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‘Only Connect’

Learned Societies in Nineteenth-Century Britain


William C. Lubenow


Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2015.

Hardcover. x+315 p. ISBN 978-1783270460. £50


Reviewed by Peter Mandler

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge


William C. Lubenow has devoted a good chunk of his long and fruitful career to mining the records of the great Victorian learned societies, for work on subjects as disparate as liberalism, religion, the professions, the universities, the Cambridge Apostles and the Strachey family. Not only do these learned societies leave copious remains (and their founders letters, biographies and memoirs), but they also tell important stories about the origins of the ‘intellectual aristocracy’ in Britain, the organisation of knowledge and the transition to a modern higher-education system. Lubenow now ties all these strands together. There is a certain amount of overlap with his recent book on liberalism and public intellectuals, but the book in hand has a tighter institutional focus on the societies themselves, their members, culture, forms of sociability and contributions to knowledge. A wide range of societies is touched on – including some groups that are not strictly speaking learned societies at all, like the Cambridge Ritualists, and some that are not in the nineteenth century – but special attention is given to Oxbridge discussion societies, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Society of Biblical Archaeology, the Royal Geographical Society and the British Academy, with frequent sidelights on the important historical, literary and philosophical societies.

Lubenow is probably too quick to dismiss what he clearly considers to be a temporarily fashionable fixation on class and gender.  The learned societies played a major role in creating a self-conscious intellectual elite, which considered itself a meritocracy but still required distinctive class-marked characteristics of its members. Lubenow pays only fleeting attention to their actual social origins but reproduces their self-description as ‘unanchored’, ‘relatively’ classless and possessed only of ‘earned’ privilege. They were, of course, almost entirely male; it would have been good to have had a more extended treatment of their distinctively masculine forms of sociability, and of their relations with women, especially the few women who do nibble into their circles at the end of the period, such as Jane Harrison. (The first woman elected to the Geographical Club in 1892 is introduced only as ‘Cust’s daughter’ [210].) It is surely not the case that they were men ‘largely because women were excluded from the universities’ [160]; at the very least, women were excluded from these clubs for the same reasons that they were excluded from the universities. Lubenow usefully focuses on what he calls their ‘commensurability’ – the ways in which they formed a community across institutional and disciplinary boundaries. He might have also considered further their ‘commensality’ – what they ate and drank, where they did so, in what atmosphere, under what ground rules. Reference is often made to sociability or civility without further exploration of what these terms meant, how they were constructed, what happened when they were violated, how they changed. Incivility is often as revealing or more revealing than civility. At the founding meeting of one of the Egyptological societies in 1888, for example, rival factions squared off and an actual physical encounter followed, leading to the forcible ejection of one scholar, and an ensuing war of words that seems more rather than less characteristic of the whole Egyptological community. Indeed, if you read recent works on Egyptology by David Gange (who tells this story) or on archaeology by Cathy Gere or on geography by Felix Driver you get a rather more colourful and conflictual picture of these communities than is provided in Lubenow’s eirenic treatment.

Understanding of these things is important for understanding the transition which rightly captures Lubenow’s imagination, that is, the transition from club to discipline (and, relatedly, from learning to research). The mixture of sociability and learning helped to bring together savants and patrons at a time when the former still needed the latter; it reflected the very blurry map of learning bequeathed by the less disciplined Enlightenment, while at the same time midwiving serious discussions that led to greater disciplinarisation. This was an uneven process and Lubenow is careful not to make it appear too teleological. Reformers in the Royal Society who in 1847 banded together to ensure that elections to the Fellowship regarded ‘scientific attainment’ rather than social status or reputation chose to advance their cause by forming yet another club. This club too took on social as much as intellectual functions. One of its stalwarts, Archibald Geikie, insisted at the end of his life that the Royal Society should not become ‘an entirely professional body’ but required ‘the presence of a small leaven of men of affairs’ [215-216]. Meritocracy was not everything, even at the end of this period.

Since Lubenow is tempted to prolong his story at some junctures up to the Second World War, it is interesting to reflect on how many features of his Victorian world lingered even after the mid-twentieth century. Academia has become ever more dominant, and many of these learned societies have become mere adjuncts of academic institutions and thoroughly penetrated by academic culture. Others retain a distinctly hybrid feel.  The Royal Geographical Society remains a very wealthy, fashionable, Establishment institution, with close connections still to a raffish crowd of ‘explorers’, although it also has taken a purely academic body, the Institute of British Geographers, under its wing, and does serious educational work across a wide range of audiences. Many of the smaller more informal dining clubs that Lubenow describes have vanished. Some probably still survive, but keep a very low profile. There is certainly another book to be written that traces Lubenow’s trajectories up to the present day.


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