Sense and Sensibility and Sex Fiends

After a couple of days in West Wycombe, I began to see the lecherous hand of Sir Francis Dashwood all over the village. Crowning the hill above the Hellfire Caves is the tiny Church of St. Lawrence, which has a golden sphere the size of a weather balloon poised on its steeple. It gleamed in the sun like a Dr. Who prop or an antique Orgasmatron. It turns out Sir Francis devised this gilded wooden object so that he could sit inside it, knee-to-knee with a few of his fun-loving friends, and cavort over panoramic views of his estate, West Wycombe Park. Needless to say, these were not your average rural views. According to village lore, when the golden orb was completed in 1763, Dashwood invited the vicar up to the steeple to enjoy the vista. The man of the cloth was horrified to discover that the contours of Dashwood’s garden were sculpted to resemble the female form, with two hills topped with pink flowering shrubs and a tightly cropped triangle of forest. On a pre-arranged signal, fountains erupted at each of the garden’s erogenous zones, causing the vicar to collapse in shock. He was only revived with “strong liquor.”

The Dashwood estate was scattered with erotic “follies,” which remained so notorious in the early 1800s that Jane Austen includes sly allusions to them in Sense and Sensibility. (Even her use of the name Dashwood for her characters, argues Janine Barchas of the University of Texas, created “an uneasy atmosphere of wealth, infamy and illicit sexuality.”) To see if any sleaze survived, I had to get inside that ball. I crept up the stairs to the steeple, but the golden globe was bolted shut—and had been since the 1970s. Apparently, an insurance company feared that the fragile wooden support would break and send visitors rolling down the hillside. Still, the naughty reputation of West Wycombe endures: When singer Tori Amos was secretly married in the church in 1998, the wedding procession was led by two monks bearing torches, Hellfire-style.

It was time to visit Lord Dashwood himself—the 12th baronet, that is. I put a call though to Sir Edward on the George and Dragon’s crackling Bakelite phone and asked if I could possibly drop by for a chat. After all, who else could solve the mysteries of the Hellfire Club?

At the forbidding iron gates of West Wycombe Park, I punched in a security code, and they creaked open to reveal a majestic tree-lined driveway stretching into the distance. The air was fragrant with freshly cut grass; a lake stretched to the left, with swans regally cruising beneath the gaze of a stone Neptune. Thoroughbred horses gamboled in a sea of green, and a vast Italianate mansion hovered on a distant hilltop.      

Dazed by the feudal idyll, I became disoriented on the paths and wandered into the forest, until a man in a white four-wheel-drive vehicle pulled up beside me.

“Are you Sir Edward?” I asked.

“Wish I was!” the warden guffawed before pointing me in the right direction.

I finally found the master sitting behind a desk in the estate office near the stables. This modern descendent of the wicked old rake had the affable, professional demeanor of a village accountant—he reminded me of British actor-playwright Alan Bennett. He is 45 years old, bespectacled, and casual in khakis and a crimson polo shirt. He spends his time managing the family’s 5,000 acres of land—which still has around 40 tenant farmers—and juggling film and TV shoots, including The Duchess, in which Keira Knightley played 18th-century femme fatale Georgina Cavendish.

Sir Edward was keen to defend his ancestor’s reputation, arguing that the popular concentration on Sir Francis’ sensational sex life does him an injustice.

“Sir Francis wasn’t crazy,” he insisted. “He was just a tremendous character. And he had bloody good fun. He traveled a hell of a lot. He supported the arts. He developed the first semaphore system.” (The golden ball at the top of the steeple wasn’t just for boozing—apparently, Dashwood used mirrors to flash his coded messages as far away as Oxford.) “He looked after his villagers in quite an enlightened way. There were so many facets to his life, which is probably why he got on so well with Benjamin Franklin. But, yes, he was also very self-indulgent—a bit like Richard Branson today.”

And the order? “It was a good, fun men’s club,” Sir Edward said. “Yes, they all dressed up and drank a hell of a lot, and, yes, there were women involved. But look at the men who were members. They were erudite; they loved the classics, astronomy, and astrology. They weren’t into black magic—it was Victorian accounts that turned them into devil-worshippers—but they were interested in exotic philosophies. I’m sure that was what drew Sir Francis to the Ottoman Empire, this chance to investigate Eastern mysteries.”

Later, I went to visit Sir Edward’s Palladian mansion, a blur of Italian marble, chandeliers, classical busts, and tapestries. The National Trust owns the villa, but the Dashwood family leases the top two floors on condition that the public have access to the rest of the building in summer. My guide insisted that nothing untoward happened in the Hellfire Club, but I was delighted to spot risqué artwork throughout the house: The murals gracing the central staircase grow increasingly saucy as they ascend to the floors where Sir Edward, his wife, and three children reside. (I tried to glimpse the highest levels, but the view is unfortunately blocked by the regal marble posterior of a statue of Venus.) Striking portraits in the plush dining room include devilish Sir Francis waving tipsily in Ottoman garb and luscious courtesan Fanny Murray exposing her left breast with an insouciant smile. (“I’d class her as the entertainment,” muttered my guide, disapprovingly.)

As for the sexy garden follies, I searched the grounds and found the temple of Venus, where a grotto’s slender entrance and curved walls were originally designed by Sir Francis to evoke a vagina and a pair of spread legs. It’s hardly a shocker by today’s standards. But I reminded myself that the structure was demolished in Victorian times by appalled descendents and entirely reconstructed from archival drawings by Sir Edward’s father in the 1980s. The entrance is now guarded by a statue of Mercury, the god who guides travelers on safe journeys and who, incidentally, taught humankind to masturbate.

It started to rain, so I slipped inside the damp cave. The interior was once filled with 25 indecent statuettes, which are now, sadly, gone. I sat on a marble block to ponder the ironies of sexual history. I suppose there is a touching symmetry to the Dashwood family’s ongoing promotion of the Hellfire Club. Two generations ago, the estate was in dire financial straits. The grand mansion was a wreck, with most of its period furniture auctioned off and many of its faux-finished walls whitewashed. But Sir Edward’s father bounced back to renovate the house; he even tracked down many of the original household artworks and furniture. Income from the Hellfire Caves, which milk Sir Francis’ dastardly reputation, is just part of the recovery plan. For better or for worse, the Dashwoods are stuck promoting the wicked vision of their ancestor.

Leaving the park, I thought I glimpsed Sir Edward on horseback in the distance, riding with a straight back alongside his two sons and sheepdogs, more Gainsborough than Goya. But I could hear Sir Francis cackling. The Dashwoods are still getting away with it, after all.