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An essay by Charles Lever

Foreign Clubs

Title:     Foreign Clubs
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

How is it, will any one tell me, that all foreign Clubs are so ineffably stupid? I do not suspect that we English are pre-eminent for social gifts; and yet we are the only nation that furnishes clubable men. Frenchmen are wittier, Germans profounder, Russians--externally at least--more courteous and accommodating; and yet their Clubs are mere _tripots_--gambling establishments; and, except play, no other feature of Club-life is to be found in them.

To give a Club its peculiar "cachet"--its, so to say, trade-mark--you require a class of men who make the Club their home, and whose interest it is that all the internal arrangements should be as perfect, as well ordered, and frictionless as may be. Good furniture, good servants, good lighting, good cookery, well-adjusted temperature, and a well-chosen cellar, are all essentials. In a word, the Club is to be the realisation of what we all think so much of--comfort. Now, how very few foreigners either understand or care for this! Every one who has travelled abroad has seen the "Cercle," or "L'Union," or whatever its name be, where men of the highest station--ministers, ambassadors, generals, and suchlike--met to smoke and play whist, with a sanded floor, a dirty attendance, and yet no one ever complained. They drank detestable beer, and inhaled a pestilent atmosphere, and sat in draughts, without a thought that there was anything to be remedied, or that human skill could or need contrive anything better for their accommodation.

When these establishments were succeeded by the modern Club, with its carpeted floor, silk hangings, ormolu lamps, and velvet couches, the change was made in a pure spirit of Anglomanie; somebody had been over to London, and come back full of the splendours of Pall-Mall. The work of imitation, so far as decoration went, was not difficult. Indeed, in some respects, in this they went beyond us, but there ended the success. The Club abroad is a room where men gamble and talk of gambling, but no more; it is not a Club.

For the working of the Club, as for that of constitutional government, a special class are required. It, is the great masses of the middle ranks in England, varied enough in fortune, education, habits, and tastes, but still one in some great condition of a status, that supply the materials for the work of a parliamentary government; and it is through the supply of a large community of similar people that Clubs are maintained in their excellence with us.

For the success of a Club you need a number of men perfectly incapable of all life save such as the Club supplies; who repair to the Club, not alone to dine and smoke and sup, and read their paper, but to interchange thought in that blended half-confidence that the Club imparts; to hear the gossip of the day told in the spirit of men of their own leanings; to ascertain what judgments are passed on public events and public characters by the people they like to agree with;--in fact, to give a sort of familiar domestic tone to intercourse, suggesting the notion that the Club is a species of sanctuary where men can talk at their ease. The men who furnish this category with us are neither young nor old, they are the middle-aged, retaining some of the spring and elasticity of youth, but far more inclining to the solidity of riper years. If they frequent the Opera, it is to a stall, not to the _coulisses_, they go. They are more critical than they used to be about their dinners, and they have a tendency to mix seltzer with their champagne. They have reached that bourne in which egotism has become an institution; and by the transference of its working to the Club, they accomplish that marvellous creation by which each man sees himself and his ways and his wants and his instincts reflected in a thousand varied shapes.

Now, there are two things no nation of the Continent possesses--Spring, and middle-aged people. You may be young for a good long spell--some have been known, by the judicious appliances of art, to keep on for sixty years or so; but when you do pass the limit, there is no neutral territory--no _mezzo termine_. Fall out of the Young Guard, and you must serve as a Veteran. The levity and frivolity, the absence of all serious interest in life, which mark the leisure classes abroad, follow men sometimes even to extreme old age. The successive changes of temperament and taste which we mark at home have no correlatives abroad. The foreigner inhabits at sixty the same sort of world he did at six-and-twenty: he does not dance so much, but he lingers in the ballroom, and he is just as keenly alive to all the little naughty talk that amused him forty years ago, and folly as much interested to hear that the world is just as false and as wicked as it used to be when he was better able to contribute to its frailty and wickedness.

Not one of these men, with their padded pectorals and dyed whiskers, will admit that they are of an age to require comfort. They are ardent youths all of them, turning night into day as of old, and no more sensible of fatigue from late hours, hot rooms, and dissipation, than they were a quarter of a century back.

Can you fancy anything less clubable than a set of men like this? You might as well set before me the stale bon-bons and sugar-plums of a dessert for a dinner, as ask me to take such people for associates and companions. The tone of everlasting trifling disgraces even idleness; and these men contrive in their lives to reverse the laws of physics, since it is by their very levity that they fall.

The humoristic temperament is the soul of Club-life. It is the keen appreciation of others in all their varied moods and shades of feeling that imparts the highest enjoyment to that strange democracy, the Club; and foreigners are immensely deficient in this element. They are infinitely readier, smarter, and wittier than Englishmen. They will hit in an epigram what we would take an hour to embrace in an argument; but for the racy pleasure of seeing how such a man will listen to this, what such another will say to that, how far individuality, in fact, will mould and fashion the news of the day, and assimilate its mental food to its own digestive powers, there is nothing like the Englishman--and especially the Englishman of the Club.

There is nothing like Major Pendennis to be found from Trolhatten to Messina, and yet Pendennis is a class with us; and it is in the nicely-blended selfishness and complaisance, the egotism and obligingness, that we find the purest element of Club-life.

The Parisian are the best--far and away the best--of all foreign Clubs; best in their style of "get-up," decoration, and arrangement, and best also in tone and social manner. The St Petersburg Club is the most gorgeous, the habits the most costly, the play the highest. It is not very long since that a young Russian noble lost in one evening a sum equal to a hundred thousand pounds. The Vienna Club is good in its own stiff German way; but, generally speaking, German Clubs are very ill arranged, dirty, and comfortless. The Italian are better. Turin, Naples, and Florence have reasonably good Clubs. Home has nothing but the thing called the English Club, a poorly-got-up establishment of small whist-players and low "points."

It is a very common remark, that costume has a great influence over people's conduct, and that the man in his shooting-jacket will occasionally give way to impulsive outbursts that he had never thought of yielding to in his white-cravat moments. Whether this be strictly true or not, there is little doubt that the style and character of the room a man sits in insensibly affects his manner and his bearing, and that the habits which would not be deemed strange in the low-ceilinged chamber, with the sanded floor and the "mutton lights," would be totally indecorous in the richly-carpeted room, a blaze of wax-light, and glittering with decoration. Now this alternating between Club and _Cafe_ spoils men utterly. It engenders the worst possible style--a double manner. The over-stiffness here and the over-ease there are alike faulty.

The great, the fatal defect of all foreign Clubs is, the existence of some one, perhaps two tyrants, who, by loud talk, swagger, an air of presumed superiority and affectation of "knowing the whole thing," browbeat and ride rough-shod over all their fellows. It is in the want of that wholesome corrective, public opinion, that this pestilence is possible. Of public opinion the Continent knows next to nothing in any shape; and yet it is by the unwritten judgments of such a tribunal that society is guided in England, and the same law that discourages the bully supports and encourages the timid, without either the one or the other having the slightest power to corrupt the court, or coerce its decrees. Club-life is, in a way, the normal school for parliamentary demeanour; and until foreigners understand the Club, they will never comprehend the etiquette of the "Chamber."

[The end]
Charles Lever's essay: Foreign Clubs