Modern readers of Jane Austen have been reluctant to acknowledge that Sense and Sensibility (1811) rewards, and perhaps even demands, detailed knowledge of one of England's most notorious families in Austen's time, namely the Dashwoods of West Wycombe Park. The best-known member of the Dashwood clan was Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-81), second Baronet and Lord Le Despencer, leader of a group of high-profile libertines whose decades of bacchanals earned it the label Hell-Fire Club. At West Wycombe, Sir Francis also designed an emblematic garden, infamous for the ribald features that mimicked the female form. Although Francis Dashwood died in 1781, throughout Austen's lifetime stories about his garden and Hell-Fire shenanigans proliferated in print, while his heirs (the next two baronets were both named John Dashwood) perpetuated his rakish legacy with high-profile domestic conflicts. In short, a lively print market for gossip at the turn of the century insured that the infamous name of Dashwood remained synonymous with diabolism, sexual lewdness, and the dubious privileges of wealth. This essay outlines some of the interpretive implications of this ignored historical context for the Dashwood-centered story of Sense and Sensibility.

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