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Book review: <i>Hellfire Club</i> by Daniel P Mannix



If this was a church, it would be the still-extant Wycombe chapel in High Wycombe, built by Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the Hellfire Club. Look it up on Google, go on! (That golden ball on the spire where a cross normally goes is big enough for six people to get drunk inside, believe it or not!)

Cover

A tacky day-glo yellow with some gothic script and flames. Also, the thing is an unusual size—sort of an undersized 4x3-ish ratio.

Plot

Mannix (who is American, though we shouldn’t hold that against him) relates the history of London’s notorious Hellfire Club, largely through the misadventures of its members during the period in which it existed. In addition, he stirs through a bunch of the more sordid and/or ridiculous activities of London’s high and low societies during the mid-eighteenth century, including some equally colourful politics. This, we soon begin to see, is intimately intertwined with the fortunes of the members of the club, who included (among many others) John Wilkes, Benjamin Franklin, Sir Joseph Banks, Lord Sandwich, Sir Francis Dashwood (the club’s founder), Prince Whatsisname and many other politicians, royals, highly-ranked clergy and what Mannix calls “rakes”—the high-born young men of fashion who were the aristocrat/politico/celebrities of the day.

The Good

And what a fascinating bunch they were. Terrifyingly (in part because justifiably) arrogant, wealthy in the way a true democracy can never sustain, educated, powerful, utterly ridiculous yet occasionally genuinely noble (typically when they exercised the supposed tenets of their breeding for more than base physical gain).

It really is an astonishing story. I’d heard of the Hellfire Club, and, although it seems the more extreme mentions of their activities are no less rumour now than they were two and a half centuries ago, for me this was more than outweighed by the extent of the very real power they exercised over the crown and culture of the most powerful empire Earth has ever known.

Here’s a few things that were going on in England at the time:

-Men regularly fought fatal duels with each other over nothing more than verbal insults.

-Popular public entertainments included cockfighting, bear-baiting, bull-baiting, and bare-knuckle fighting (possibly as a last resort when they ran out of animals to piss off).

-Huge destructive riots were common, often over things that: a) added up to diddly, and b) nobody understood anyway, what with about 70% of the populace being totally illiterate. It may be tempting for the P.J. O’Rourkes to ask “what’s changed, ha ha,” and equally tempting to slap them in their late-middle-aged jowls, but the fact is these people were just crying out for an excuse to fuck shit up. French royalty called them “King Mob” for the power they held once riled.

-Educated peoples’ respect for religious institutions was at an all time low. Priests were often publicly known to be drunken philanderers (and worse), yet held life and death in their hands. Witch burning was still not unheard of.

-Public beatings and executions were a weekly event, regularly preceded by torture. People often died in stocks, for instance, if there were enough loose cobblestones lying around.

-The American revolution was on the verge of taking place, but the King was more concerned with losing his trousers to the mob at home than a bunch of irritating colonists, particularly when the sycophants surrounding him (many of whom were among the Hellfire Club’s membership) counselled nothing more complex than brute force (yes, I know, it does sound vaguely familiar, doesn’t it—he was even: a) thick as shit, and b) called George).

Mannix scatters these bits of history throughout the book—usually they’re germane to the club or its members but, really, some of the time he’s just trying to convey the mood of an empire in its ripest, stickiest moment. It probably helps that I find this stuff interesting, but it works, in its slightly haphazard way—Mannix paints a grotesque tableau of a thronging, reeking metropolis stuck exactly half way between the modern and the medieval—the perfect backdrop for the history of the club.
Undeniably fascinating it is, too, and what’s more still slightly vague in its activities, in part because (and this is where, as an Australian, I become most envious) the direct descendants of most of its members are still alive, some still living in their ancestral homes, and what’s more inextricably tied with the histories of the two most powerful Western countries in the world. Mannix leans towards the sensational, but is also relatively restrained when theorising about the club’s activities (given that all its records were burnt, membership lists included—it wasn’t even called the Hellfire Club for most of its life, apparently, but Mannix doesn’t mention that)—he paints them as nothing worse than blasphemous drunken sex-crazed seducers of virgins, really. Rape and sexual violence are mentioned, but largely in tangent, and even the black masses held by the club (now denied by the current Dashwood descendant, who is still making money from his antecedent’s creations) are painted by Mannix as more of a filthily inverted satire of the then-prevailing Catholic liturgy than anything truly Satanic. It must be said that the men were far more anti-religious than atheistic—and their faith usually returned with age. Also, the story of the enraged monkey dressed up as a demon being let out of a chest halfway through one of the ceremonies as a joke and scaring half the members into panicked repentance is quite telling (and, you know, hilarious).

The Bad

I suspect this is patchily researched (there are no footnotes or endnotes of, um, note) but I don’t know enough about the period to tell. This combines with a sensationalistic feel (especially when Mannix is dragging in reports of morbidity from two decades later to pad a point) to produce something with a touch of the tabloid about it, even if, as I said, he usually errs on the side of realism in the necessarily speculative areas.

Yes, Mannix’s love of the time is infectious, but leads him to some conclusions which, if not crazy, certainly seem unsupported by his own foundations. He repeatedly, for instance, refers to the club members as “brilliant”, even “brilliant and resourceful”. I would certainly agree that they were colourful and unique, but, at least from the evidence Mannix provides, only Francis Dashwood was any more brilliant than, for instance, any overpaid, overly influential rogue celebrity of today. There are mini-bios on half the club’s members which reinforce this. Mannix describes them as men of exquisite taste, but, again, it is pretty clear to even the most sympathetic reader that:

a) There is more to taste than knowing who the most expensive artisans are and having the wherewithal to employ them, and

b) even if there wasn’t, Patrick Bateman also had exquisite taste.

They were certainly educated and politically involved, more so than their celebrity equivalents today, yes, but when their fantastic educations added up to an endless series of classical allusions to dicks and tits (without, say, Lindsay’s ability to even draw them) and their political involvements lost them the richest continent on the globe and nearly wiped London off the map one really has to wonder what it all added up to. A bunch of rich, drunken wankers?

Well, yes and no. Anyway the point of this review isn’t meant to be to judge a bunch of 200-year-dead Lords and Ladies. What I do like about Mannix’s focus on these people is that it turns what could have been a really tacky Hammer-horror “expose” into an, if not ruthlessly factual, then certainly deliciously organic slice of European decadence. The naughtiest, funniest kind.

What I learnt

That a delight in your subject covers many potholes. Well, at least if your readers share your delight.

That if you find yourself with a gargantuan inheritance and have no intention of adding to it, but are perversely creative, you might as well at least fund something interesting with bricks and mortar (and virgins, if there’s any lying around) so that, two hundred years later, your descendants will at least have some stories behind them, if not any actual cash.

In short

Title: The Hellfire Club
Author: Daniel P Mannix
Publisher: I Books
ISBN: 0743413156
Year published: 2001
Pages: 233
Genre(s): History, Non-fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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