the boys than to put their hands in their own pockets. As a result, some literary Kit-Cats scraped by with portfolios of ludicrous sinecures. Others made serious parallel or subsequent careers as MPs and in diplomacy and public service. The Kit-Cat members were outward looking and international in their interests; the culture they promoted was the best of Englishness combined with European breadth. This was reflected in their achievements in poetry, theatre, opera, architecture and gardening, as well as in governance. (They were not really interested in science.) Party politics, high culture and the betterment of civil society were treated as indivisible. Kit-Cat authors produced propaganda for Whig policies, which included social reform, strong opposition to the return of the absolutist and Catholic Stuarts, and support of the Hanoverian succession and the Duke of Marlborough’s militarism. The club flourished for two decades, and at its peak had about 40 members.