The Kit-Cat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation

Image of The Kit-Cat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation
Release Date: 
June 21, 2017
Harper Collins
Reviewed by: 

Ophelia Field was born in Australia to American parents and now lives in London with her partner and children. She read English at Christ Church, Oxford, and has worked extensively with refugees, the dispossessed, and the disenfranchised. This includes working with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and with the New York Immigration Coalition.

Until 2008 she was director of the Writers in Prison Program of English PEN, an association that campaigns for imprisoned writers around the world. Field has written for The Sunday Telegraph, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Literary Review among other publications. In 2002 in the U.K., 2003 in the U.S., she published her first book of historical biography, The Favorite: Sarah Duchess of Marlborough. She was then awarded the inaugural Elizabeth Longford Grant for the Writing of Historical Biography, and was commissioned by HarperCollins to write The Kit-Cat Club.

The Kit-Cat Club was founded in the late seventeenth century by Jacob Tonson, a London bookseller. He arranged a mutually beneficial deal with local pie-maker Christopher (Kit) Cat whereby Tonson paid Cat for food to feed to talented young writers who gathered at the pie shop. In exchange for being fed and provided with a place to meet, the writers were encouraged to give Tonson first option on the publishing of their works. With the likes of playwright William Congreve; authors Joseph Addison and Richard Steele; and dramatist cum architect John Vanbrugh in his stable, Tonson was to become perhaps the pre-eminent publisher in seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain.

As well as being a development base for literature and the arts, the Kit-Cat Cub was a hotbed of political activism. The club included notable politicians of the day such as John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough; Charles Seymour, sixth Duke of Somerset; and Sir Robert Walpole, first Earl of Orford, who is commonly regarded as the first Prime Minister of England. The club was instrumental in the rise of the Whigs in the English parliament and is often thought to have been behind the Glorious Revolution and the invasion of England by William of Orange in 1689. The Whigs grew as a group in England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. They developed as an opposition to the Tories and as such supported parliamentary rule and constitutional monarchy over the absolute rule of a king or queen. They believed in the rule of law and the expansion of the franchise, the vote, to more than just the landed gentry. The Whigs were proponents of Hanoverian succession rather than that of the Stuart line. As such they tolerated protestant dissenters who did not adhere to the Church of England but were opposed to institutionalized Catholicism. All-in-all, the Kit-Cat Club was a voice for the new left in eighteenth century British politics.

Ophelia Field describes this fascinating time in democracy and the arts with sensitivity and accuracy. Her narrative imbues history with life and we get a real sense of what it was to be a part of those times. By alternating her focus between characters, Field is able to give multiple perspectives, including that of the Tory opposition. We are privy to the machinations of government at a time when there is conflict between the absolute rule of tradition and the up and coming ideology of constitutional monarchy. Through the vehicle of politics we also learn of the development of some of the historical greats of English literature. William Congreve is regarded as one of the great Restoration playwrights, with works such as Way of the World and Love for Love still taught in tertiary English programs. Perhaps the most striking literary development of the age was the rise of the syndicated tabloid style newssheet. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele began publishing the Tatler and the Spectator as a means of propaganda against the Tories. Together they raised English prose to new heights and began a publishing format that still exists to this day.

This is a wonderful, informative work of non-fiction that reads like a novel. Not only does the work describe the period well in a literary sense, the illustrations also contribute to what is a remarkable account. Ophelia Field’s narrative voice is such that the reader will forget that The Kit-Cat Club is more than just a story, it is history.

Reviewer Phil Constable is a technical writer, document designer, and editor who has written on such authors as John Fowles, Graham Swift, William Golding, Graham Greene, and Kazuo Ishiguro.