The Members-Only Clubs That Charles Dickens Built

The entry for the Arts Club in 1978’s The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London starts out, “Once upon a time Saturday evening at the Arts Club was an uproarious affair crowded with writers and artists relaxing after their week’s work.” But, by the book’s late-’70s publication, “the club has not even been open on weekends,” and the membership “is scarcely Bohemian and the better known names, the gayer spirits” had joined other clubs.

The only original wall of the Arts Club to survive the German bombings of the Second World War.
The only original wall of the Arts Club to survive the German bombings of the Second World War.

Fast forward to the “London Club Confidential” article in the September 2013 issue of Vanity Fair, a roundup of today’s “musty members clubs of Mayfair,” which mentions that Gwyneth Paltrow was appointed creative director of the club that Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope helped to put on the map in 1863, and describes how the Oscar winner and Goop.com founder  “oversaw a £10 million gut renovation” upon taking up her new position. “Today,” we learn, “there are cashmere-lined walls, an oyster bar, and a £3 million art collection.” In 2013 it costs £1,500 a year, plus a £2,000 fee, to join the Arts Club, which welcomes Jay Z, David Beckham, Madonna, and other celebrities through its doors — a definite change in guest list from the days when Rudyard Kipling, Claude Monet, and Ivan Turgenev spent time there when in the neighborhood.

Jay Z leaving the Arts Club, 2012
Jay Z leaving the Arts Club, 2012

The Arts Club was the center of Victorian London’s literature scene when it debuted 150 years ago, when Dickens left the Garrick Club, another gentleman’s club in London founded in 1831. The Garrick no doubt hosted its own share of literary icons throughout history, from H.G. Wells to Kingsley Amis, but his quarrel with Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray over a journalist named Edmund Yates was enough to turn Dickens off the Garrick altogether. Yates published a scandalous piece on Thackeray with information that Thackeray thought Yates could only have acquired inside the club; repeating what you heard inside the club in public was a huge no-no. Dickens, not wanting to see him expelled, quit the club in support of Yates, a close family friend and father of Dickens’ godchildren.

Edmund-Yates
Edmund Yates

The words “Victorian club scene” might lead you to picture the Brontë sisters gyrating wildly against some dandy in a top hat blasting music from behind a steampunk-looking DJ booth, but it was quite the opposite. Gentlemen’s clubs were founded for different types of upper-class and well-connected people, but they generally served the same purpose: for men of high status to chill out and network. People knew what type of person you were by what club you belonged to. They could tell your political affiliation if you were a member of the conservative St. Stephen’s Club, and they knew who you worked for if they saw you entering the East India Club. As a writer and celebrity, Dickens was one of the few people with the power to give up his membership at such a club, start going to another, and make this new club the destination for other writers and literary hangers-on.

But Dickens was part of another club before the Arts Club opened up; he was also one of the founding members of The Ghost Club in 1862.  The Great Expectations author was among the first to join what is today considered the oldest paranormal investigation and research organization in the world. Tied to the Spiritualist movement that was popular around that time in England and America, The Ghost Club was ridiculed by London press upon its inception, but Dickens’ involvement made it a little more respectable. For better or worse, the group’s members were essentially the Victorian-era forefathers to Ghostbusters, and groups like The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), who appear on the Syfy show Ghost Hunters.

Today we have society types, club promoters, and people Malcolm Gladwell labeled as “connectors.” Dickens was essentially all of those things rolled into one, and also one of the finest writers of his era. What’s especially interesting to note is that, while everything Dickens wrote is considered essentially canonical, the clubs he helped found, the Arts Club and The Ghost Club, have moved far away from the vision he and his co-founder originally had in mind. For one, the high club dues and nightclub atmosphere at the Arts Club is not welcoming to the creative class. In the case of the club he helped establish to investigate paranormal activity, its aims have become cheap television entertainment, courtesy of frat-boy spirit taunter Zak Bagans of the show Ghost Adventures and his peers.