John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, Huysmans, Private Collection. Photo: my own.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of April Fool’s Day. In fact, I find it all a bit stressful and embarrassing for reasons I won’t go into here. However, I know that my seventeenth century characters at the court of Charles II probably ADORED it seeing as they were a rather rum lot and loved to play practical jokes and have fun so it seems quite fitting that one of the biggest personalities at Charles’ rakish court, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, was born on the first of April in 1647.
I’ve never been an admirer of Rochester’s often crudely licentious poetry and the bare facts of his brief and scandalous life are pretty appalling as he veered from one disaster to the next squandering the charms and talents that had been bestowed upon him before dying of probable syphilis at the age of thirty three. However, being a bit of a black sheep myself, I am irresistibly drawn to the failures, misfits and losers of history and so can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Rochester although I am sure that the last thing he would have wanted from anyone is their pity.
I suppose the thing about Rochester is that although his work is discomforting fodder for giggling sixth formers and his actions are often those of a troubled and disorderly mind, there’s still a spark of genius there that shines forth in his surviving letters and papers and if you look beyond the foul language, there’s also a seam of tenderness in his work that belies his reputation as a heartless, sex obsessed rake and makes you wonder what sort of man he would have been had he been transplanted to a different age. Actually, I think he would have been exactly the same for he had the sort of mind and attitude that transcends trifling details like centuries and thank God for it.
Johnny Depp as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester in The Libertine. Sadly he doesn’t look this good for the entirety of the film…
He doesn’t appear in Minette sadly as he was at university in Oxford during her brief visit to England over the winter of 1660/61 but I think I may have to write him into the sequel as he’s just too good a character to miss. Aren’t they all though? The late seventeenth century is such a blessing to a novelist as it’s just rammed solid with fascinating, often terrible but always interesting personages all getting up to the most ridiculous antics. I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying writing about them all – maybe it’s time attention moved on from the Tudors to the Stuarts?
Anyway, I digress, happy birthday Milord Rochester wherever you may be. I hope you’re having fun pranking Charles II.