The trouble with a lot of literary biographies is that they’re often quite boring. Writers, by and large, don’t tend to live terribly exciting lives, and there’s only so many times that you can be told ‘X started another book’ or ‘Y received the prestigious fellowship of Z’ before your eyes glaze over, you put what you’re reading down on page 101, and you bury yourself in a good crime novel instead. And sometimes even those writers who have had more glamorous and exciting – or wicked and depraved – lives don’t translate into grippingly told stories. Trying to sum up why someone’s life was fascinating, or revelatory, and how it reflected the age in which they lived is quite a challenge.
It was one that I took up with some glee in my new biography of Lord Rochester, Blazing Star. Rochester is one of the most fascinating figures of the Restoration era, and beyond, in that he was a study in contrasts. A loving husband and father who slept with countless prostitutes, he was also a lauded naval officer who was regularly banished from court for insulting Charles II and someone who simultaneously mocked religion and clergymen while desperately hoping in the existence of an uncertain but perfect afterlife. His poetry, which combines beautiful love lyrics with eye-opening obscenity, is some of the wittiest and most profound of the age. Yet it is still debated which of the poems were written by him and which were merely ascribed to him by his followers – and enemies. Dying young at 33, he left a lifetime of scandal, confusion and glittering brilliance behind him.
I became fascinated by Rochester and his life while at university. It wasn’t especially fashionable to study his work, but thankfully my tutors were sufficiently broad-minded to set me on a path that continued to 2011 when I realized that the accessible biography of Rochester that I’d been waiting for was unlikely to appear, and that I would have to write it myself. The process took just under three years, and turned up everything from previously unpublished letters that shed great light on his relationships with his mistress, wife and protégés to a considered reassessment of the received wisdom that he made a spectacular deathbed conversion.
Writing at length about Rochester has, I think, made me like him more. Despite his often indefensible actions, his wit, charm and intelligence shine through in both his poetry and in his letters, the latter feel startlingly contemporary in their concerns. They are also, as with so much of his writing, often hilariously funny, with near Withnail-esque levels of morbid wit when he refers to himself as being ‘in imminent danger of sobriety’ as he begs a friend to send him wine. My intention with Blazing Star was to bring Rochester’s brief, brilliant life alive, to put him in the centre of a world rich in both hard living and intellectual excitement, and to look at the legacy that he has left since his death. Only those who read the book can decide if I succeeded in my aims, but it’s been enormously good fun trying.
– Alex Larman, 2014
Click to find out more about Alex Larman's biography Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester