When it was founded in 1824, the Athenæum broke the mold. Unlike in other preeminent clubs, its members were chosen on the basis of their achievements rather than on their background or political affiliation. Public rather than private life dominated the agenda. The club, with its tradition of hospitality to conflicting views, has attracted leading scientists, writers, artists, and intellectuals throughout its history, including Charles Darwin and Matthew Arnold, Edward Burne-Jones and Yehudi Menuhin, Winston Churchill and Gore Vidal.
This book is not presented in the traditional, insular style of club histories, but devotes attention to the influence of Athenians on the scientific, creative, and official life of the nation. From the unwitting recruitment of a Cold War spy to the welcome admittance of women, this lively and original account explores the corridors and characters of the club; its wider political, intellectual, and cultural influence; and its recent reinvention.
“An elegant, authoritative, and consistently readable account of a significant institution…Particularly interesting in this beautifully produced and magnificently illustrated book is Wheeler's narration of the Athenaeum during the two world wars.”—Francis O’Gorman, Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen
‘Wheeler plays at the top of his game in this history of a national institution, and in his account of the brilliant intellects, the innovators, the dissidents and the world authorities who have been its members over the course of two centuries.’—Richard Davenport-Hines
‘A scholarly account, by an insider, of a private London club, an establishment niche which allows for eccentricity. The membership has always included enough of the most eminent people of the time, from politicians to poets, to create a discreet safe haven where private and public life converge. Wheeler reveals the Athenaeum as a significant funny-bone in the anatomy of Britain.’—Victoria Glendinning