Reviewed by: Matthew Jenkinson Author: James William Johnson Publisher: Boydell Price (RRP): £17.99
A biography of Charles II’s wildest courtier John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester – a notorious libertine, blasphemer and poet – is a troublesome project. Graham Greene’s biography Lord Rochester’s Monkey sat in a drawer for 40 years as Rochester’s exploits were deemed unsuitable for publication. The Countess Dowager destroyed many of Rochester’s papers; those sources which do survive in the form of poems and plays pose a further conundrum – should the satiric persona in, say, his poem the Satyr Against Mankind be taken as Rochester’s own voice? Can we trust the words of a man renowned for dissimulation?
James William Johnson copes admirably with these problems as he plots a meticulous chronological journey through the life of this “profane wit”. He blends Rochester’s creative output with the social minutiae of the period; the earl’s texts stand rooted in Restoration moral, philosophical, epistemological, and political discussions and developments.
Rochester provoked widespread outrage during his lifetime because he was close to the centre of power and because his debauchery was justified with wit and learning. Johnson devotes much of his book to his education, in part because a third of Rochester’s life had passed by the time he left Burford Grammar, but also because it was his education which helped make him so much more than an unthinking hedonist.
He was an intelligent wit in an age of satire; but also a tortured, correctional poet who viewed his world and himself with distaste. In 1680 this famous libertine became one of history’s most famous deathbed converts. The power of his final days is conveyed by a quotation from eyewitness accounts – at 33 this ‘Disabled Debauchee’ had met his maker.
Matthew Jenkinson’s book Culture and Politics at the Court of Charles II, 1660–15 is coming out later this year