‘You will not like me,’ warns the Earl of Rochester at the beginning of Laurence Dunmore’s 2004 film The Libertine; ‘you will not like me now, and you will like me a good deal less as we go on.’ This, of course, is nonsense: the rake of rakes; the canker at the heart of the Restoration rose; the closest we English have ever come to anyone of Casanova’s calibre… how can we fail to like Rochester? I’ve encountered him several times over the last couple of years, although always in a supporting role: his portrait, with monkey in tow, in the exhibition The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned, for example, or making a cameo appearance in The Vizard Mask. When I spotted this book on offer on Netgalley, which promised to restore the syphilitic Earl to centre stage, I snapped it up immediately.
Having come to it with such excitement, I wish I was able to be slightly more enthusiastic, but the simple truth is that I didn’t get on very well with it and, in fact, almost didn’t finish it. I wish it were otherwise; I never enjoy being downbeat about things.
Presented in a chronological format, the novel takes us through Rochester’s life, told in his own words, virtually from the moment of his birth until his death (and beyond). It shows us this pampered, privileged young man as he embarks on his Grand Tour, where he makes his first forays into debauchery; and then, after his return, his rise to become one of the exuberant young devils of Charles II’s court. It tells us about his abduction of the beautiful Elizabeth Malet, who becomes his long-suffering wife; his dalliances with actresses in London; and his dissolute revels with his friends and their whores. And, to some extent, it gives us a man who has the occasional desire to reform – to focus his world on his loving wife and beautiful children – but who just doesn’t have the will or the energy to put it into practice.
Cooper-Bridgewater has clearly done a lot of research and immersed herself in the details of Rochester’s life, and the book seems keen to be as faithful as possible to the facts. The result is an unusual mix. Sometimes the book goes into more detail than seems necessary (such as the point where Rochester describes the decoration of his children’s bedroom), which presumably reflects documented evidence about his life and living arrangements, and has been included to add colour. That would be all well and good if it fitted seamlessly into a similarly detailed narrative, but I’m sorry to say that, for me anyway, the book lacked imaginative verve. It methodically tells us when and where Rochester went on his Grand Tour, and who he travelled with, and when he returned to London – it ticks all the information points – but this is a novel, not a textbook, and as a reader I needed a little more. I wanted the kind of creative fire that would plunge me with Rochester into the fleshpots of Venice, or allow me to understand the intoxicating effect of Italian sensuality on a boy raised in the shadow of Cromwell’s puritanical commonwealth.
That goes for the rest of the book: we’re told about wars, affairs and insults, but never shown them; and nor do we really see the incisive wit and scholarship of our narrator, who tells us proudly about his reputation but never actually proves it. Ultimately the story lacks the kind of thrilling psychological immersion that first-person narrations can achieve (As Meat Loves Salt offers a good historical parallel; or alternatively look at The Marlowe Papers for a clever example of what a novel about a poet can be). Here, I never got a real sense of Rochester’s naughtiness, virtually all of which takes place off-stage. I’m not for a moment saying that I need my books to be populated with bouncing Restoration wenches, but in a novel about one of the most debauched figures in English history it would seem appropriate to have something rather more transgressive than a chaste kiss with a linkboy.
This is a thorough and workmanlike account of Rochester’s life, and the quality of the writing is generally good; but it just doesn’t have the inspired breath that brings it to life. I certainly learned a little more about the rakish Earl and am now tempted to look out for a biography (has anyone read Blazing Star by Alexander Larman or James Johnson’s A Profane Wit?). Other novels seem to be in short supply, except a rather unappetising-sounding effort by Graham Greene; so if anyone has further recommendations on that score, I’d be very interested.
As for Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue, I’m afraid I ultimately found it to be more of an appetiser than the full-bodied feast I’d been anticipating. I’m sure that much of this is due to my preferences as a reader – I like the kind of meaty prose and characterisation that I can wallow in – and it may well be that those with slightly more austere tastes might find more to enjoy here than I did. In the meantime, however, it looks as though it’s back to The Libertine…
I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review.