The most fascinating figures of History are always the ambiguous and contradictory ones. If, on top of that, the character is scandalously original and highly controversial, how could we help being captivated?
The name of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester instantaneously conjures up many images, not all of them flattering, but all of them colourful. He has been seen by many as an atrocious libertine immersed in an excess of lust and alcohol that eventually killed him at the early age of 33. Many others over the centuries have praised his sharpened wit, his literary genius and his voracious and passionate philosophy of life. He and his writings have been widely and severely condemned, and yet he remains one of the most significant poets of the 17th century, and his poems and satires are known even beyond British borders. In any case, what is made obvious when you read Passion for Living, his brand-new biography by R.E. Pritchard, is that Rochester cannot possibly be reduced to the role of a dissolute and thoughtless libertine.
Pritchard does not try to hide or minimize the contestable aspects of Rochester’s life, personality and work, nor does he return a verdict on them. Letting others figure out whether we should admire or reprehend him, his real goal is, through a detailed and persevering dig into his history and writings, to offer us the chance to discover who this intriguing man was, behind his many masks of delightful eccentric, compulsive drinker, witty courtier, orgiastic reveller, talented poet, formidable satirist and belated penitent. Above all, Pritchard presents us a man with a special, absorbing vision of life, out of the straight and narrow, making the choice of unbridled passion over what he saw as boring conventions.
(And if you think so, here is the page for Passion for Living by R.E. Pritchard)