Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 7

Wilde and the Club


The gentlemen's club was a focal point of middle- and upper-class masculine privilege in late Victorian England, and Oscar Wilde made it a constant backdrop in his works. By going to his club, the English gentleman could escape the domestic pressures of wife, children, and servants while surrounding himself with men of his intellectual and social rank. The club was, in effect, an exclusive and responsibility-free second home--a place to enjoy the power that was one of the special privileges of bearing the title of "gentleman."

By the 1880s, the number of men that could be called gentlemen had expanded dramatically. The rank was assigned to any man who had attended public school. This form of masculine privilege thus began within the all-male confines of England's most elite educational institutions, such as Eton or Harrow, and was continued in the rarefied atmosphere of the gentlemen's club. Clubs proliferated during the latter half of the nineteenth-century, and their growing number reflected the growing variation within social strata.

As the roles of men and women evolved in the late nineteenth century, gendered spaces such as the club became territory for ideological warfare. Oscar Wilde entered into this warfare by featuring his sexually and morally ambiguous dandies as club frequenters. Wilde himself belonged to over ten different clubs, and it may be remembered that Lord Queensberry s incriminating note accusing Wilde of "posing as a somdomite[sic.]" was left for him at the Albermarle Club.

In the end it seems that the Victorian middle-class had little patience for Wilde's dangerous decentering of one of its sacred institutions. It could be argued that Wilde had to be weeded from the ranks of gentlemen and their clubs in order to maintain the model of masculinity so carefully fostered within the schools and clubs as the visible sign of and prerequisite for the exercise of power.

--Allison Pease


H. C. Maxwell Lyte
A History of Eton College. 1440-1875. London: Macmillan and Company,1875.

Masculine privilege began within the all-male confines of England's most elite educational institutions, such as Eton College, and continued into the exclusive atmosphere of the gentlemen's club. By the 1880s a man was distinguished as a gentleman simply by having attended public school. As public concerns over homosexuality in the public schools became an issue late in the century, the homosocial structure of the club was threatened as a result of its link to the all-male public school atmosphere.

 

 


Phiz, pseud. of H. K. Browne, (1815-1882)
London at Dinner, or Where to Dine. London: Robert Hardwick, 1858.

The club as escape from the pressures of home was one of the open secrets of the Victorian era. The author of London at Dinner, or Where to Dine describes the Athenaeum club as a near regal experience without responsibility. "Every member is a master without any of the trouble of master," he says. Clubs provided men with a moderately priced, yet still exclusive place to dine out.


Sir Walter Besant, (1836-1901)
London in the Nineteenth Century. London: Adam and Charles Black,1909.

Sir Walter Besant's recollection of London in the Nineteenth Century discusses the impressive growth in the number of clubs in the latter half of the century. At the time of the book's publishing in 1909, the number of clubs in London alone totaled 450. Sir Besant notes the great increase in wealth, the expansion of the notion of what constituted a gentleman, and the large number of suburban men that were bored by the lack of society or social institutions in the newly created suburbs and thus returned to London as significant factors in this development.


The Strand, Volume 4, 1892.

As the number of men that could be called gentlemen expanded in late Victorian England, so did the number of clubs, and what Max Beerbohm calls here "club types." Notable clubs featured here include White's, an old and established club, The Reform, a liberal club of which Wilde's friend Robert Ross was a member (the Fales Collection houses letters from Ross on Reform letterhead), The Arts, which, as the club type caricature indicates, included artists like James McNeil Whistler, and The Playgoer's, a well-known club housing men of letters including Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens.

 

 


Max Beerbohm, (1872-1956)
A Peep into the Past. Privately Printed, 1923.

Beerbohm wrote this playful lampoon of Wilde in 1894 for publication in The Yellow Book, though it never appeared there. The narrative represents Wilde as a staid old gentleman with a slightly suspicious train of page-boys passing back and forth through his neighborhood: "Once a welcome guest in many of our Bohemian haunts, he lives a life of quiet retirement in his little house in Tite Street with his wife and two sons, his prop and mainstay, solacing himself with many a reminiscence of the friends of his youth". A cutting commentary on Wilde's club life, Beerbohm writes, "He never nowadays even looks at the morning papers, so wholly has he cut himself off from the society, though he still goes on taking the Aethenaeum, in the hopes that it may even now do the same to him." The Athenaeum was London's most elite and powerful club for men of letters and science. Its membership list is a who's who of literature in the nineteenth century. Wilde's name is a conspicuous absence.


"Sexomania" in Punch 27 April 1895.

The poem "Sexomania" written by "an angry old buffer" captures some of the fears of gender instability that surrounded the Wilde trials. As the New Woman and the Invert (the male homosexual) became recognized types, they came to be identified with a precarious modernity, heralding what some Victorians saw as dangerous changes in the stable order of society. "Sexomania" calls for just the reassertion of gender stability that the Wilde trials attempted to effect.






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