“friends who imagined a nation”

–I admit I was put off by this subtitle in Ophelia Field’s fine 2008 trade book on the Kit-Cat club.  This is a shame, because it is a superbly written “group biography” of these figures, with plenty of original research behind it.

I also think that her choice of the group biography format was wise, given the nature of the sources she was dealing with:

The Club’s authors seldom wrote autobiographically, and when they did, they rarely described interior worlds or private feelings.  In this sense however, a group biography is an apt form for a book about the Kit-Cats: they believed creative forces came from the ‘commerce’ or ‘intercourse’ between men’s minds, as opposed to later beliefs in subconscious, individual sources of creativity. They believed  that their Club was more, in other words, than the sum of its parts (xvii).

This switch in focus seems particularly helpful for gaining insight into “creative lives unprejudiced by the Romantic cult of the artist, which still holds us largely in its thrall” (xvi).  And I’d argue that this might be a fruitful way to approach other aspects of this period’s writing, politics, and cultural life more generally.

Apart from the subtitle’s awkward half-allusion to Benedict Anderson, my chief hesitation lies in that bald, unqualified term “friends.”  Why couldn’t we use a term like “elites”?  Or “Whigs”? Or “Party Functionaries?” For this group, at any rate, it seems like any definition of “friends” would include meanings like this.

Without denying the familial, affective, and intimate dimension of this era’s “politics of dependence” (Thompson), how do we square these two impulses at work in elite interactions?  And do elites, even when they socialize with one another (and of course they do socialize with one another), really consider themselves as friends rather than fellow insiders with a common interest in power?



2 responses to ““friends who imagined a nation”

  1. Laura Stevens

    David, would this usage of “friends” be more in keeping with eighteenth-century understandings of the term?

  2. Laura, that’s an excellent point, and one I hadn’t considered. I looked over the book again to see if Field might have had those specific historical semantic dimensions in mind, but so far I haven’t seen them addressed. Her Preface does call this a book about “friendship,” and says that after writing her book about female friendship in the early 18c, she wanted “to examine the more reticent but equally powerful male friendships of the same period.” I suppose this is precisely the kind of nuance that drops out when writing for a non-specialist audience. It just shows there are dimensions of social meaning implicit in these relations and interactions that go beyond a bare narration (X befriended Y).