Of Ink, Wit, and Intrigue: Lord Rochester, in Chains of Quicksilver
This is a detailed birth to death account of the life of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, the 17th century poet, satirist and notorious libertine.
Having myself written of the Marquis de Sade and Errol Flynn, I know from experience that one begins at a great disadvantage as a writer when one takes on the life of a libertine. Men like these are deeply fascinating creatures of wit and great presence, enigmatically alluring with the immense contrasts that afflict their recorded lives. Unfortunately, they are, in general, not very nice people, and thus it is very difficult to engage your reader into liking your protagonist.
I picked up this book with eager anticipation as I have long held a fascination for John Wilmot, and I hoped Susan Cooper-Bridgewater was going to delight and regale by bringing it all to life with new insights into the life of the earl. The book is undeniably well-written, though extremely light of dialogue, which is exceptionally sad given the gentleman was a celebrated conversationalist. Due to the extensive narrative it is rather hard to describe it as a ‘novel’. In the style of a post-reflective autobiography/diary, it meanders through the more domestic aspects of Wilmot’s life with very little of the colour one would expect. To reduce Rochester’s sexual escapades to slightly bawdy tumbles in the sheets is doing the gentleman a great disservice and shows little empathy with his psyche. Though the book takes us vicariously through the earl’s commutes between London and his homes in Adderbury and Woodstock, and is interspersed with his poetry, it gives scant account of Stuart courtly life, and the theatre, which one would expect from a novel about John Wilmot. A suitable read if you are more interested in biography rather than fiction.