Header overlay

Incorrigible and Irresistible

Share this

Towards the end of my first year at university, I discovered the library. It took a while to navigate, but after a week or two, I wandered into the Special Collections department, watched over – if memory is to be relied upon – by a woman of obvious authority. She explained that she guarded all the old and rare books but she agreed to let me look around.

The major find that day was a cookery book. It contained some basic recipes, the most memorable of which provided instructions for preparing pork, which ran as follows: ‘Take a Pigge. Smite off its head. Doe it in a faire Potte untill it be done.’ It was pretty old, that book, and magnificent in its way, though the smiting could give one pause.

The next discovery was an eighteenth-century collection of the poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. On our course we were studying Rochester, as published in the Muses Library edition, and while we were certainly impressed by the rage and ingenuity of his satires, most of us had fallen slightly in love with the limpid beauty of his lyrics – especially ‘Absent from thee I languish still’ and ‘All my past life is mine no more’. It was a little mysterious that this early collection should be kept under lock and key but, as I was briskly informed, this was an unexpurgated and obscene book, definitely not suitable for impressionable undergraduates. And, actually, would I go away now and only come back with written permission from my tutor? That is, if I really needed to return.

I was scared of my tutor, with reason, and decided to let the matter drop. However, curiosity piqued, I looked more closely at the little book of poems we had been set, and noticed odd remarks such as, ‘This poem has been excluded from the present edition at the request of the Publishers.’ Still, there was a lot going on at the time, and it was hard enough to keep up with the essays and the carousing demanded by student life. Rochester settled on the back burner.

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

Towards the end of my first year at university, I discovered the library. It took a while to navigate, but after a week or two, I wandered into the Special Collections department, watched over – if memory is to be relied upon – by a woman of obvious authority. She explained that she guarded all the old and rare books but she agreed to let me look around.

The major find that day was a cookery book. It contained some basic recipes, the most memorable of which provided instructions for preparing pork, which ran as follows: ‘Take a Pigge. Smite off its head. Doe it in a faire Potte untill it be done.’ It was pretty old, that book, and magnificent in its way, though the smiting could give one pause. The next discovery was an eighteenth-century collection of the poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. On our course we were studying Rochester, as published in the Muses Library edition, and while we were certainly impressed by the rage and ingenuity of his satires, most of us had fallen slightly in love with the limpid beauty of his lyrics – especially ‘Absent from thee I languish still’ and ‘All my past life is mine no more’. It was a little mysterious that this early collection should be kept under lock and key but, as I was briskly informed, this was an unexpurgated and obscene book, definitely not suitable for impressionable undergraduates. And, actually, would I go away now and only come back with written permission from my tutor? That is, if I really needed to return. I was scared of my tutor, with reason, and decided to let the matter drop. However, curiosity piqued, I looked more closely at the little book of poems we had been set, and noticed odd remarks such as, ‘This poem has been excluded from the present edition at the request of the Publishers.’ Still, there was a lot going on at the time, and it was hard enough to keep up with the essays and the carousing demanded by student life. Rochester settled on the back burner. Where he simmered. The next big discovery was an article by Vivian de Sola Pinto, about Alexander Bendo. This is how the story goes. Rochester was a protégé and close friend of the restored king Charles II, but he was incontinent in his habits. On his death-bed he confessed to having been continuously drunk for five years in those courtly days, and he certainly indulged plenty of other appetites. Charles was in no position to condemn his womanizing but Rochester’s way with a lampoon could verge on lèse-majesté. He is famous, for example, for the lines ‘We have a pritty witty King, whose word no man relies on. He never said a foolish thing, nor ever did a wise one.’ Though Charles languidly replied that it was quite true, for his words were his own but his actions those of his ministers, trouble was brewing. It was in the early hours of 25 June 1675 that Rochester and a gang of his rowdy pals came reeling into the Great Privy Garden at Whitehall, where a learned Jesuit had set up some glass dials, or chronometers, for the science-loving king. Then, according to Aubrey, ‘dash, they fell to worke’, and smashed them all to atoms. This really could not be tolerated, and Rochester had to go. He left the court. At about this time there appeared on Tower Hill the impressive figure of Dr Alexander Bendo, wearing an old green gown, a huge beard and a massive chain, apparently given him by the King of Cyprus ‘for doing a Signal Cure upon his Darling Daughter, the Princess Aleophangina, who was painted in a Banner and hung up at his Elboe’. A copy of his long and elaborate handbill survives, in a memoir by one Thomas Alcock. It is magnificently outrageous. It lists every ailment imaginable, from scurvy and green-sickness to obesity, rotting teeth and ‘all sorts of distempers, Malladies and Complaints whatsoever’, all of them curable by the great doctor’s medicine. This was brewed in an ‘old boyling Kettle, of Soote and Urine’, seasoned with brick-dust, asafoetida and sweat, along with ashes, lime, chalk, clay, old wall, soap and indeed anything that came to hand. Also offering certain dubious value-added services to ladies of a delicate disposition, Dr Bendo did a roaring trade and attracted enormous crowds. And then, quite suddenly, ‘the hungry court could no longer sustain her drooping spirits’ without Rochester, writes Alcock, and he was summoned back, making ‘the Quickest Voyage from France that ever man did’. He was at Whitehall, ‘in Splendor, dancing in a Ball’, the very next night. As for Dr Bendo, he was never seen again. You have to warm to the man: such reckless ingenuity, energy, bravado – and such wonderful poetry. The only child of a mercurial cavalier general who had fought for Charles I, he had inherited the earldom at the age of 10 and gone to university at 12, before spending the best part of three years on the Grand Tour. At 17, back in England, he hired a coach-and-six and attempted to abduct Elizabeth Malet, a desirable heiress, as she travelled past Charing Cross. Two years later, she chose to marry him after all. They had four children, but his health was never strong and his life so hectic and debauched that the venereal disease he’d contracted when still at Oxford caught up with him and, after a last-minute conversion, he died, probably of tertiary syphilis, on 6 July 1680 at the age of 33. Nowadays, his poems are readily available in all their startling frankness of style, intention and language. But much of his work was deliberately destroyed soon after his death, when his rigorously puritanical mother discovered his memoirs, and was so horrified that she ordered everything burned, the whole trunkful. Byron, 144 years later, suffered a similar posthumous fate. These bonfires are less ser-ious than the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria – yet who can tell what marvels, what insights, what scurrilous tales went up in flames? Some of Rochester’s private papers, however, survived, and it is in these intimate, personal letters that you feel closest to the mercurial, profound, scatological, paradoxical, passionate, uxorious, philandering, wickedly clever fellow that he was. Jeremy Treglown’s edition opens with the blast of war. The first letter, to his mother, is dramatically headed ‘From the Coast of Norway amongst the rocks aboard the Revenge, August the 3rd’. To show repentance for the failed abduction of Elizabeth (and to get out of prison) the teenage Rochester had volunteered to go to sea and to serve with Pepys’s patron, the Earl of Sandwich. The plan was to trap some richly laden Dutch ships in the harbour at Bergen. It went disastrously wrong and the two friends who sailed with him were both killed, ‘with one shott, just by mee’, though he was himself unscathed. He had had a pact with one of them that if either should die, he would return to give evidence of an afterlife. This did not happen. He never forgot this moment, understandably enough. It was 1665, the year of the great plague, when ‘scarce a soul was left alive’: death was never far from his, or anyone’s thoughts. Annoyingly, after that dramatic piece of reportage, he never dated his letters: the sequence becomes a matter of well-educated guesswork. Happily, his wife managed to keep many of hers from the flames. They begin in a spirit of intimate tenderness: ‘Madam, if it were worth any thing to bee belov’d by mee, you were the richest woman in ye world . . . there is left for mee, noe pleasure but in yr smiles, noe life but in yr favour, noe Heaven but in yr Love.’ Later, during his long affair with an actress, they become more brisk and businesslike, but then they resume a tone of deepened and affectionate respect, until, towards the end, comes the famous letter that begins ‘’Tis not an easy thing to bee intirely happy, but to bee kinde is very easy and that is the greatest measure of happiness . . . you have practis’d that soe long that I have a joyfull confidence you will never forget it . . .’ Before this, his wife had been treated to an absurd mock-philosophical discourse on ‘Heroick resolutions in woemen’, a wager from Newmarket ‘I’le hould you six to fower I love you . . .’, a pained, thoroughly disingenuous enquiry as to what in his behaviour could possibly have caused her offence, and a splendid dispatch, as from a monarch sending gifts via an ambassador, to his daughters: the enclosed doll is ‘the very person of the Duchess de la Vallière, dried up and pined away to a very small proportion by fasting’. Another woman who kept her letters safe was Elizabeth Barry, the actress who also bore him a daughter and whom he claimed to love, though he seems not to have treated her particularly well. These are short notes, often passionate, sometimes obscure, always urgent, never signed. One begins ‘You are stark mad, and therefore the fitter for me to love’ and they all breathe an immediacy of emotion that mocks the intervening centuries. Yet it is with Henry Savile, his best friend, that he really seems to come alive, and their correspondence, both sides of which survive, shows him at his most unguarded. They shared a love of wine: ‘Oh that second bottle, Harry, is the sincerest, wisest, most impartiall downright Friend we have’. They also shared a destructive passion for women – their exchange on the subject of VD sweatshops in Leather Lane is particularly rich in black comedy – and an avid interest in court affairs. Savile knew all the gossip and shared it generously, though such was the intricacy of the often salacious and occasionally incestuous affairs he relays that, despite Treglown’s painstaking researches, they are as impossible to unravel as a tangled skein of wool. At the end of his life, and to the great comfort of his pious mother, he seems to have undergone a religious conversion. His friends were sceptical, but the last two letters, both written to clerics, suggest that it was indeed genuine. Like Dives in the parable, he longs to warn ‘all my friends and companions to true and sincere repentance today, while it is called today, before the evil day comes and they be no more’. As for himself, he suggests that, so unforgivable were his many sins, he might be smuggled into Heaven in disguise. Perhaps he was. The university library still holds that old copy of his poems in their Rare Books section, though more recent, unexpurgated editions are readily available on the open shelves, in all their bawdy rage: they still have the power to shock, even now. Apparently that briskly businesslike cookery book has disappeared.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 60 © Sue Gaisford 2018


About the contributor

Sue Gaisford is a useful jobbing journalist, who has written for most of the broadsheets and a selection of the more genteel magazines. Currently she reviews for the Financial Times and is on the judging panel for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.