In an Ocean of Elizabeths

Terry Eagleton

  • Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester by Alexander Larman
    Head of Zeus, 387 pp, £25.00, July 2014, ISBN 978 1 78185 109 8

The English have always had an affection for wayward, idiosyncratic types, men and women who, like Dickens’s eccentrics, acknowledge no law beyond themselves. This is one reason they love a lord, since aristocrats are natural anarchists. Those who set the rules see no reason to be bound by them. They combine the glamour of rank with the chutzpah of not giving a damn. Aristocrats have something in common with the criminal, who falls outside the law as they themselves are set above it. As myth and folklore attest, kings and beggars are easily reversible roles. The landlord has a stronger bond with the poacher than with the gamekeeper. Those who have nothing to lose are as dangerous in their own way as those who lord it over them. It is this devil-may-care attitude we relish in Falstaff and Toby Belch, whose roguery is spiced by the fact that they are knights of the realm. They can knock around with the lower orders because hierarchy means nothing to those at the apex of it. It is the lower-middle-class Malvolios of this world who have a jealous eye to social distinction. When Belch declares, ‘I’ll confine myself no finer than I am,’ he speaks as an English libertarian, striking a sympathetic chord in all those who thwart the government’s plans for a new airport by refusing to sell it their two acres of land.

The tradition of the reckless, profligate nobleman was consummated in the career of Byron, in whom political dissent and sexual adventurism are hard to distinguish. Much the same was true of Shelley. In the wake of Nietzsche, a new kind of spiritual aristocracy was born, of which Wilde and Yeats, both scions of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, are exemplars. The Anglo-Irish were notoriously eccentric and swashbuckling, full of a self-vaunting swagger that the less admirable side of Yeats found appealing. The wild old wicked man, as he liked to see himself, would link arms with a bunch of crazed, colourful peasants in opposition to the merchant and the clerk. Social conventions were for shopkeepers and the British. In Wilde, English fop and feckless Irishman joined forces against middle-class earnestness. One weapon in that campaign was wit, a form of spontaneous humour you don’t have to work for, and thus an appropriate mode for upper-class layabouts.

When Charlotte Brontë named Jane Eyre’s would-be seducer Rochester, it was this lineage of high-class moral ruffians she had in mind. Her hero belongs to that pantheon of literary characters who are beguiling not despite their wickedness but because of it. Rochester is finally redeemed, but the puritanical Samuel Richardson extends no such mercy to the dastardly Lovelace, and the aristocrats of the Gothic novel are by and large more predatory than enticing. Like sexuality itself, the nobility is both attractive and alarming.

In his biography of the real-life Rochester, Alexander Larman provides a workmanlike account of an improvident life. John Wilmot was born in 1647 on All Fools’ Day. His father, one of Charles II’s most stalwart lieutenants, had fought for the king and fled the field with him after the royalist defeat at the battle of Worcester. The two men escaped together to Paris, where the grateful monarch made Henry earl of Rochester, a title that descended to his son when he was ten. Two years later, John was entered as a student at Wadham College, Oxford, and as an aristocrat was allowed to mix with the dons in their common room. A notorious hotbed of homosexuality, Wadham was later to be nicknamed Sodom, and it was there, during the anti-Puritan backlash that followed the end of the Commonwealth, that Rochester first took to the fornication and heavy drinking which were to be the death of him a couple of decades later. If he was depraved, he could always blame it on history.

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