So Donne's life was a colourful one and Stubbs (who also wrote Reprobates, another rip-roaring tale of the early Stuarts) does it justice. This is a brilliant name-dropper of a book. All the unlikely characters from the reigns of the first James and Charles come vividly alive:
- Donne's maternal uncle Jasper Heywood, once the schoolmate of Queen Elizabeth, who possessed as a relic half of a tooth from St Thomas More (the other half belonging to his brother: they had fought over it and it miraculously broke in two); STM was Donne's great-grandfather. Jasper couldn't settle as a fellow of All Souls, Oxford so he moved to Rome where he became a Jesuit, then becoming Professor of Moral Theology at Dillingen despite refusing to utter a word in his viva voce exam. He was captured in an England where Jesuit priests were forbidden and escaped execution only on the intervention of Queen Elizabeth; having spent some time in the Tower he was exiled and died in Naples.
- Sir John Wingfield, tormented by past dishonour, who, despite a bullet in the thigh, charged through Cadiz on a horse as the English took the town, being shot dead by a Spaniard for his pains.
- Sir Walter Raleigh as an MP who, when fellow member Matthew Dale complained that he had not been able to stand to vote because he had been held down by the britches, commented that he had often prevented people from voting in just the same way.
- Harry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland, descendant of Hotspur, who was known as the wizard Earl for his "avid interests in anatomy, alchemy, cosmography and distillation" who was implicated in the sidelines of the gunpowder plot and conducted alchemical experiments while imprisoned at the Tower.
- Izaak Walton, Donne's biographer, who became best known later as the author of The Compleat Angler. As a Royalist sympathiser during the Civil War, after the disaster of the Battle of Worcester, he carried the 'lesser George' jewel to London whence it was ultimately restored to its owner, Charles II, in exile.
- Padre Paolo Scarpi, an Italian friar, thanked by Galileo for helping him construct the telescope, whose work also contributed to the theory of blood circulation, who negotiated with the Vatican after Venice had been excommunicated for trying two clerics in a civil rather than a theological court.
- Robert Ker, Viscount Rochester, a young blond Scot, one of the favourites of James I, who wanted to marry the Countess of Essex which he achieved by having her marriage to Essex annulled because she was inspected and found to be still a virgin. Ker, had his pander Overbury locked up in the Tower (probably because he knew too much about the Rochester-Essex affair) and later poisoned. Both Ker and his bride ended up in the Tower themselves.
- Edward Alleyn, actor and impresario, who in his old age married Donne's daughter. He also was the poriginal founder and benefactor of Dulwich College.
- Frances, forced by her father to marry Viscount Purbeck, mad brother of the Duke of Buckingham, who left him to live with her lover and the father of her child. On being ordered to atone for her adultery by parading through the Savoy Church dressed in a sheet, she managed to escape by using a pageboy dressed in woman's clothing as a decoy.
- Even Donne's doctor, Simeon Fox, was the son of John Fox who wrote the Book of Martyrs.
Then there are wonderful quotations from Donne's poetry from the erotic "Licence my roaving hands, and let them go/Before, behind, between, above, below." to the sarcastic (lacking in any sympathy for sea-sick passengers on a ship) "Some coffin'd in their cabbins lye, equally/Grieved that they are not dead, and yet must dye./And as sin-burden'd soules from graves will creepe,/At the last day, some forth their cabbins peepe." There is the original of 'Will you still love me tomorrow?' in "Now thou hast lov'd me one whole day,/ Tomorrow when thou leav'st, what wilt thou say?". and the snappy reply to his father-in-law's praise of the Sun as evidencing God's love when Donne, lying late in bed with his woman, chides the "Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,/Why dost thou thus,/Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?"
But Stubbs can write great prose himself. One of the best chapter openings I have ever read has to be that which starts chapter XVIII: "No one could quite agree how the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, came to kill Lord Zouch's gamekeeper."
There are other delights:
- There is a rainbow by moonlight at sea
- A lustrum is a period of five years
I simply loved this book. December 2013; 478 pages