Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester by Alexander Larman

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Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester by Alexander Larman

Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the notorious Restoration dandy, satirist and poet.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 387 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781781851098

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John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, was the ultimate 'live fast, die young' icon of the Stuart age, the seventeenth-century embodiment of 'Hope I die before I get old'. Restoration dandy, satirist and pornographic poet, he died a lingering death at the age of 33, racked by venereal disease and alcoholism. If he is remembered at all these days, except by those familiar with the history or literature of the age, it is as the James Dean or the Keith Moon of his day, a hellraiser whose poetry was heavily suppressed for many years by the censors. In fact much of his verse was not published under his name until long after his death, and as most of it was only circulated in manuscript form during his lifetime and a good deal destroyed by his mother after his death, it is uncertain how much does still survive.

As Larman’s new biography shows, the time-honoured portrait of him is a rather superficial, one-sided one. This life portrays him as also a man of deep intellectual curiosity at the heart of a cultural golden age, and a naval officer who fought bravely as a young man in the second Anglo-Dutch war. A case is also made out for him as 'a devoted (if inconstant) husband, father and lover', although I suspect his wife, mistress and children by both might have disagreed with that verdict.

Knowing as we do that he was programmed from the start to self-destruct, in some ways this is a sad biography. Nevertheless, as a portrait of life at the Restoration court it has its lighthearted, even comic side – and that’s without quoting some of the more near-the-knuckle extracts or being too explicit about the contents of his poetry, such as a passing reference to one dealing with female activities with horsehair which cannot possibly be spelt out on a family-friendly review website. As is inevitable with a book about somebody from such a remote age, biographical details are sometimes lacking, and therefore this understandably tends to be more of a 'life and times' in part.

To some extent this is a portrait of life in royal and aristocratic circles in the two decades which followed the end of the English republic and the return of Charles II as King, the bright hopes expected of his reign and gradual disillusion. Against this backdrop we follow the life of the occasional naval fighter turned bawdy poet and iconoclast who owed most of his royal favour to the fact that his father had been a faithful servant during Charles’s exile during the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Such favour did not prevent him from being regularly banned from court for brief periods for one misdemeanour or other. He and his mother conspired to abduct the wealthy heiress Elizabeth Malet, when her family made it clear that they would oppose such a marriage, and ended up in the Tower for three weeks as a result and was only released after a grovelling apology, but married the girl anyway. Several years later he had to flee from court after leading a group of drunken guests, all of whom had just dined with the King, in deliberate destruction of a very ornate and priceless sundial in the garden at Whitehall. The ever-forgiving King went on to pardon him again, until he disgraced himself on a further occasion when involved in another drunken scuffle which led to one of them being killed. Fleeing the scene, he went to ground in a remote part of London for a time and assumed the alias of a doctor who specialised in treating cases of infertility.

Not surprisingly, this lifelong tearaway never made a model husband or father. Infected with syphilis at the age of twenty-five, and somewhat too fond of the bottle, it is surprising that he lasted as long as he did. Riotous living soon caught up with him, and there is a poignant description of the final surviving portrait of him, painted when he was only thirty years of age. While the artist, Peter Lely, was discreet enough to refrain from adding any visible tell-tale signs of illness, he still portrayed a world-weary man, old before his time, who had had enough. Three years later, still writing poetry but increasingly enfeebled by the results of his debauched living, his wasted frame gave up the unequal struggle. Two further chapters summarise his posthumous reputation and legacy, such as it is.

Despite his admiration for Rochester, Larman cannot conceal the fact that even in a selfish age his subject was an unpleasant man of whom not much can be said in his favour. This is a colourful read, and the lively, often carefree atmosphere of the Restoration era is brought to life. Nevertheless it does nothing to alter our perception of John Wilmot as a man who was famous for being famous, a man whom we recall today largely for the wrong reasons.

If this book appeals then we can also recommend London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750 by Robert O Bucholz and Joseph P Ward

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Buy Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester by Alexander Larman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester by Alexander Larman at Amazon.com.


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