Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies by Evelyn Lord.
I thought I was sure to love this book, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. The title offers “hell-fire clubs” as an organizational genre, but the study never does a very good job of delimiting what they were. Author Lord basically seems willing to give consideration to any membership society that fostered street violence, blasphemy, or clandestine sex, within the historical span of her study, which covers the entire 17th through 18th centuries, in the Anglophone world generally. She repeatedly invokes a hypothesis regarding “outlets for masculine energy” as though it were self-explanatory and evidently credible.
On p. 94, she writes: “The reason for painting Dashwood as a friar will never be known….” It seems to me rather that there are a variety of perfectly obvious motives: the pun on his given name, the reputation of friars for sexual misconduct, Dashwood’s role as the founding “Saint” of the Medmenham “Order,” and so on. She often seems to pose as a skeptic when she’s merely suffering from a lack of contextual information or insight. In general, I found her treatment of the Medmenham Friars—a necessary central feature of any book on this topic—to be less thorough and less perceptive than that of Geoffery Ashe, whose work she often cites.
She mentions Freemasonry in passing a few times, suggesting that one or another of the clubs that serve as the object of her study were aping or mocking it; but if she actually knows anything about the workings of Masonry, she doesn’t bother to explain how or why this verdict would be of interest.
The prose style is pleasant enough, and the photographic plates are excellent. The book is shorter than it seems: its 214 pages are in a generous font on heavy stock. A real strength of the book is the chapter on Scottish hell-fire groups, focused on the sex society of the Beggar’s Benison. The ending is abrupt and rather inconclusive. All in all, it’s not a waste of time for anyone genuinely interested in the topic, but it’s far from everything I’d hoped it would be. [via]