It is no secret that the 18th century was a time of hedonism, scandal, and all-around naughtiness, so it should come as no surprise that social clubs were formed with the objective of specifically doing those things. Gentlemens clubs were a common retreat for the nobleman. But some noblemen found that the drinking, gambling, and other debaucheries offered were not quite enough to satisfy their their need for corruption. Those rakes would become part of secret societies which we now like to call Hell-Fire Clubs. Because of the clubs being secret we know very little of them and it is hard to differentiate between what is fact and what is fiction. That is where Evelyn Lord's new book, The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies comes in handy. In this new exploration of the subject, Lord uncovers the few clues left behind and uncovers the truth behind these notorious clubs.
Beginning with the infamous Lord Rochester's antics (although not directly related to a club), Lord takes her readers from the late 17th century into the early 19th, discussing any organized group which set out out to blaspheme against God or society. This begins with the street gang, The Mohocks, who terrorized London, moves into the Hell-Fire clubs and the legendary Medmenham Friars, and ends with the lasting clubs' influence. The clubs differ in their antics, ranging from street brawls, to blaspheming, to visits from prostitutes but they all seem to share a common trait in keeping most of these antics secret.
What I had read about the clubs in the past sounded like pure gossip: orgies, violence, and other such lascivious activities. In the introduction Lord is forward in her aim to demythologize the hell-fire clubs and expose what is legend and what is truth. That is exactly what she does. This could prove to be disappointing for those expecting gruesome details of what we have once thought these clubs to be. You always want to hear shocking details of the depravities done behind closed doors, and those still exist, just not to the extent we once thought they did.
The Hell-Fire Clubs is another book I zoomed through; it was difficult to put down! Lord's research was extensive and her writing was compelling. My only criticism was that there was a chapter that could have been omitted which had mini-biographies of notable members of The Friars of Medmenham. Since they had already been introduced to readers the chapter came off as filler, which I think is unnecessary. Otherwise, the book is packed with great facts and stories of these nefarious men and their social gatherings. The Hell-Fire Clubs is great book for those interested in the private lives of noblemen, fans of Men Behaving Badly, and of course, the Hellfire clubs.
The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies is out now in both paperback and hardcover editions.