To coincide with the release of the new biography of Lord Rochester, Blazing Star, The Arb has teamed up with publishers Head of Zeus to create an exclusive short film with the author, Alex Larman, giving an insight into some of the infamous libertine’s most memorable moments. And, here, Alex gives us a little insight into the book…
For the benefit of those who may not know him, can you tell us who is John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester? And what drew you to him as the subject for your first book?
AL: John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (aka ‘The Wicked Lord’, ‘The Wickedest Man Alive’ or simply ‘Rochester’) was a poet and libertine at the court of Charles II. Living from 1647 to 1680, he ‘blazed out his life and health in lavish voluptuousness’, living a decadent and often scandalous existence that made him a byword for sin and style in his own day, and since. I became interested in him when I was at university – not only was he a good deal more *fun* than many of the writers I encountered then, but the discrepancy between his swaggering public persona and his more earnest, soul-searching private life seemed a fascinating one, and an under-explored one by other biographers. I waited years for the definitive biography of Rochester, and then thought ‘Well, if nobody else is going to write it…’ Blazing Star is the result.
Did you uncover any revelations about him or 17th c. court life in your research?
AL: I suppose that the ‘revelations’, as far as they came, were about the sheer awfulness of 17th century court life. It was a strange, challenging time to be alive – if you were in royal favour, all was well, but you could swiftly fall out of it and become an outcast. Which led to this frantic jockeying for position and much intrigue and backstabbing. As for Rochester himself, I was very pleased to find some previously unpublished letters during my research, which give an additional insight into both his relationship with his mistress, the actress Elizabeth Barry, and his protege the Earl of Arran.
How can we relate to him in today’s society? Does anyone emulate him, d’you think?
AL: The obvious answer to both questions is that, superficially at least, he resembles a certain quick-tongued Essex comedian with wild hair who rails against the establishment and its norms, but increasingly I think that it’s the late Christopher Hitchens who is the closest comparison. Both men lived life to the full (although Hitchens was more interested in smoking and drinking than sex) and both were fiercely witty, as well as being brilliantly self-deprecating. If you watch Hitchens debate pompous hypocrites like Tony Blair or George Galloway, it’s no different to Rochester laying into clergymen or politicians in his poems – it’s the same anger, the same determination not to be lied to, which I find incredibly important.
What’s your favourite Lord Rochester quote and why?
AL: If we’re talking something printable, then I especially like the opening lines from his poem ‘Love And Life’:
‘All my past life is mine no more;
The flying hours are gone,
Like transitory dreams given o’er
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone’
I think that this is one of the most beautiful descriptions of what it must be like to be famous – or known to anyone at all, for that matter – that I’ve ever read. I use it at the end of the book, which seems a perfect summary of my feelings about his life and what it’s like to approach a biography of him.
What’s next for Alexander Larman?
I’m editing my second book for Head of Zeus, that’s being published later this year– it’s tentatively titled ‘Restoration: A Year In England’, and it’s a social history of the year 1666, focusing on what everyday life was like for people at every level of the social spectrum. I’m also writing book 3, about Lord Byron and his women – something not a million miles away from Blazing Star -…and of course I’m still writing reviews and features for numerous titles, not least The Arbuturian!
Blazing Star: The Life & Times of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester is out today in paperback from Waterstone’s and all good bookshops.