Tim Pendry's Reviews > The Hell-Fire Friars: Sex, Politics and Religion

The Hell-Fire Friars by Gerald Suster
Rate this book
Clear rating

** spoiler alert ** This was a very disappointing book from the late Gerald Suster who may have been over-indulged by his Editors. The Disinformation biography of the author - http://www.disinfo.com/archive/pages/... - notes that "it was a career long aspiration to get it published without excessive editorial interference". It is sad that he lacked sufficient self-knowledge to understand that the 'will' is sometimes insufficient to produce a good book. It is, at times, like a cobbled together set of notes.

Ostensibly it is a book about the Dashwood circle, wrongfully termed the 'Hellfire Club' and rightly termed the 'Monks of Medmenham', and its influence on the culture and politics of the mid-eighteenth century. Instead, it is a mish-mash of poorly co-ordinated speculation on the religious views of Dashwood and on the politics of the period in the form of short biographies and anecdotes, entertaining in themselves, but which tell us very little that is not available on the internet or in general histories.

There are two competing views of the Medmenham circle. The first is the official one from the family that the Wycombe caves (carved out at considerable expense) and the goings-on of the 'set' were merely the typical foibles of unaccountable equivalents of today's private equity bosses, possibly dressed up with a bit of taboo and transgression, much as one might if one had a decent budget to spend at Coco de Mer and on some high-class escorts.

The second view, Suster's being typical and seen through the lens of the rise of sub-aristocratic High Magick at the end of the next century, is that Dashwood was an aristocratic radical libertarian with a religious mission, importing Eastern religious ideas, occult and esoteric Magick and pagan revivalism into a new vision of culture, politics and religion. Similar claims are made around the circle of (say) John Dee and there is a vigorous and often ill-tempered debate going on now about the 'politics' of Aleister Crowley.

The problem is that - as with Crowley's escapades, reviewed here at http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21... - the actual information available is so limited that judgements have to be made on common sense and a knowledge of the period and of human nature, preferably without ideological presuppositions. Unfortunately Suster is a full-blown 'thelemite'. His own prejudices seem determined to 'interpret' the evidence much as a Christian author might 'interpret' the Life of St. Augustine.

My reading is that the truth lies somewhere between extremes. The Medmenham Friars were a louche and sexually active drinking club but Dashwood was genuinely interested in finding some meaning in existence that was not the severe Enlightenment reasonableness of the Freemasons nor the dull as dish water conformity of the huntin', shootin' and fishin' squirearchy supported by the parson. Perhaps he could see that 'enthusiasm' will out eventually and personal freedom from convention (available only to the few in any case) would be curtailed by something po-faced and worthy like the Methodism that suited middle class 'ressentiment' of aristocratic pleasure-seekers. The Victorian effect on the soul, especially on that of free-thinking women, can make the eighteenth century look like a Golden Age to some.

There is no doubt that something 'spiritual' was going on with Dashwood - the tipping of the hat to Rabelais might be no more than hedonism but the elaborate symbolism of Medmenham and the caves at West Wycombe do stand up to scrutiny as an expensive attempt to revive something pagan and dionysiac working at a deeper level (literally). The library undoubtedly contained important material suggesting both Eastern transgression (supplied through the Vansittart Governor of Bengal) and a dabbling in ceremonial magic. The Catholic Church, as so often, appears as the enemy as one would expect in any political ideology that defended a 'republic of aristocrats' against its pretensions.

But the silence and secrecy also suggested transgression that even the easy-going British aristocratic system of the period might find unacceptable and this is where analysis must end and speculation take over.

Our own suspicion is that the nearest that we will get to understanding what went on at Medmenham lies in the hint from Dashwood's illegitimate daughter that "the clue to all my troubles can be found in the heart of the hill". This beautiful, slightly disturbed and rather fascinating 'witch', Lady Rachel Frances Antonina Dashwood, apparently had an excellent relationship with her father but he also bequeathed her the Vansittart copy of the Kama Sutra. This alone indicates an unusual intellectual relationship between a father and a daughter.

There is a bad interpretation - of ritual incest - and a good interpretation - of a radical libertarian education before its time. Either might work for a woman who suffered deeply and later from her 'spiritual' attitude to sexual freedom in a world whose conventionalism disregarded her in public while being fascinated by her in private. My instinct (no more) is that she was liberated rather than abused - but some fine line may have been crossed more than once.

Medmenham and possibly the caves would appear to have had something to do with sexual initiation into mysteries, the performing of things usually left to fantasy, but there is no necessary conclusion that the women were always exploited. There are hints of a certain equality between men and women that does not exist in the darker world of the Marquis de Sade in France. Perhaps English tolerance and pragmatism was more able to persuade both aristocratic females and high class hookers that the fun and games were precisely that - and if some of the activity became tantamount to a precursor to contemporary sex-positive feminism, then, while there is no proof of this, there is no proof that it was not so.

In other words, Medmenham is a blank slate on which we can write what we will. Suster chooses to write on it with a post-Crowleian Thelemite pen without benefit of good editorial direction. I suspect that the bare facts in this case should just be stated against a context produced by a competent historian and that we be left to make up our own minds.

Something important took place in those caves - but whether it was life-affirming before its time or a particularly egregious example of exploitation cannot now be said. Poor Rachel Frances Antonina Dashwood, Sir Francis' illegitimate daughter, can be interpreted under either scenario - as a child literally 'spoilt' by wealth and sexual vampirism or as a woman whose freedom from convention and boundaries might have made her one of the first feminists if she had been more disciplined and less disordered in her thoughts.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Hell-Fire Friars.
Sign In »

Comments (showing 1-1)

dateUp arrow    newest »

message 1: by Jenina (new)

Jenina Despite your two-stars, your review makes me want to read the book anyway...even more, in fact. Historical speculation is almost a genre in itself.

back to top