The Kit-Cat Club was founded in the late 1690s when Jacob Tonson, a bookseller of lowly birth, forged a partnership with the pie-maker Christopher (Kit) Cat. What began as an eccentric publishing rights deal - Tonson paying to feed hungry young writers and so receiving first option on their works - developed into a unique gathering of intellects and interests, including famous figures such as John Vanbrugh, William Congreve, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Robert Walpole.
Ophelia Field portrays a formative period in British history through the Club’s intimate lens. She describes the vicious Tory-Whig ‘paper wars’, the London theatre world and its battles over sexual morality, the making of England’s Union with Scotland, Dublin society as governed by Kit-Cats, and the hurly-burly of Westminster politics. The book unravels the deceit, rivalry, friendships and fortunes lost and found through the Club, along with descriptions of how its alcohol-fuelled, all-male meetings were conducted.
Tracing the Kit-Cat Club’s far-reaching influence for the first time, as the unofficial centre of Whig power and patronage through the reigns of William & Mary, Anne and George I, this group biography illuminates a period when Britain was searching for, and beginning to discover, a new identity.
Harper Press (UK), Published 7th July 2008, £25 (Hardback)
Click here to listen to Ophelia reading the first pages of THE KIT-CAT CLUB's Prologue. (4' 40", 2.67 MB, MP3)
Read the full text of the Prologue: PDF download
‘‘[E]legantly written and deeply researched...accessible (and original)...
‘‘This is a wonderful book, which puts most popular history to shame by its intelligence, clarity and powerful story-telling... a brilliant portrait of England at the beginning of the modern age.’’ – Kathryn Hughes in The Mail on Sunday
‘‘What particularly distinguishes this book is the humane perspective in which the writer places her protagonists... As an essay in group biography her book presents an authoritative portrait of a genuinely revolutionary era.’’ – Jonathan Keates in The Sunday Telegraph [To read this review in full, click here.]
‘‘[Field] has a native gift for historical retrieval so that we see the past in close-up, as it were, as well as in wide view.’’ – Peter Ackroyd in The Times [To read this review in full, click here.]
‘‘[A] bold and hugely entertaining book’’ written ‘‘with wit and verve...
‘‘It is a testament to Field's skill that the members of the Club come to life in such vivid and dynamic ways. There is a great deal of panache and pungency alongside the unfussy explication of the finer points of Georgian political intrigue.’’ – Stuart Kelly in Scotland on Sunday [To read this review in full, click here.] - Also picked as one of five 'Best Books of the Summer' for 2008.
‘‘What a wonderful subject Ophelia Field has found, and how adroitly she has handled it.’’ – Blair Worden in The Spectator [To read this review in full, click here.]
‘‘[N]o record of what was said at the Kit-Cat Club meetings survives. The author turns this to her advantage, allowing the book to meander eruditely, rather like an 18th-century conversation.’’ – The Economist [To read this review in full, click here.]
‘‘I like Field because it is the sort of brainy, literate history that most publishers have foreswarn’’ ‘‘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...’’– Stephen Bayley in The New Statesman
‘‘If you ruefully agreed with John O'Farrell's claim in his Utterly Impartial History of Britain that the history of our islands 'really is a fascinating and compelling story, unless you have the bad luck to be studying The Whig Oligarchy 1714-1763', Field's book is your antidote... Field's clear and scholarly account of both the politics and the personalities shows how one man's idea that began in a pie shop became a 'cultural institution, literary clique and political think-tank' that shaped a nation.’’– Sarah Burton in The Independent [To read this review in full, click here.]
‘‘A hugely enjoyable study of male friendship... Ophelia Field has written the definitive history of these men and their influential society, the Kit-Cat Club. The story is as beguiling as the portraits themselves; in her hands these enigmatic oil paintings become flesh and blood again.... Kneller's portly gentlemen in their frames have a new reason to smile.’’– Suzi Feay in The Independent on Sunday [To read this review in full, click here.]
‘‘[T]horough and entertaining...
‘‘[A] fascinating and elegant book, thoroughly researched and giving a full and brilliant picture of one of the most interesting and important periods in English, indeed British, history.’’ – Alan Massie in The Scotsman
‘‘This enterprising club required an enterprising commentator, and in Ophelia Field it has found one.’’ – The Irish Times
‘‘This first ever chronicle of the Whig talking shop and political thinktank, the Kit-Cat Club, is an historical and biographical tour de force, packed with detail and insight into the political life of the first two decades of the 18th century... [A] lively survey of the political 'big beasts' of the day that is as rich as one of those pies from Christopher Catling's tavern that gave its name to the club in the first place.’’– Tim Richardson in Country Life
‘‘[A]dmirably equipped to grapple with the complexities of the political arena inhabited by the Kit-Cats, following their careers beyond the purlieus of the club through the corridors of power at home and abroad.’’– Martin Postle in The Art Newspaper
‘‘[G]ripping... Field shines a searching and affectionate light on what turned out to be far more than a literary pie-eating arrangement... This tale of the bawdy and bustling world of literary gossip and infighting, Tatler, politics, booze and Fleet Street in the 1690s is a must-read.’’ – City AM
‘‘Ophelia Field has had a brilliant idea in writing such a book and has done a scholarly and pleasing job.’’ – Edward Pearce in Tribune magazine
‘‘Field relish[es] her subject..so it's no surprise that the result is hugely entertaining.’’ – Waterstone's Books Quarterly
‘‘[V]ivid and massively detailed.’’ – Time Out
‘‘After her superb life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, Field has unearthed a rich vein of misplaced history in 1690-1730, blending atmosphere with accuracy and, above all, readability.’’ – The Islington Tribune
‘‘[M]eticulously researched and superlatively written... [E]ntertaining, insightful and well-judged.’’ – The Sunday Business Post
‘‘Ophelia Field brings these illustrious men to life while also describing one of the most exciting periods in British cultural history.’’ – The National Trust Magazine
Also selected as BOOK OF THE WEEK in The Week, The Oldie and FirstPost.com and as one of the Financial Times' History Books of the Year for 2008.
‘‘[W]onderfully readable and impeccably researched...’’ – Katie Owen in The Sunday Telegraph (Five stars)
‘‘[E]legantly written...This deeply researched book is a fitting memorial to a remarkable body of men who contributed so much to British politics and culture.’’ – John Brewer in The Sunday Times
‘‘[B]rilliant.’’ – Ian Pindar in The Guardian
‘‘[A] fascinating study...’’ – Ian Critchley in The Telegraph
The following materials, for readers of THE KIT-CAT CLUB: FRIENDS WHO IMAGINED A NATION who are interested to know more, are exclusive to this Website. Click the links to download the relevant PDFs.
In January 2009, an interesting group portrait ("conversation piece"), held in a private collection, was brought to the author's attention. It is by Francis Hayman, dated c.1739, and is known by family tradition as Mrs Bedford entertaining the Kit-Cat Club to tea at Somerset House. It is thought to depict some descendents of the original members, and/or some continuation of the Club by younger Whigs, rather than the original Club described in Ophelia's book, but this evidence of a later eighteenth century Kit-Cat Club is, in itself, intriguing.
Click here for a map of Kit-Cat Members' Properties and related links.