Alexander Larman’s book debut Blazing Star delves into the complex tale of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Here he reveals why he chose to devote three years of his life to exploring the world of the ‘terrible Lord’
Why were you initially drawn to the story of Lord Rochester?
I became very interested in Rochester about 10 years ago. He seemed far more modern in his concerns that most of the writers of his time – and far funnier, too. I did quite a lot of reading about him then, and since, but I kept waiting for a biography that would do justice to his extraordinary life and times. Eventually, in 2011 or so, I thought ‘Well if nobody else is going to do this…’ Blazing Star is the result.
What was the most challenging part about writing this biography?
Rochester’s life is one shrouded in mystery. A lot of the poems said to be by him have had their authorship debated for the past 350 years, and even several major incidents in his life – such as an alleged deathbed conversion to Christianity – are uncertain. The trick is for the biographer to judge every story on the likelihood of whether it’s true to the character of the man or woman you’re writing about. Hopefully I’ve debunked a few myths as well as enjoying recounting the choicer stories.
What was the most surprising story you uncovered?
Vast sections of Rochester’s life are near-unbelievable. He started at Oxford when he was 12, lost his virginity at 13, was an alcoholic by 14, tried to abduct the woman who became his wife at 18, was a naval hero at 19, and then he really started getting going. But my favourite story, and probably my favourite part of the book, is the beginning of chapter 10. Not to spoil it for anyone, but it involves a man called Alexander Bendo…
Why did you choose the title Blazing Star?
It was a suggestion from my publisher Head of Zeus; the working title was simply ‘Rochester’, but this is much better, as it references both the fact that a shooting star was seen when Rochester arrived at court in 1664 for the first time, and also alludes to one of my favourite couplets by him, ‘No glorious thing was ever made to stay/My blazing star but visits, and away’.
Why do you think he lived the life he did?
He was living in a time where everything was being challenged. The Restoration was all about fun and enjoying life, while Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth had been all about repression and fear. It’s perfectly understandable that people wanted to let go of their inhibitions, but my central thesis is that they – led by the king – went too far and the country ended up impoverished and at the mercy of its more powerful neighbours. I think Rochester lived his excessive life in part because he enjoyed it, but also in part because he came to loathe the empty, shallow world that he inhabited, and saw his very existence as a protest against it.
Who reminds you of Lord Rochester today?
The obvious answer is a certain quick-tongued Essex comedian with wild hair, 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?
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.
As a critic yourself – were you nervous about responses to the book?
As the old saying goes, ‘Don’t dish it out, if you can’t take it.’ When I write criticism, I tend to err on the side of generosity, especially since I’ve been writing Blazing Star. This is partly because I know just how difficult it is to write a book, but also because I don’t think it really helps anyone’s appreciation of something if it’s just a straightforward pan. However, the early reviews have thankfully been appreciative and generous, on the whole, so that’s been a massive relief.
How has writing the book changed your perspective of him?
I ended up liking him more than I did when I began the book – of course, he did some appalling and indefensible things, but there’s a melancholy and decency to him that I hope shines through. The writer Ian Kelly described Rochester as ‘more libertarian than libertine’, and I definitely think that’s true.
What’s next for Alexander Larman?
I’m doing another book with Head of Zeus, that’s being published next year – it’s tentatively titled ‘1666: A Year In England’, and it’s a social history of that year, focusing on what everyday life was like for people at every level of the social spectrum. We’re also working on something else as well, which I can’t say too much about but it’s about someone not a million miles away from Rochester…and of course I’m still writing reviews and interviews for numerous national and local titles, not least The Resident!
Blazing Star, a biography of Lord Rochester by Alexander Larman, published by Head of Zeus is out now