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  • From Sexual Scandal to Respectability:James Graham and the Hell-Fire Clubs
  • Warren Oakley
Evelyn Lord, The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Pp. xxix, 247. $32.50.
Lydia Syson, Doctor of Love: James Graham and His Celestial Bed (Richmond: Alma Books, 2008). Pp. 331. €20.00.

For their subjects, both Lydia Syson and Evelyn Lord take notorious Georgians who have since descended into obscurity outside academic circles. Whereas Syson focuses upon the life of Dr. James Graham and the entertainments and medical treatments offered at his temples devoted to health and pleasure, Lord provides a survey of the various figures who bonded to create the societies known commonly as hell-fire clubs. As they recognize, the paucity of reliable sources on these topics makes the construction of accurate accounts difficult. Syson has to rely upon Graham's "florid advertisements and promotional literature that took hyperbole to new heights" (7), and Lord wrestles with eighteenth-century hearsay and the speculations of modern historians in the search for evidence of the activities of clubs. In the pursuit of their topics, both authors give them an air of respectability at the expense of sensationalism.

As Syson describes the London life surrounding Graham, a collection of colorful figures jostles for space in this crowded account, much like the pieces of electrical apparatus, musical automata, objets d'art, and ornate glassware in the Temple of Health at the Adelphi. Drawing largely upon Graham's own publications, she provides a rich, evocative, and detailed picture of this world of theater and spectacle more akin to James Cox's museum than a doctor's surgery through the sophisticated development of the mountebank's showmanship. It may seem surprising to a modern reader that Graham's medical treatments, such as an early form of aromatherapy and the belief in the therapeutic benefits of music, could have the power to persuade at a time when—as Syson acknowledges—medicine relied upon brutal and painful procedures for many complaints, procedures that cut or blistered the flesh.

Despite the suggestive image on the book's cover—Reclining Nude by François Boucher—Graham is presented as someone who made science sexy rather than a scientist preoccupied with sex. Unlike in the numerous eighteenth-century satires that are acknowledged yet glossed over by Syson, Graham is represented as offering aesthetic pleasures, not sexual ones. Indeed, it is not until chapter 6 that we are given an account of the Celestial Bed, the scandalous invention most often associated with him in the modern consciousness. She suggests that it was only when Graham was under severe financial pressure, during the end of his career in London, that he sacrificed his scientific aims and principles for commercial gain, illustrated by the entertainment Il Convito Amoroso! (1782), with its "explanation of the science of sexual pleasure" from the "lovely lips" of an actress playing Vestina (224).

Syson employs various strategies to give Graham respectability as a decorous medical practitioner: she defends his honor through discrediting Graham's critics, for example, Rudolph Erich Raspe (167); she concentrates upon the satire [End Page 130] aimed at his customers rather than that aimed at the man and his establishment (189); she startlingly offers Marie Stopes as a comparable figure to Graham in his role as a pioneer attempting "to discuss sexual matters openly" (212); and she claims that his ideas anticipated modern treatments including "electro-convulsive therapy" and "thalassotherapy" (264). These factors, combined with some rather romantic portrayals of the doctor as "tall, handsome and utterly charming" (5), suggest that Syson has been seduced by Graham's persuasive rhetoric, which forms the backbone of sources for her book. Perhaps "Doctor to Love" would have been a more apt title. For a reader familiar with the satires and erotica inspired by Graham during this period, the impression of the doctor as an erotomaniac offering libidinous pleasures will be difficult to shake. This impression is reinforced by some telling details left unexplored in this study, such as Samuel Curwen's observation that Graham's audience was "in numbers about 200, male except 6 females, 4 of whom left the room when modesty...