There are those clubs you want to join and those you can get into. That is the great divide in Clubland, and the Athenæum, in London, is clearly and proudly among the former (though I somehow managed it). Founded in 1824, it broke the mold, with members chosen on the basis of their achievements rather than their background or political affiliation. That had been an ideal in eighteenth-century Britain, and notably so for a major source and focus of clubbability, Freemasonry, which was launched in London in 1717. But the Athenæum clothed the concept with magnificent surroundings, continuity, and a public role to match its private sociability. Michael Wheeler, a distinguished scholar of nineteenth-century British religious belief and a professor of English literature, has provided a study both scholarly in a searching fashion and also witty, droll, and page-turning. His...


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