What on earth does this 18th-century bad boy have to do with Jane Austen?

Thinking in Public
Portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet (1708–81) in an Oriental Coat and Turban. Courtesy of the Dashwood Heirloom Collection, West Wycombe Park, The National Trust, ©NTPL / John Hammond.

This article features the work of Dr. Janine Barchas, Louann and Larry Temple Centennial Professor in English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin

Check out this jovial portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood draped in luxurious furs and holding a glass brimming with wine. Surprised he was known as quite the eighteenth-century bad boy? Probably not. Gossip from the day describes Dashwood, the second Baronet and Lord le Despencer (1708-1781) of West Wycombe (pronounced like Wickham) Park, as a libertine and bacchanal. A group of his friends even earned the nickname the Hell-Fire Club—a gathering that allegedly included notorious party animal Benjamin Franklin. But what on earth does Sir Francis Dashwood have to do with Jane Austen?

Jane Austen was born in 1775, near the end of Dashwood’s life. However “the name of Dashwood remained synonymous with diabolism, sexual lewdness, and the dubious privileges of wealth” during her lifetime, according to Dr. Janine Barchas. Austen’s preoccupation with the rakish Dashwood—referenced in contemporary newspapers, prints, scandal sheets, and more—may have served as inspiration for her writing. In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, Barchas explores the relationships between the characters in Jane Austen’s novels and the celebrity culture of the Regency Era. Barchas reveals how Austen named many of her characters after contemporary celebrities including the Woodhouses (Emma) and Wentworths (Persuasion). Keen readers caught the connotations attached to certain family names.

Published in 1811, Sense and Sensibility begins with the extended Dashwood family genealogy. Sisters Elinor, Marianne, Margaret grieve the loss of their father. Their half-brother John inherits their father’s estate. He and his wife displace the women from the family home and ignore his father’s dying wish to improve their financial situation. John leaves the Dashwood sisters and their mother to live on a modest income. Over the next 200 odd-pages, the novel shows the consequences of being fundamentally practical or passionate when choosing a husband.

Passionate and practical can also describe the final legacy of Sir Francis. His flamboyant hobbies and sexual proclivities captured the public imagination (although both were probably exaggerated). Yet throughout his life his intellect was recognized; he was inducted as a fellow into the Royal Society in 1776. Sir Robert Walpole, the de facto first Prime Minister of Great Britain, described Sir Francis as “a man who loved to know, and who cultivated a roughness of speech [and] affected to know no more than what he had learned from a very unadorned learning.” He even partnered with Benjamin Franklin on a prayer book!

Sir Francis Dashwood’s estate, West Wycombe Park, is an hour’s drive northwest of London, en route to Oxford. The Dashwood family still uses the house as its main residence. If you’re a fan of Austen, you may have seen it without even knowing it. The Sense and Sensibility (2008) miniseries, Austenland (2013)and even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) have all used it as a filming location. It is indeed a twist of irony, that when this estate hits the gossip columns today, it’s much more likely to come from celebrity attention paid to invading actors, not the current staid inhabitants.

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