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.

While still an undergraduate, the young earl wrote some laudatory verses to Charles II on his return to England, and in exchange for this adroit piece of flattery received from the monarch a pension of £500 a year. The 13-year-old could now enjoy an income equivalent to £40,000 in today’s money, about the only time in his life when he was not plagued by financial hardship. He may have contracted the syphilis that eventually killed him from one of Oxford’s many whorehouses, perhaps in Grope Cunt Lane. After three years travelling in Europe, he took up his place at Charles’s court and was later appointed a gentleman of the bedchamber, a role whose duties included facilitating the king’s numerous sexual liaisons. He was later to add to this honour the title of surveyor and keeper of the king’s hawks, not the most demanding of offices. He also took to writing the bawdy satirical verses that generations of schoolboys have devoured.

The court was not exactly a morally austere institution. The playwright Charles Sedley, carousing at the Cock tavern with some drunken courtiers, stripped naked, defecated in the street, simulated buggery, blasphemed against the scriptures and washed his penis in a glass of wine, which he then proceeded to drink. The result was a public riot, during which Sedley and his cronies chucked urine-filled wine bottles at the outraged populace. Charles, finding the incident rather amusing, paid Sedley’s hefty fine out of the royal purse.

Rochester was soon to find the king less well disposed to transgression. Having fallen in love with a 15-year-old aspiring actor called Elizabeth Malet, but being uncertain of her father’s consent to their marriage, he abducted the young woman, a crime that could be punished by execution. The king had Rochester committed to the Tower, and restored him to favour only after the young nobleman had signed on as a naval officer and redeemed himself by a display of courage in the Anglo-Dutch War. It was the only constructive piece of action he was ever to engage in.

Rochester was finally allowed to marry Elizabeth, and spent the rest of his life neglecting her. Bored by his country residence and deaf to his wife’s pleas for his company, he spent his time in London brawling, drinking and whoring along with fellow members of a secret club known as the Ballers, which imported leather dildos to use in their entertainments. Impeccably egalitarian in his sexual favours, Rochester slept with everyone from court ladies to prostitutes in the cheapest brothels in town. He probably had affairs with men as well; few courtiers of the time did not. Homosexuality was intensely fashionable, despite being a capital crime on a level with treason. The socially inept John Dryden, in a feeble attempt to keep abreast of a group of fast-living companions, once blurted out: ‘Let’s bugger one another now, by God.’ At one point Rochester took as his valet a young Frenchman called Belle Fasse (possibly a pun on ‘belles fesses’ or ‘beautiful buttocks’), and probably bedded him – a reckless dalliance, given that Belle Fasse was a Catholic. Catholics and sodomites were almost synonymous at the time, and to be convicted of either sodomy or papist sympathies, in the fervid climate of the so-called Popish Plot especially, could mean execution. Rochester’s wife had converted to Catholicism, and there were scurrilous rumours about his own supposed leanings in that direction which could have cost him his life.

The earl probably got the pox at an age when boys today are still reading Harry Potter, and was in his early twenties when the first signs of syphilis began to manifest themselves. Extravagant drinking – he was said to have been scarcely sober for a stretch of five years – also undermined his health. ‘May’st thou to ravenous chancres be a prey,/Or in consuming weepings waste away,’ he wrote in a piece of verse cursing his own penis, and this malediction was now coming true. He became almost blind and began to urinate blood. Later, when an ulcer in his bladder burst, he would urinate pus as well. Though he was rapidly moving from sprightly young blade to raddled old lecher, his reputation as a wit, poet, daredevil lover and brilliant conversationalist was riding high. He lived in theatrical style, delighting in masks and flamboyant costumes, and now the theatre began to imitate his life. He became the model for a number of raffish characters, most notably Dorimant in George Etherege’s The Man of Mode. No Restoration comedy was complete without its Rochester lookalike. He also fell in love with another would-be actor, Elizabeth Barry, and soon found himself at sea in an ocean of Elizabeths. Barry had a daughter by him to whom she gave her own first name, and Rochester gave the same name to one of his daughters with his wife Elizabeth, perhaps as a sly joke at her expense. The best thing Rochester did for his mistress was to abandon her. She may have been besmirched by her association with the dissolute earl, but his callous treatment of her won her a good deal of sympathy, and her acting career flourished. She was commonly regarded as the finest female lead of Restoration theatre.

There was a streak of madness about Rochester, a perverse, Wilde-like impulse to self-destruction. Rather as Wilde appeared to be courting disaster, so Rochester seemed to do his best to enrage the monarch on whom his fortunes depended. When Charles asked to see a satirical poem that was circulating around the court, Rochester handed him instead a vituperative lampoon of the king he had written himself. Whether he did this by accident or design is unclear. Perhaps it was a Freudian parapraxis, consciously accidental but unconsciously intended. In any case, Charles was furious, Rochester was banished from the court yet again and his various pensions and salaries suspended. He was reinstated some time later, only to be pitched out once more when in another bout of insanity he threw himself in a drunken rage on a phallic-shaped sundial dear to the king’s heart crying, ‘What! Do you stand here to fuck time?’ and slashed it to pieces with his rapier. It was said to be the most elaborate and expensive instrument of its kind in Western Europe. Astonishingly, he survived this episode too, since Charles had need of his political support.

As the syphilis addled his brain he grew odder and odder. Extraordinarily, he disguised himself for a few months as a gorgeously attired Italian physician, Alexander Bendo, and set up shop in a London street offering cures for scurvy, back pain, bad teeth, obesity, consumption, kidney stones and a number of other afflictions. His work required him on occasion to see his female patients naked, and if his more respectable women clients were shy of being intimately examined by him, he would sometimes do so disguised as Mrs Bendo. In his own person, he would also occasionally offer a cure for infertility by a strikingly simple technique.

Rochester lost his battle with the pox in 1680, having perhaps first struck a prudent peace treaty with the Almighty. Despite showing its hero warts and all, Larman’s study is prodigal with praise for him. It’s hard to see why. Rochester fawned on a king he despised, abandoned his family and almost certainly infected his wife and one of his children with venereal disease. He removed the child he had with Elizabeth Barry from her mother’s keeping despite Barry’s distress. Larman himself admits that he probably acted out of pique, angered by the end of their relationship. In his life at court he jockeyed for position by a mixture of flattery and insult, indulged in petty rivalries and gratuitous abuse, and finished up losing most of his friends. He may have had a hand in a vicious physical assault on Dryden. He was largely responsible for the death of a friend, who tried to intervene when Rochester drew his sword on a constable during a drunken scuffle. The friend was fatally injured, while Rochester took to his heels.

To curry favour with Charles, he betrayed an exiled courtier who was deeply fond of him, the Earl of Clarendon, by signing a petition calling for his arrest should he return to England. Larman writes repetitively of Rochester’s intellectual curiosity, as well as his kindness and compassion, but it’s hard to see much evidence of either. He even failed to excel at being wicked – boozing and whoring hardly being capital offences. His stage was too small to allow him to play a historical role in the manner of John Milton.

Rochester produced one major poem, ‘A Satire against Reason and Mankind’, as well as writing some other pieces of impressive quality. One of his better-known poems is entitled ‘Upon Nothing’, and was dutifully edited by his straitlaced mother, no doubt unaware that ‘nothing’ was contemporary slang for ‘vagina’. His work is disfigured by a virulent strain of misogyny; one squib lambasts a woman’s ‘lewd cunt’, ‘drenched with the seed of half the town’. Larman speaks rather grandly of his ‘philosophy’, but beyond a certain facile misanthropy his writing is notably bereft of ideas. He is certainly no Marquis de Sade, who genuinely was a philosopher. His so-called nihilism is just the flipside of his hedonism, which plunders the world of meaning and value by reducing it to raw material for self-gratification. Larman speaks of him ‘alternating between licentiousness and near despair’, without really investigating the relation between the two. A profound self-loathing runs as a subcurrent beneath his work, to emerge for the last time in his histrionic cries on his deathbed: he called himself ‘the vilest wretch and dog that the sun shined upon … a starving leper crawling in a ditch’. But it’s hard to pluck great poetry out of self-hatred.

A good deal of what Rochester wrote can be classified as verse rather than poetry. There is no hard and fast distinction between the two, and an accomplished versifier is preferable to a mediocre poet. In general, however, verse is a more convention-bound, less rhythmically flexible affair than poetry proper, a polished, sociable form which at its least effective sacrifices complex emotion to pointedness and concision. Rochester’s own emotional range is fairly constricted, and his attitudes pretty predictable. Deriding the selfish appetites of the court was itself standard courtly practice. The malcontent takes his allotted place alongside the fool and the bumbling old counsellor. Larman thinks his man ‘responsible for some of the wittiest, most bitingly satirical and scatologically sexual poetry ever written’, but it’s not clear why scatology should be a virtue. As for wit and satire, a far greater exponent of those modes, Alexander Pope, was about to emerge. Pope’s work combines the elegance and lucidity of verse with the sensuous texture of poetry, a dimension Rochester notably lacks. It is not surprising that he dismissed Rochester as a gentleman amateur.

It was not, in fact, an age hospitable to major imaginative art. The bloodless language of Restoration comedy, like Rochester’s own verse, reflects an era of scientific rationalism wary of lavish metaphor and passionate feeling. The finest poem of the time, Paradise Lost, really belongs to an earlier, more heroic and revolutionary period, one in which fundamental questions of politics, religion and philosophy were fiercely contested. Rochester had no such historical resources. The courtly culture of which he was an example was washed up, about to give way to the Glorious Revolution. The Cavaliers were on the run from the Roundheads, and Rochester’s sense of spiritual futility is a symptom of this rout.

Voltaire thought Rochester a genius, while Hazlitt believed that his ‘extravagant heedless levity’ and contempt for everything that others revered had a smack of sublimity about it. One hesitates to pick a fight with one of the finest of English critics; but though the Tory Anglican Samuel Johnson had good ideological reason to detest the notorious Restoration libertine, he was probably nearer the mark than Hazlitt when he said of Rochester that ‘he lived worthless and useless.’