review: Rochester, the Mad Earl
by Kathleen Kellow
The adventures and exploits of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, are resurrected in this 1957 novel by Jean Plaidy, under one of her lesser-known pseudonyms—Kathleen Kellow.
Rochester’s father, Henry Wilmot, was responsible for cutting the Roundhead-pursued Charles II’s curls, helping him escape the country incognito during Cromwell’s rule. The 1st Earl of Rochester was steadfast by his side, while his wife ran a Puritan household in order to hang on to some family assets. Though he died before Charles was restored to the throne, the King did not forget the man who shared his impoverished exile.
Rochester, true to the Royalist cause, came of age just as the King returned to England, and thus was rewarded with the King’s friendship. Being handsome, of clever wit and sparkling intelligence, Rochester quickly became a favorite in the court circles and set out to marry an heiress. His courtship and attempted abduction of Elizabeth Malet is an unexpected humorous love story. ‘Bessie’ is herself a smart and level-headed young woman, who truly stole Rochester’s heart even while it seemed to others he courted her vast fortune.
Though he seemingly had it all—youth, talent, a title, money and the King’s ear—Rochester’s inner demons were continually at the forefront of his mind. Shakespeare held the standard for him, and he wished to be immortalized in verse—but he couldn’t keep cynicism and barbs toward others from his writing. He is best known for scurrilous poems about fellow courtiers and the King (who amusingly accepted the true enough quips).
Perhaps most scandalous were the outrageous pranks he pulled: setting himself up as a quack doctor, disguised and diagnosing ills of the court, being a landlord of an inn with Buckingham, dressing as beggars and commoners (even with the King in tow). His driving ambition to become a great in the theater world had him searching for an actress to support. He found both Sarah Cooke and Elizabeth Barry, though neither paved his way to fame, and he was never considered a serious asset to the playwrights, other than a wealthy patron.
Rochester’s insistence on logical thinking, sparked by studying the writings of Thomas Hobbes, formed his mind against religion—and this is something he battled throughout his life. He was always questioning the meaning of life and the existence of an afterlife. He welcomed all experiences to further his understanding of the world—one can see why he succumbed to wine and debauchery, for he felt that if a person is only to have the present life, he must live it to the fullest.
Having read many, many novels by the author, I assumed her writing style would be similar with this book from her early career, but it read more clearly and without so many of the obscure ‘Plaidy words’ you find in her subsequent works. Her attention to detail and infallible historical accuracy is prevalent as ever, and I really enjoyed this reimagining of the life of such an intriguing Restoration character. Rochester has always interested me in other novels of the era, and I believe Plaidy went above and beyond in recreating an honest and admirable protagonist.