Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lord Rochester, Johnny Depp, Ladies, & Footmen

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Susan reports:

I'm currently finishing a historical novel based on the life of Catherine Sedley, the notorious Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717.) One of Catherine's father's good friends was the infamous poet, gallant, rogue, and all-around wastrel John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) – not exactly the best company for an adolescent girl.  By hanging around with Dad and his playboy pals, Catherine had an interesting upbringing, to say the least. In my book, sixteen-year-old Catherine is very nearly caught sharing a copy of one of Rochester's scurrilous poems, Signior Dildo. 

And yes, Signior Dildo is about what you think it's about.  

In one of the poem's endless verses cheerfully trashing the ladies of the court, I stumbled over this bit of historical enlightenment.  Remember Loretta's recent blog about how certain Regency-era ladies prized their footmen for ALL their talents, and indulged them with costly livery? Here, thanks to Lord Rochester, is proof that certain ladies in 1673 felt much the same way:

The Countesse of Falmouth, of whom People tell
Her Footmen wear Shirts of a Guinea an Ell;
Might Save the Expence, if she did but know,
How Lusty a Swinger is Signior Dildo.Text Color

If you'd like to read the whole poem – purely for the sake of literary curiosity, I know – here it is.  No coffee in the mouth whilst reading, ok?

Johnny Depp?  Well, he made you look, didn't he?  He also played Lord Rochester in The Libertine, so his appearance here really is justifiable.  But to play fair, here's a portrait, right, by Sir Peter Lely of the real earl, too, looking more than a little louche.  Who says research can't be fun?


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Ooh Susan, I can't wait to read your book on Catherine Sedley, particularly if Rochester is going to be in it. Looking at the portrait he was pretty hot until the syphillis and stuff. I thought Johnny Depp was wonderful in the movie. Although I got the feeling that Rochester was a bit trying to be around.

Becke Davis said...

Thanks for warning me not to drink coffee before reading that timeless prose. My jaw is still scraping on the ground.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Elizabeth Kerri --Thanks! Though the adult Catherine is a real piece of work, in a way I'm amazed that she survived the childhood she had. It almost seemed like a modern Hollywood-star childhood, with her mother considered insane and her father spoiling Catherine so thoroughly, and treating her like an amusing pet instead of a daughter. In this book, Rochester's a bit like that crazy bad uncle that everyone has -- the one that does all sorts of inappropriate things, but (you hope) means well.

And I agree, I bet the real Rochester was a total pain -- though I'd say the same thing about all those so-called "wits." Today I suspect we'd just call them "wise-a**es".

As for Johnny playing John -- NO ONE works a wig like Johnny Depp, whether it's Rochester or Jack Sparrow. He can make even the silliest fashion look hot!

ConnieG said...

I can't wait for your next book! I'm looking forward to seeing what you do with Rochester this time. I loved how he was Nell Gywnne's friend and supporter, but then you made him such an annoyance to Louise Keroualle that he was almost her enemy. So I loved him in one book, hated him in the other. Who knows how I'll feel about him in this new book?
If this is any sample of his poetry, though, I'm afraid that leaves something to be desire, LOL.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Becke, I know, I felt a warning was needed!

Loretta and I agree that one of the toughest things is reading how hilarious this or that historical person was -- the toast of London! -- and then when you finally find a sample of this great wit, it's....well, let's say the best audience today might be a bunch of adolescent boys. Just doesn't travel well over the centuries.

But Rochester got in trouble for his poetry even during his lifetime. While the king laughed at most of it, every so often Rochester struck a little to close to home by lampooning one of the royal mistresses (which he does in Signior Dildo). The king would be angry, and banish Rochester to the country for a few months, or until he was so bored that he wanted the earl back.

Rochester really had that gad-fly personality: he just could NOT help slandering people he shouldn't.

Margaret Porter said...

I have an idea for a book that's got a Rochester connection but isn't actually about him. (It would have to be the book after the next book, though.)

Loved Johnny Depp in the film and the staging of Signior Dildo at the theatre was just so over-the-top crazy!

Monica Burns said...

Isn't his poetry something else! If I remember correctly, didn't he send the wrong poem to King Charles, which got him into deep doodoo with Charles? I thought that was amusing, particularly because I'm wondering if it was intentional. *grin* Great post.

I am so lowing what you two are doing here!! This is one of my fav top 5 blogs.

Liz said...

Thinking back to Eng lit classes,didn't most poems like this had a political subtext? Was there really a Countess of Falmouth, or was she a stand-in for a more famous lady? If she was real, what'd she do to Rochester? There has to be a story!

Agree with Monica. This is one of my fav blogs, too.

Loretta Chase said...

Thank you, Susan, for yet another fine example of the high-mindedness and refinement of the English upper classes.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Hem. Didn't read the warning. Now wiping coke from the computer screen.

It's amazing how juvenile this poem is, and yet totally subversive. But I guess that was the point!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Connie G, that's a wonderful compliment if I could make you both love and hate Rochester, depending on the heroine's point of view. Thank you!

Margaret, I think almost every book set in this time period in England is bound to have a Rochester connection. He's just that irresistible a personality.

BTW, the play shown in "The Libertine" wasn't this poem, though all the dildos used as props would certainly make it seem so! Rochester also wrote one play satirizing the English royal court. It was called "Sodom" (har-har), and that's what's shown in the film. It, too, got Rochester in hot water with the king. What a surprise!

Monica, glad to hear the TNHG are in your top five favs! And yes, there was yet another poem that Rochester "accidently" drew from his pocket and handed to the King to read. He read it, too, and off Rochester went for another little exile in the country.

Loretta, I bow entirely to you in matters of taste, nobility, and refinement...!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Vanessa, NEXT time you'll heed our warnings. *g*

Liz, many thanks for the praise! As for the Countess of Falmouth: she was indeed a real lady. Mary Bagot began at court as a maid of honor to the Queen. Though she'd no fortune or title, she was very beautiful, and after only a few months in the Queen's household she married Charles Berkeley, Earl of Falmouth; a very favorable match. However, poor Lord Falmouth was killed in battle only a year after their wedding, leaving Lady Falmouth a young, beautiful, and quite rich widow. She may or may not have shared her favors with the King; she certainly was in no rush to remarry, and enjoyed herself as a "single lady" in the court. When she finally did remarry in 1674, she chose the well-connected and even richer Earl of Dorset, another step up the social ladder, while he in turn regarded her as something of a "trophy wife" -- yet it was considered a love match. Unfortunately, she died in childbed in 1679, only 34.

What did Lady Falmouth do to Rochester to earn mention in "Signior Dildo"? The only connection that I could find was that her first husband was one of Rochester's rivals for the heiress Elizabeth Mallet. But since Rochester won Miss Mallet and Lord Falmouth (at that time Lord Fitzharding) wed Mary Bagot, I don't think there's any real cause for slander there.

The Earl of Dorset, Mary's second husband, was also a good friend of Rochester's. Perhaps this is more of his questionable humor, dissing his friend's sweetie?

More likely Lady Falmouth was simply a famous/infamous court beauty, and that made her target enough.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

I must say grazie, Susan, for I adore all things sophomoric, even if they're so only on the surface. And, like everyone has said, I so look forward to all the on dits - or is it ons dit? -- you seem to be up on about the aristocracy, royals, etc.

Liz said...

Wow, thanks for all the extra info regarding Lady Falmouth! That's why I love this blog. You ladies rock!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

You're welcome, Liz. Ask me a question and I tend to ramble on...and I'm glad I didn't overkill. :)

Michelle, you're welcome, too. Just think of us as the Perez Hilton of people who were hot, oh, two or three hundred years ago.

As for the "on dit" question: hmm, I'm not sure. I've always thought the rough translation would be "what they said", ie, general gossipy stuff, so I guess the plural would be on dits? Anyone with a better grip of French is welcome to do better than I!

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket