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The Kit-Cats, Field writes, helped shape the nation’s “taste, character and international image”. They “contributed to the building of a more prosperous, polite and self-­confident society” and “established a model for the elite management of British culture that essentially remains intact to this day”. Late-onset uxoriousness, age, sickness, deaths and dispersal brought this golden age of wit, culture, comradeship and corruption to an end.

And what, today, equates even loosely to the Kit-Cat Club? It was less Pall Mall than Soho House and the Groucho, thinks Field, which may be elevating those agreeable places rather far. The mix of generations, and the intellectual clout, make it seem a bit like the Cambridge Apostles, and elements of the structure were Masonic. There are still private clubs, and loose clumpings of the Great and the Good, and the Great and the Bad.

But the Kit-Cats believed that literary endeavour, whether as author or patron, was “an essential qualification for being a great statesman”. What seems unique about the club is its ambitious agenda — the ardent literary and cultural activity, indivisible from the shameless snakes-and-ladders scramble for titles, money and power. Today there is no such thing as Society. Nevertheless, Congreve’s lines of 1729 still resonate in 2008:

For virtue now is neither more nor less,
And vice is only varied in the dress:
Believe it, men have ever been the same,
And Ovid’s Golden Age is but a dream.

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