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The first young Kit-Cats had humble origins, or were parentless, and friendship was ranked above family. As Field sharply comments, kindred spirits are “far more important than kin if you have fewer kin to begin with”; and for the patrons, the confidence to flout class barriers emerged as the true sign of class. The patrons were meritocrats in that they selected their gifted young friends for preferment “rather than favouring half-wit relations”. Kit-Cats’ writings were designed to be accessible, in the interest of popularising ideas and ideals to an increasingly literate middle-class and non-metropolitan readership. Field gives high significance to Addison’s and Steele’s Spectator, almost the house journal of the club, written in the characteristic Kit-Cat allusive and conversational style, to which she also credits the developing rhetorical conventions of the House of Lords — and which she adopts herself, writing with wit and verve, unafraid of sweeping generalisations and opinions. She also sees the Spectator in its early incarnation not only as providing cultural education, promoting the Elizabethan period as our golden age, but as constructing, like a conduct book, our image of the British character — an amalgam of common sense, taste, reserve, understated courage; and a pride that would “lead Britain into the chauvinism and atrocities of Empire”.

Given the alleged spread of the Kit-Cats’ influence — when the Whigs were out of favour, the Kit-Cat Club constituted a virtual shadow cabinet — the book must necessarily fill in with a broad brush the whole economic, political, social and military history of the ­period, and necessarily there are small mistakes, from the sublime to the ridiculous: ­papal infallibility was not pronounced until 1870; a codling pie is not a pie filled with baby cods but with a variety of ­apple. Field’s identification with the Whigs gives rise to some startling and maybe salutary rearrangements of the cultural furniture. Swift and Pope were the real literary geniuses of the age. Pope, as a Catholic, was ineligible for the club, a Tory, and irrelevant. Swift is portrayed as a sneering hanger-on, “reeking of envy”, boastfully exaggerating his friendship with Congreve, Addison and Steele, rejected by the Whig ­moguls on account of his “unctuousness, ­social insecurity, sarcastic pride and quirky genius”, his mixing of “obsequiousness with veiled insult”. No wonder he turned to the ­Tories. It is possible too that the Kit-Cat Club was not quite so pre-eminent a Whig think-tank as Field argues — the official Whig club, after all, was the Rose Club. She herself describes the club as “only a particularly large bump on the generally nepotistic playing-field of 18th century power”, but she also makes massive claims, which future historians will have to consider.

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