Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Real Hellfire Club

There are many groups that have taken on the moniker of 'The Hellfire Club', both from Ireland and England. One of the earliest was that led by Philip, Duke of Wharton back in 1719, but the one I want to focus on is the group led by Sir Francis Dashwood through the 1750s.

In common misconception this group, called by Dashwood the ‘Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe’, has been viewed as Satanists or else worshippers of some Pagan God, being all anti-Christian and evil. This is probably not the case, and instead the Hellfire Club was in truth more likely to be a meeting of like minded individuals who considered themselves (at the time) free thinkers.

Dashwood himself was a 18th Century toff, who having completed his grand tour of Europe returned to England full of the grandeur of the past and a love of art, literature and architecture. He gathered around him a group of like minded individuals including the Politician (and immensely fat) George Bubb Dodington, the artist and satirist William Hogarth, and the journalist John Wilkes (known as the ugliest man in Britain). Other people of prominence included politicians, poets and artists and might have included Benjamin Franklin.

It was at his estate Medmenham Abbey in Buckinghamshire that most of the meetings took place, at first in the Gothic Abbey with its updated decor including statues of Harpocrates, the Egyptian god of silence and Angerona, the Roman goddess of silence and other over the top Pagan imagery. Later on Dashwood moved the group to a series of man made tunnels that he had got local workers to carve for him during a failed harvest. These caves are what probably resulted in the talk that the group were involved in all sorts of daemonic orgies and blood worship. It was probably more likely that Dashwood was a bit of trickster and liked to be known as a man of mystery, when in truth they probably sat around, got exceptionally drunk and told each other rude or salacious jokes.

The club ended in 1762 when the Earl of Bute appointed Dashwood his Chancellor of the Exchequer, despite Dashwood being widely held to be incapable of understanding "a bar bill of five figures". It seems he now achieved some respectability and though his role only lasted a year (after he did indeed mess up) the group pretty much ended their meetings.

John Wilkes best described the group: 'A set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got occasionally together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of classic luxury'.


G. P. Taylor used to be a vicar, if you haven’t looked that fact up you would have soon concluded something similar from Shadowmancer, as religion and the Christian faith plays a large part in its construction. Unfortunately, it plays too large a part and ends up distracting from what could have been a good dark fantasy.
Set in a slightly altered North Yorkshire, Taylor has mixed folklore and myth with sorcery, magic and pirating to tell the story of Thomas and his friends, the religious Raphah and the fiery Kate as they go up against the corrupt and sinister Obadiah Demurral (he does use some wonderful naming for his characters).
When a mysterious religious relic is obtained by Obadiah all of hell is literally released through the mans’ greed and incompetence, leading the children in a dangerous game as they attempt to escape fate. This is good story telling, a little let down by lack of editing (it was his first novel and was originally self published) but his constant harping on about what’s right and wrong and poorly concealed Christian undertones tend to undermine the story. I have read one of his later novels (see Mariah Mundi) where the religious aspect has been toned down, and that was much the better book for it.

A little book picked up because Mckean was the artist, The Savage is a simple and beautifully told story about a boy coming to terms with the loss of his father. Part graphic novel part story book, Blue works through the trauma of loss by writing his own story about a savage boy who lives in the woods, but as he writes the Savage takes on a life of his own.
Supported by Mckean’s great ink work, shaded in twilight blue and forest green, this little book is for anyone who wants to see how simple yet effective good writing can be. I would recommend this to adults and children alike.

Read this week:

Shadowmancer by G. P. Taylor
The Savage by David Almond

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