Lord Rochester’s licentious ways and reputation for debauchery spawned gossip in the court of Charles II, a raft of imitators – and even a film starring Johnny Depp. Corner catches up with Alexander Larman as he launches Blazing Star, a compelling new book on the life of the wicked lord which casts the protagonist in a thrilling new light…
Your first book, Blazing Star, is about the libertine poet Lord Rochester. What made you want to write a biography of him?
I first became interested in Rochester when I was reading English at university. He seemed to be a middle ground between two of my favourite poets, Donne and Larkin – albeit with a good deal more swearing and sex. And then I found out some more about his life, and it threw up all these amazing stories – for instance he was a war hero in his teens, after he’d been imprisoned in the Tower for trying to abduct the woman who eventually became his wife. And so I discovered that there was a good deal more to him than just being a ‘smutty poet’. I wanted to read a really captivating, popular biography of Rochester, and none appeared, and so about three years ago I thought I’d have a crack myself. Blazing Star is the result.
Did you find out any particularly shocking or amazing stories while doing your research?
Not really – most of the especially ‘shocking’ things Rochester did are a matter of record already. In fact, I was more interested in disproving many of the more scurrilous stories about him. But then fact and fiction have always been closely interlinked when it comes to Rochester – for instance, we’re still not entirely sure which poems attributed to him were actually written by him. We’ve got a canon of about 60-70, and then there are still a couple of dozen of uncertain origin. I was a bit disappointed to find out that one of my favourites, ‘Regime de Vivre’, almost certainly isn’t by him – but I included it in the book anyway so people can make up their minds.
Have you always been interested in the period?
Yes, I think that the Restoration is one of the most overlooked parts of English history. Most people thinking about it believe that it comes down to dandies poncing about in big wigs and the Great Fire, but it’s so much more than that. It was a time of enormous social and religious upheaval, after the uncertainties of the Civil War and the all too certain views of Cromwell and the Commonwealth, and Rochester epitomised the age. My second book’s actually a social history of 1666, and hopefully will focus on what everyday life was like that turbulent year.
What were the challenges that you faced writing the book?
As I mentioned before, Rochester’s a difficult man to pin down, because there’s enormous doubt about many of the aspects of both the life and the poetry. He was a controversial character in his day, and has remained so since, and so it was necessary to make lots of editorial decisions in attributing things to him – or deciding not to. Plus of course writing a 100,000 word book is always a challenge of sorts, although it was a huge amount of fun – much more so than I was expecting!
Do you think that there are any present-day incarnations of Rochester?
Johnny Depp played him in the film of his life, The Libertine, a few years ago, and although I don’t like the film very much, he’s a pretty decent representation. If we’re looking for younger people who epitomise some of the spirit of Rochester, then Russell Brand is an obvious comparison – he’s witty, opinionated, distrustful of politicians and always in trouble with the establishment. If we were looking for an actor to play Rochester in a new film, then I think Tom Hardy would do a magnificent job.
Where did you get the idea for the title from?
It’s actually an extract from one of his poems, ‘A Very Heroical Epistle In Answer To Ephelia’. The full quotation is ‘No glorious thing was ever made to stay/My Blazing-Star but visits, and away’. It’s got an especially nice resonance because when Rochester first arrived at court in December 1664, a comet was seen overhead, which was believed to be an omen. Like many a rock star since, he lived fast, in a blaze of glory, and died far too young at 33.
Why did you decide to start writing non-fiction rather than fiction?
It wasn’t a conscious choice – in fact, I even toyed with the idea of writing a fictionalised account of Rochester’s life. But fact is stranger than fiction, and a good deal more fun to write. Some of the more outrageous details would probably have been rejected by a publisher on the grounds of incredulity. I also think that non-fiction is often more interesting and exciting than fiction – it takes real skill to go inside a historical or social period and make it come alive again, although of course someone like William Boyd does a brilliant job of that in his novels.
What writers have inspired you?
Too many to list, but any biographer has to acknowledge Peter Ackroyd’s enormous influence on the field, along with Claire Tomalin and Fiona McCarthy. I’ve also enjoyed Ian Kelly’s offbeat biographies of Casanova and Samuel Foote, and there are some superb young historians writing today, such as Dan Jones and Ben Wilson.
You also work as a journalist and book critic. Do you find that this has informed your work or do you keep the two sides separate?
I hope that my experience as a journalist has helped me to keep my writing as concise and interesting as possible, and to remember that nobody needs to read your stuff – the trick is to keep it compelling and lively from the first word to the last. As for reviewing books, thankfully most of the ones I’ve written about have been of a very high standard indeed.
Are you working on any future books at the moment?
I’m just in the process of editing my book about the year 1666 in England at the moment, for publication next autumn. And I’ve got a really nice idea for the book after that as well, so I’m hoping that I can start work on that later in the year.
What’s the best thing that you’ve read recently?
The outstanding series I’ve read in recent years is Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, which ought to be given to anyone who wants to write prose, whether fiction or non-fiction. Otherwise, there’s so much good writing out there that it’s unfair to start selecting specific examples, though I’m looking forward to Dan’s forthcoming book about the Wars of the Roses.
And the worst?
I’m allergic to Philip Hensher. Anything he writes sends me to sleep straight away. He’s the epitome of the bien-pensant metropolitan who writes turgid, overwrought and wildly overlong novels.
What would your advice be to any would-be biographers?
Have an opinion on your subject before you start, but don’t be afraid to change it as you go along. I probably liked Rochester a good deal more when I finished the book than when I started it, and I hope that my approach to him is a sufficiently compassionate and open-minded one, without seeking to whitewash the more unsavoury sides of his character. But he was a man of his time, illuminating it in miniature, and it would be wrong to try and dismiss his enormous cultural and social influence, then and now.