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The Hell-Fire Clubs: A history of Anti-Morality. (Reviews).

The Hell Fire Clubs: A History of Anti-Morality. By Geoffrey Ashe (Stroud, Gloucs: Sutton Publishing, 2000).

No lengthy review would be appropriate for this book first published over twenty five years ago (under the title Do What you Will: A History of Anti-Morality) and republished barely revised--the bibliography has not been updated, nor are modern turns in scholarship registered in alterations to the body of the text. Nevertheless, for those who missed it first rime round, it remains well worth a read.

For one thing, Geoffrey Ashe, a professional author best known for his books on King Arthur, writes with fluency, economy, wit and judgment. He displays an assured grasp of the politics of Hanoverian England, and refreshingly discusses sex without prudishness or pruriency (albeit, inevitably, from the viewpoint of an early 1970s England just freed from sexual censorship)--and also without the theoretical strainings so evident in much postmodernist criticism.

For another, Ashe displays a secure sense of his subject matter. His interest lies in a succession of elite homosocial (not his word!) groupings--actual, fictional and mixed--which engaged in circumspect defiance of the conventions of Church and State. True gentlemen should be free to pursue the promptings of Nature, independent of the enslaving customs of society or the protocols of the priests: they should be free of speech and thought, free in their eating and drinking habits, and free to indulge themselves sexually.

The source and model for this mode of modest rebelliousness was the Benedictine monk Rabelais' fiction of the Abbey of Theleme, where the rule was 'do as you want'. Ashe traces the allure of Rabelais' emancipatory fantasy through the Restoration into the 'hell-fire clubs' of Georgian England, notably those associated early with the Duke of Wharton and later with Sir Francis Dashwood at Medmenham Abbey, near High Wycombe. And in doing so he skilfully shows, in the core of this bock, the intimate association of such gentlemanly libertinism with political oppositionism and occasionally radicalism. Later chapters follow up such themes in the gothic, in the more satanic strands of Romanticism (Byron) and, less convincingly, in de Sade.

The valuable emphasis in Ashe's study lies in its perception of the inseparability of libertinism and the ideology of liberty. Its shortcoming is that it fails sufficiently to pursue the anticlericalism (indeed unbelief) of its protagonists. The recovery and recreation, during the Enlightenment, of a pagan culture is a topic still in need of proper attention.
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Author:Porter, Roy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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