Words in Progress; Lord Rochester’s Monkey

I indulge in buying reference books far too frequently under the justification of essential research. But on my over-stuffed bookshelves, there are volumes I couldn’t resist purchasing even before I had that handy excuse! Of course, I can argue (with my budget and possibly my bank manager) that they tend to come equally in handy while writing.

One such curio is Lord Rochester’s Monkey by Graham Greene, best known as a major 20th-century fiction writer. This biography of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and 17th-century rake, wit and poet is not only fascinating for its contents but also has an interesting context.

History does tend to repeat itself, so in the current era when there is much news of book banning, it’s interesting to learn that around 90 years ago when Greene was writing Lord Rochester’s Monkey, it seemed to be a doomed project as Wilmot was considered to be “a pornographic writer.”

As Greene mentions in his introduction, finally widely published in 1974, “It is difficult to think back to the almost Victorian atmosphere of the early thirties when I wrote this book. Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses were still banned.”

Greene’s championing of Rochester certainly helped to restore his reputation as a major poet, as skilled as he was scathing and frequently filthy. When I was in my final years at secondary school, Rochester barely got a mention amongst Restoration poets, but now his work is rightly included in English Literature degree courses.

 Lord Rochester’s Monkey reveals that his philosophical attitude was as puritanically acerbic as his life experience was extravagantly debauched. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s Greene’s painstaking portrayal of the conflicted elements of Rochester’s short and meteoritic life that inspired me to write last summer’s story Held Close to my Heart, set in late 17th-century England, where to a certain extent, my MCs Luke and Jem characters reflect the opposing influences that held sway over John Wilmot.

This beautifully written, in-depth biography with wonderful illustrations and portraits is always a pleasure to revisit. Since my WIP, Simply John, is set in early 1660, just before the restoration of King Charles II I had to dip into the early chapters of Lord Rochester’s Monkey, purely for context (and some self-indulgent reading). I’ve borrowed a few geographical facts for my MC Owen Montgomery from the experiences of Henry Wilmot, Rochester’s father, en route to England from exile abroad to plan a Royalist insurrection with the Sealed Knot.

I’ll finish with some famous lines quoted from Lord Rochester’s Monkey by the poet himself, in a typically critical assessment of his royal master. “Restless he rolls about from whore to whore, A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.”

2 thoughts on “Words in Progress; Lord Rochester’s Monkey

    1. Addison, it’s a wonderful book! I’ve read it over and over again and still have more to learn. It’s a coffee table book in size and with all those wonderful photos, but packed with information. And the title is a winner!! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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