OK. I am not very good at appreciating poetry. Rochester wrote mostly in couplets and I find it hard to get beyond that poetic form into true emotion. As a result, although I can often appreciate the wit in his verse I can rarely understand what Larman claims, which is that some special quality puts Rochester above anyone else writing usually bawdy ballads. Certainly his work doesn't touch Donne (whose brilliant biography by John Stubbs I reviewed here). The only two bits of poetry I remembered after closing the book are the witty ones:
- firstly the one in which he coins the phrase 'Merry Monarch' to refers to Charles II. But in the original it is rather less complimentary than it sounds: "Restless, he rolls about from whore to whore/ A merry Monarch, scandalous and poor."
- secondly (and this is ascribed to him) the spontaneous couplet "We have a pretty witty king/ Whose word no man relies on./ He never said a foolish thing/ Nor never did a wise one."
As for his supposedly far-sighted libertarian (as opposed to libertine) views; there was not much instance of these in the book. He mostly toadied to King Charles except when he got drunk and then vandalised royal property or got a soldier killed. In any case, the politics were not carefully explained. It mentions the CABAL of five ministers without saying who they were. And I never really understood how there could be such flipping to and fro between the Roman Catholicism of court, the Test Act and the possible Exclusion Act and the 'Popish plot' witch hunts of Titus Oates.
He was a wit. He was a scandalous rake. He was probably bisexual (he seems to have pimped out his footman who was nicknamed Beautiful Buttocks). But thirty three years is not a long time for a full length biography and there are times, especially towards the end where he spent a long time dying, where the momentum of the story gets a little lost.
Larman dissects the court of Charles II, pointing out both the good (the reintroduction of theatre) and the bad (the extravagance and waste and the lack of care for the common weal). This is the job of the historian; on the one hand, on the other hand; letting the reader make up his own mind; faithfully chronicling the complexities of a world where no one is all good or all bad. Given how well Larman does this it is a little disappointing that he does not also apply this to the previous regime, the Cromwellian. Cromwell is 'the old hypocrite', his thought is 'straightforwardly brutish', sympathisers are 'toadying' and his court is 'pompous and grandiose'. This is the use of rhetoric rather than argument and (because I am an awkward bugger) it makes me presume that Cromwell must have been better than perhaps he was.
I suppose I am an old Puritan who disapproves of Rochester and his antics. Perhaps he was a remarkable man but if he had such gifts it is a shame he didn't use them for more than his ultimately self-destructive pursuit of pleasure. Perhaps it is this that makes him so fascinating a figure to biographers.
It is difficult to leave such a compelling central character to one side and write a fair comment on the book. It was clearly well researched and, apart from the little niggles I have mentioned above, the story was well told. I saw the film about Rochester starring Johnny Depp and I was glad I had read the book.
February 2015; 363 pages