Tuesday, February 8, 2005

A whiff of sulphur and brimstone

I read a very odd book the other day: The Hellfire Club, by Daniel P. Mannix. The Hellfire Club was a group of aristocrats in 18th century England; their founder and focal point, Sir Francis Dashwood, managed at one point to get himself appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer — meaning that he controlled the finances of the British Empire. Other members of the club were similarly well-connected, and one, John Wilkes, has gone down in history as a champion of free speech. But Wilkes, like Dashwood and the other members of the Hellfire Club, was pure sleaze. Take the Earl of Sandwich, who loved gambling so much he once had his butler put some roast beef between two pieces of bread and bring it to him at the card table so he wouldn't have to quit playing to have dinner.

Of course, that's mild next to the shenanigans the Hellfire Club was famous for. All sorts of tales are told. They dressed up as monks and parodied Catholic rituals, perhaps even staging mock Black Masses; they hired prostitutes to play the part of nuns. Some say that not all the Black Masses were necessarily mockery. Written in 1961, Mannix's book claims to give the full story of the Club and its activities.

(You Marvel Comics fans no doubt have already heard of a group called the Hellfire Club. The historical version was based in England not America, they fizzled out not long after they were created, and there were fewer mutants involved, but they really were a society of ultra-rich libertines.)

It's hard at this remove to be sure what was true, and what was false. Some people think the Hellfire Club was essentially a bunch of drinking buddies with tons of cash and a strange sense of humour. Mannix goes the other way, painting a picture of a literal cabal of England's best and brightest engaged in debauchery, whoring, drinking, gambling, rape, seduction, incest, diabolism, and anything else you can think of.

As I say, it's hard to say now what the true story of the Hellfire Club really was. It seems well-attested that Dashwood had part of the grounds of his estate landscaped in the form of a naked woman. Supposedly, the caves where the Club held their orgies was reached by passing through "the door by which we all entered the world", as they said two hundred years ago and some. Was there a large statue of a phallus out front as well? That's the way the story has it.

Mannix believes all these stories implicitly. And adds more. He gives no references whatsoever, so it's hard to judge how credible his facts are. Some of what he writes is undoubtedly factual. The rest ... who knows? Mannix obviously read widely, but it looks like he believed everything he read. And that's always a problem.

It's debatable how much faith one should put in the absolute veracity of Hogarth's prints, for example. Sure, there's a lot of reportage and observation in Hogarth. But there's also a lot of caricature, too. Mannix doesn't stop with Hogarth, either; he also takes John Cleland's Fanny Hill as an authentic testimony to real sexual attitudes in the 18th century. Which is an awful lot of faith to put in what is, basically, a stroke book.

In a sense the book does create a feel of what the time might have been like. A Terry Gilliam feel; extravagant, inventive, based on a core of truth, but ultimately unreal. That's great for fantasy films. It's something more ambiguous in a history book.

The odd thing —

Excuse me. As I write this (about 3:15 AM), ultra-conservative classic-rock dinosaur radio station CHOM-FM just began playing an Iron Maiden song for the first time in, like, ever. "Run to the Hills". Seriously. This is stunning.

— As I was saying, the odd thing about the book is that it doesn't deal much with the Hellfire Club itself. Instead, the main narrative thread of the book follows the weird and wild career of John Wilkes, who admittedly was a member of the Club, but whose story goes off into all sorts of other places. Mannix doesn't hesitate to wander away from Wilkes either, telling us about public executions, bare-knuckle boxing, and the exploits of the transvestite spy called the Chevalier d'Eon (about whom at least one utterly fictional biography has already been written). Among others. Being American, Mannix naturally has an interest in the background to the Revolution, too — and Ben Franklin certainly hung out with Dashwood when he visited England.

So Mannix retells some interesting stories. His book ends up an eclectic but involving look at the 18th century, carried along by a slightly breathless prose style. So long as you don't accept it blindly as good history, it's an interesting read.

The most interesting thing in the book is this: on page 136, Mannix describes the cave system under Dashwood's estate where the Club met, and gives a quotes from a man named Dr. G.B. Gardner on the sexual symbolism of the cave layout: "The swollen Banquet Hall represents the womb, where new life originates. After being born in the womb, the worshippers pass through the pubic triangle and into the flowing river. Then[,] born and purified, they go on to the joys of resurrection that await them in the Temple." The quote's not the interesting point. It's the man who gave it.

Gerald Brousseau Gardner, described by Mannix as "a well-known British expert on the occult who had the famous Witches' Museum at Castletown on the Isle of Man," was the man who invented (or, to some, publicised) Wicca — modern witchcraft. Over-enthusiastic Mannix may have been, but the guy was clearly well-connected.

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