Review: The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies by Evelyn Lord

What led so many Georgian young men to thumb their noses – or worse – at civil society? asks Malcolm Gaskill
Pity poor Max Mosley. Had he been born two centuries earlier he could have joined a socially exclusive club devoted to dressing up, role-playing and sado-masochistic sex, without all that unpleasantness in the tabloids and courts. Damn and blast the modern age. They did things differently in the age of Enlightenment, as Evelyn Lord demonstrates.
The hell-fire clubs arose from a convergence of 18th-century trends: curiosity and reason; boisterous mockery and satire; and urban consumption, leisure and sociability. Their members were mostly young, male and moneyed, united by ‘an enduring fascination with the forbidden fruit offered by the Devil, and a continuing flirtation with danger and the unknown’. Temptation led naturally to rampant hedonism; no appetite went unsated. Thumbing their noses (or worse) at church, state and civil society, they drank to excess, leered at pornography and egged each other on. The hell-raisers may not have been lovable, but they were certainly clubbable and they knew how to have a good time.
Seventeenth-century antecedents can be found in the high spirits of the ‘Damned Crew’, ‘Tityre Tues’, and ‘Hectors’ – boys’ gangs with grotty jokes, secret passwords and a taste for casual violence. Think Just William meets A Clockwork Orange. In 1663, an inebriated Sir Charles Sedley and his mates hurled piss-bottles at Bow Street from the balcony of the Cock Tavern (where else). Most amusing young gentlemen they were not. The Earl of Rochester – atheistical poet, heiress abductor and amateur gynaecologist – went too far every time, disgusting even Pepys, himself no slouch in behaving badly.
But it’s the organisation of excess that interests Lord: the annual subscriptions, minuted meetings and initiation rituals. The ‘Ballers’ went in for administrative flummery even though their singular purpose was dancing with prostitutes (excepting a botched operation to import Dutch dildoes). The hell-fire clubs can be seen as parodic inversions of the polite societies of the age, with satyrs replacing sages, binge-drinking instead of refined debate.
Public reactions ranged from prurience to terror. The brawling ‘Mohocks’ sparked a moral panic requiring legislation in 1712, although nocturnal secrecy and Grub Street invention make it impossible to prove such groups actually existed. Ned Ward’s bestselling Secret History of Clubs (1709) mixed verifiable organisations, like the Whig Kit-Cat Club, with some he probably made up, such as the rebarbative ‘Farting Club’. Party propaganda and scare-mongering about the Jacobite tendencies of some societies cloud the picture yet further.
Lord cannot escape this problem: sources for clandestine societies are rare, while misleading rumours remain plentiful. In the same paragraph she aims ‘to sift fact from fiction’ while admitting that the truth ‘can never be known’. Holding the line between perception and reality is a labour running through this book. Clearly many clubs were more innocuous than their reputations. The members of the Duke of ?Wharton’s Hell-Fire Club (1721) were more like pub-theologians worrying about the Trinity than priapic diabolists. There were many variants. Clubs appeared in Scotland, Ireland, the English provinces, the universities, even in America.
Lord dispels myths about one of the best-known rakes, Sir Francis Dashwood, whose ‘Friars’ gathered at Medmenham Abbey in Buckinghamshire. Here the gate bore the libertine’s motto ‘Fay ce que vouldras’ (‘do what you will’), revived in the 20th century by the debauched Satanist Aleister Crowley. Crowley meant it, but Dashwood, once a member of the Society of Dilettanti (a fey fancy-dress art club) was more restrained. Dashwood’s venture marked a retreat from the public sphere, but created little more than a place for peers and politicians to get plastered and indulge their sexual fantasies. The Friars’ legendary diabolism can be traced to a juvenile desire to shock, counter-cultural trappings taken at face value and magnified by their enemies. The most risqué thing about the Demoniacs of Crazy Castle, it seems, was their name.
What do the hell-fire clubs teach us? Lord is most comfortable assembling a compendium of tales but less certain when contextualising or teasing inferences from them. Can drunken vandalism be interpreted as post-Restoration street theatre? Did the masturbatory ceremonies of the Beggar’s Benison in Fife really symbolise a rejection of the Union? Lord isn’t sure. She concludes that ‘clubs were evidence of a universal assertion of masculinity’, even if their particular forms reflect the ideas and institutions of Georgian Britain. ‘The historian’s business is to communicate’, she asserts early on in the book. But historians also need to relate continuity to change. Otherwise the passage of time is meaningless.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *