“It is actually possible to become amateurs in suffering. I have heard of men who have travelled into countries where horrible executions were to be daily witnessed, for the sake of that excitement which the sight of suffering never fails to give, from the spectacle of a tragedy, or an auto-da-fe, down to the writhings of the meanest reptile on whom you can inflict torture, and feel that torture is the result of your own power. It is a species of feeling of which we never can divest ourselves.” (1)
So wrote Charles Maturin in his 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer – and the inspiration for this insight into the darker side of human nature? George Selwyn (1719 -1791), heir to a fortune, kicked out of Oxford for Blasphemy, MP to a rotten borough (or two), rake, wit and notorious necrophile.
Drunken japes or bloody blasphemy?
George Selwyn, second son of a Gloucestershire gentleman farmer, was sent to Eton and Oxford as befitted his rank in society. Here he met his lifelong friend the renowned wit and inveterate letter-writer Horace Walpole. Although Horace Walpole would eventually become famous for his novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ a novel that was the fore-runner of many a famous Gothic novel, at this early stage Selwyn seems to have had the edge on the darker-side of human nature.
In fact George’s Oxford career was cut rather short one drunken evening in July 1745. Having somehow successfully blagged a local silversmith into to handing over a sacred chalice that was being repaired for a church, George set out to parody the Christian Holy Communion. Gathering together his chums he filled the chalice with red wine and then “made signs as though he was blooding at one of his arms, did apply the neck of the bottle of wine into the said arm…”(2) Following this he uttered the blasphemous words “Drink this in remembrance of me.”(3)
In 1745 that was enough to have you drummed out of Oxford however drunk you claimed to be. Even pandering to the anti-Catholic feelings of the day – by claiming to have been mocking transubstantiation – did not save Selwyn’s university career. Not that he seemed to mind very much.
A Clubbable Man
In the eighteenth century it was important for a man to be ‘clubbable’. To be able to socialise amongst his peers with poise, elegance and wit. Despite, or perhaps because of, the somewhat sleepily affable persona that Selwyn exuded he was a hit. He soon became a well-known figure at clubs such as Brookes’ and White’s (White’s was so notorious for gambling that Hogarth satirised it as a club where if a man collapsed outside, his body would be dragged into the club so bets could be laid on whether he was dead or not). Like most of his peers he was a keen gambler (and the aforementioned wager would no doubt have appealed to Selwyn’s macabre side) and he also had a ready wit. His Bon Mots were the talk of the town, and many a time ‘Selwyn’s last‘ was recorded for posterity by Horace Walpole. One of my favourites is the following slightly saucy retort:
“Asked if Princess Amelia would have a guard, he replied with some indelicacy ‘now and then one, I suppose'” (4)
Wraxall described his style as: “eyes turned up, his mouth set primly, a look almost of melancholy on his whole fact.” (5) One can just imagine this lugubrious delivery just adding to its comedic effect.
He didn’t just restrict his membership to the more usual gaming and drinking clubs. Selwyn was, according to Geoffrey Ashe, one of the fully paid up members of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Monks of Medmenham – otherwise know as the Hellfire Club. (Of which more in future posts).
Selwyn didn’t let his political career get in the way of pursuing his favourite pass-times – in fact in 40 years as an MP he is not credited with a single political speech and his main contribution seems to have been in amusing his fellow MPs by ‘Snoring in unison with Lord North’(6)
However witty his Bon Mots were, and however uneventful his political career was, George Selwyn has come down through posterity as a necrophile and the model (along with Algernon Swinburne) for Edmond De Goncourt’s ‘Gentleman Sadist’ in his novel La Faustin – why was this?
A connoisseur of the macabre
It was an age when it was not unusual for people to look forward to attending public hangings (even children were hanged). So popular was this gruesome spectator sport that you could even buy premium ‘grandstand’ seats at Tyburn in the so-called ‘Mother Proctor’s Pews’ – Roy Porter notes that for the hanging of the infamous Lord Ferrers (no relation to Katherine Ferrers of Wicked Lady fame) the pews raked in £500 in profit. Yet despite this, George Selwyn’s well-known predilection for executions and death was considered somewhat extreme even in his own day – Walpole relates the following tale that illustrates Selwyn’s pre-eminence in the subject:
“[Selwyn] told him, as a most important communication, that Arthur Moore had had his coffin chained to that of his mistress. ‘Lord! how do you know?’ asked Horace. ‘Why, I saw them the other day in a vault at St. Giles’s.’ ‘Oh! Your servant, Mr. Selwyn,’ cried the man who showed the tombs at Westminster Abbey, ‘I expected to see you here the other day when the old Duke of Richmond’s body was taken up.'”
The Wharton’s, in their book ‘The Wits and Beaux of Society’, point out that Selwyn was in some ways a man of contradictions – one minute the toast of polite society with his bon mots, the next rooting about in coffins and extorting confessions from criminals remarking of him that: “George Augustus Selwyn famous for his wit, and notorious for his love of horrors”
This mixture of wit and gloom came to the fore following the execution of Lord Lovat the captured Jacobite rebel. Some ladies objected to his having witnessed the execution to which he replied:
“‘I made full amends, for I went to see it sewn on again.’ He had indeed done so, and given the company at the undertaker’s a touch of his favourite blasphemy, for when the man of coffins had done his work and laid the body in its box, Selwyn, imitating the voice of the Lord Chancellor at the trial, muttered, ‘My Lord Lovat, you may rise.'” (7)
Selwyn hated to miss an execution and often got friends to give him full reports of any that he was unable to attend – however he did have some scruples. On being asked why he did not attend the hanging of a criminal named Charles Fox (the same name as his friend the Whig statesman Charles James Fox) he is reported to have said:
“I make it a point never to attend rehearsals.” (OUCH!)
The most famous and likely apocryphal story attached to George Selwyn is that he was mistaken for an executioner on a busman’s holiday when he was spotted at the execution of Damiens in 1757. Damiens made a pretty feeble attempt on the life of King Louise XV of France and was sentenced to a gruesome death: torture with red-hot pincers before being slowly ripped limb from limb by horses. The whole process took hours (with the unfortunate Damiens being alive for a considerable part of it). A sentimental lady is reported to have objected to the barbarity of the proceedings – because the horses were whipped. Who said only the British are animal lovers!
Selwyn was spotted pushing his way to the front of the crowd to get a ringside view of the torture when a gentleman spotted him. He asked Selwyn if he was himself an executioner come to observe proceedings. Selwyn made the unforgettable reply:
“No Monsieur, I have not that honour: I am but an amateur”
For all of his charm, wit and affable nature, there is something chilling in his love of watching the suffering of others and in his fondness for watching corpses exhumed. It is likely that this particular story has simply attached itself to his legend (it is also told of others) and he was often the butt of fanciful tales spread about by his friends (and rivals) in wit. Lord Chesterfield and Sir Charles Hanbury Williams have been cited by the Wharton’s as possible sources of this tale, and of the rumour that Selwyn sometimes dressed as a woman in order to attend executions incognito. Nevertheless it does not seem too far out of character for Selwyn that – given the chance – his connoisseurs palate would not have relished such a scene of horror as presented by Damien.
A slightly more amusing anecdote has Lord Holland, on his death-bed, advising a servant that:
“If Mr. Selwyn calls, let him in: if I am alive I shall be very glad to see him, and if I am dead he will be very glad to see me.”
Sometimes his friends were able to use his love of the death-bed and corpses to their own ends – one story associated with Selwyn’s time at Whites Club relates to the election of Sheridan as a member. Selwyn did not want Sheridan, a mere theatrical, elected to a gentleman’s club. The only way to stop him repeatedly black-balling Sheridan was for Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, in cahoots with Charles Fox, to trick him out of the club with the promise of a juicy death-bed to attend!
The twilight years
Although friends such as Walpole, the Duke of Queensberry and Lord Carlisle seemed to have esteemed Selwyn and thought him of good heart despite his foibles, one of his passions might seem a little off-putting to the modern reader. Selwyn never married and claimed to have only slept with women seven times in his entire life, the last being when he was 29. Instead he transferred his affections to children.
Two little girls were the focus of his attention: Anne Coventry daughter of one of the beautiful Gunning sisters, and more lastingly Maria ‘Mie Mie’ Fagniani daughter of the high living Marchese Fagniani and the Duke of Queensberry. Despite there being no question that he was not the father, he was so obsessed with Mie Mie (right from her infancy) that he succeeded in persuading the Marchese to leave her child with him when she returned to the continent. By the late 1770’s she and Selwyn were embroiled in a bitter dispute over custody. Eventually Selwyn seems to have won and spent the rest of his life fussing over Mie Mie, despite her eventual disdain for him. In his will he left the girl £33,000 (which along with the £150,000 left to her by Queensberry made her a very eligible heiress).
George Selwyn was a feature in society long after it had come to view him as a bit of a relic. His good friend the Duke of Queensberry provides this description of him at a society dinner:
“George Selwyn, (who lived for society and continued in it till he looked really like the waxwork figure of a corpse)”
It seems a fitting epitaph for a man who loved death so much. Selwyn finally succumbed of that most upper class of diseases: Gout, in 1791.
George Selwyn’s legacy
George Selwyn was a wit and a necrophile. He didn’t participate in any major events, he was hardly a mover and a shaker. Nevertheless he did leave a legacy. A somewhat unenviable one, based on his love of the macabre and his membership of the notorious Hellfire Club. It is in literature that he is still remembered: from Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, to Charles Johnstone’s Chrysal, Or the Adventures of a Guinea; to Edmond de Goncort’s La Faustin where he is fused with that other reputed sadist Algernon Swinburne. Although it is worth noting that despite selwyn’s love of torture and executions this seems to have been a voyeuristic pleasure, and though this does seem to qualify him as a sadist there is at least no evidence to suggest he was a sexual sadist. (Small mercies perhaps…?)
Whatever the modern take on George Selwyn, it is apparent that his willing embrace of the darker side of human nature holds an enduring fascination – whether we like to admit to ourselves or not.
I will leave the final words to a contemporary of Selwyn, a poet who thought that Selwyn would be a suitable successor for the Devil should Old Nick ever need a day off….
“The murmurs hush’d – the Herald straight proclaimed
S-l-n the witty next in order name’d
But he was gone to hear the dismal yells
Of tortur’d ghost and suffering criminals.
Tho’ summoned thrice, he chose not to return,
Charmed to behold the crackling culprits burn
With George all know ambition must give place
When there’s an execution in place” (8)
1. Maturin, Charles, Melmoth the Wanderer, 1820
2. White, T.H., The Age of Scandal, 1950
5. Wharton, G and P, The Wits and Beaux of Society Vol2
8. Combe, William, The Diaboliad, 1777
Ashe, Geoffrey, The Hellfire Clubs, Sutton, 2005
Gothic Labyrinth http://omni.sytes.net/selwyn.htm
Porter, Roy, Engish Society in the Eighteenth Century, Penguin, 1982
Wharton Grace and Philip, Ed Justin Huntley Mccarthy MP, The Wits and Beaux of Society Vol2, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10797 2004 ed
White, T.H, The Age of Scandal, Folio Society, 1993 ed