Rebranding Britain

<strong>The Kit-Cat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation</strong>

Ophelia Field <em>HarperPress, 5

Before Ophelia Field's fine new book, the role of pastry in the life of the mind was restricted to Proust's "édifice du souvenir", the vast memory rush caused by dunking his madeleine in his tisane. A Kit-Cat, being a heavy-duty mutton pie, was altogether more substantial than the French delicacy. But if Proust's dunking gave rise to a majestic work of literature, two centuries earlier Kit-Cat Club devotees helped, as Field explains, to imagine an entire nation. Ours.

The name came from Christopher Cat (sometimes Katt), a pastry cook of what was then Shire Lane (now Lower Serle's Place) by Temple Bar. What a fine place this must have been in the late 17th century. The alchemist and astrologer Elias Ashmole lived here and lost most of his library and cabinet of curios in a disastrous fire at Middle Temple in 1679. At the upper end of Shire Lane lived Isaac Bickerstaff, a well-known tattler whose Twaddlers met at Dick's Coffee House down Fleet Street.

Tattle and twaddle of very high quality were the business of the Kit-Cat Club, the name acquired by a group of Whig aristos who met to eat Cat's pies in the late 1690s. While they gained an enviable reputation for superlative dissipation and were much given to toasting the slebs and Wags of their day, their real business was political: by ensuring the Protestant succession, reducing French influence on national life and strengthening parliament, they aimed to (as we used to call it) rebrand Britain.

By about 1715 these objectives had largely been met and the Kit-Cat Club began to dissolve. In 1725 the architect and playwright Sir John Vanbrugh, an active member, could write that it was "the best club that ever met" and he urged his old cronies, who included Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, William Congreve and the first Duke of Richmond, to get together for old time's sake.

The secretary of the Kit-Cat Club was the publisher and bookseller Jacob Tonson. Club meetings eventually moved to his house, the Queen's Dairy in Barn Elms, near Barnes, on the riverside in south-west London where Handel and Fielding also lived. The house is long since gone, but helped provide a fine memorial to the club that, in Horace Walpole's words, comprised wits and "patriots that saved Britain".

This is because Sir Godfrey Kneller painted portraits of 42 Kit-Cat members whose unusual size of 36 by 28 inches was adapted to the proportions of the meeting room in Tonson's house. This now classic portrait format allowed the hands to be shown, offering scope for considerable compositional variety and psychological expression beyond the formulas of the day.

The collection, missing only the Earl of Burlington and Duke of Marlborough, now belongs to the National Portrait Gallery and is the source of the connoisseur's term "kit-cat portrait". Kneller's originals were made heroic when John Faber published them as a collection of mezzotints in 1735.

The Kit-Cat Club is a wonderful subject for a book and Field has handled it beautifully, with a balance of firm erudition and gentle wit appropriate to a subject whose members established the gold standard of English prose: the founders of the original Spectator (unrelated to our weekly rival) were prominent Kit-Cats. No true list of Kit-Cat members exists, although Field makes a very interesting attempt to establish one.

There are 27 pages of bibliography, 66 pages of notes and an index of 29 pages. This is a book that can be read for pleasure, but has real scholarly heft as well. It's the sort of book I thought English publishers were no longer interested in, but HarperPress has even made an excellent job of design and production. If I have one criticism, it is that Field has a slightly marmish enthusiasm for the word "therefore".

The Kit-Cat Club was the prototype of the London "gentleman's" club that, for good or bad, did so much to create an internationally accepted caricature of national characteristics. Field even finds a memory of the original in the larrikin constituencies of the Groucho and Soho House. But there is a Kit-Cat Club in existence today and this was my own first contact with the subject.

About ten years ago I received an invitation to speak to its members. Pre-Google, I did what I could to check and found only a reference to a topless bar or an S&M vault. This did not deter me and since my subject was, as I recall, sex and food, it seemed appropriate. Modern Kit-Cats, however, turned out to be an impressively intimidating group of brainy, foxy, very well-connected London women. Ophelia Field is of their number; Ghislaine Maxwell was their founder.

The other survival of the name is in the cho colate biscuit snack that was launched by the Rowntree publicity department in York as the Kit Kat Chocolate Crisp in 1937. How nice that confectionery is a lasting monument to the pie-eaters who helped create our identity. Field is not too grand to have ignored this.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop