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12.03.08

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Phaedra

The Hell-Fire Clubs

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


EVELYN LORD'S lively history of the notorious "hell-fire clubs" of 18th-century British society should give pause to currents fears about hazings at fraternities. Things were much worse 250 years ago—or so the tabloid press of the day proclaimed. Decent citizens were shocked, shocked to learn about the scandalous doings of private clubs formed by high-born gentlemen and devoted to devil-worship, and the "promotion of vice, faction and folly." Such clubs as the Mohocks, who often assaulted women and tradesmen in the streets; the eponymous Hell-Fire Club, which met "to toast the Devil and indulge in other sacrilegious actions"; the cheekily named Appalling Club; the Divan Club, whose members included the Earl of Sandwich; and the Society of the Dilettanti tweaked the mores of polite society. Despite its sensationalist subtitle—"Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies"—Lord defuses some of the charged rhetoric about the clubs, which were for the most part more convivial than concupiscent. She downplays the more sensational aspects of her subject to make some astute points about the rise of the Enlightenment and changing mores in general. She notes that the 18th century was a time of both increased "leisure and consumerism" as well as a backlash against a drift away from religion and traditional authority. Lord writes that the clubs could serve as release valves for pent-up desires, citing the cast of Sir Francis Dashwood, a respected MP who led something of a double life as the founder of the notorious Medmenham Friars, who were devoted to bawdy verse, sexual boasting and the hiring of prostitutes. Which sounds a lot like today's keg party on fraternity row. (By Evelyn Lord; Yale University Press; 247 pages; $32.50 hardback)


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