Earlier in the year, I was approached by the fashion designer, Sewing Bee judge and all-round Renaissance man Patrick Grant to contribute some profiles to a book that he was putting together, Original Man. I’ve now seen the first digital copy of it and it looks absolutely fantastic, focusing on an eclectic range of unusual, brilliant and iconoclastic figures. If ever you’ve wondered what book can link Hemingway & Quentin Crisp, Orwell & Morrissey, and Shackleton & Jack Nicholson, you now have your answer. I’m proud to have been involved in something so stylish and unusual and expect it to fly off the shelves this Christmas.
I recently wrote an article, ‘Rochester’s Oxford’ in the latest issue of the Oxford University alumni magazine, which received some strongly worded dissent from Wadham College’s Emeritus Fellow Dr Cliff Davies. Here is my response, as well as both my original article, and Dr Davies’s criticism of it.
It is inevitable that, writing a biography of a historical figure as controversial and misunderstood as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, one will find disagreement from readers and critics alike. It would be remiss of anyone but the most thin-skinned writer not to expect a certain healthy argument with many of the conclusions that I have reached, and I have been enjoying a process of discussion in several of the public readings and talks that I have given on Rochester since the publication of my book, Blazing Star, over the summer.
It was therefore with interest that I saw that Wadham’s esteemed Emeritus Fellow and keeper of the archives, Dr Cliff Davies, has written an article for the college’s website in response to a recent piece that I wrote for Oxford’s alumni magazine, Oxford Today. That Dr Davies disagrees with many of my conclusions is, of course, his prerogative; though I would note in passing that my attempts to reach out to the college both during my research and subsequently with a view to discussing Rochester at a public event there have so far proved fruitless. I would have welcomed a debate about Rochester’s time at the college, and my interpretations of the period, with Dr Davies. But that his article labels a piece that I have written as little more than ill-informed fantasy and bemoans its inclusion in a publication as respected as Oxford Today, seems ungallant, even from such an eminent and experienced scholar as Dr Davies, and I cannot but take it as crossing a line between constructive debate and personal attack. Hence this response.
Dr Davies begins his piece bemoaning the rise of ‘popular history’, a contemporary trend which he clearly deplores but to which I have no objection. As an unashamedly populist writer, I view the need to entertain as equally important as that of instructing and edifying. I am therefore glad that he viewed my article and ‘lively, sensationalist, therefore readable.’ A bachelor’s degree in English from the university was clearly not wasted. He then accuses me of being ‘distinctly lacking in historical method.’ Again, while I would not wish to challenge Dr Davies’ own unimpeachable record in this regard – a man who has served a half-century at his college is more than entitled to a peerless level of respect in his field – I see it as a pity that he feels the need to be stirred to such an accusation.
His first criticism is that I invoke, in his words, ‘the well-known Wadham sex scandal of 1739’, and use this as a comparison to Rochester’s own time at the college. In fact, when I discuss this more fully in my book, it was as a footnote to allude to a general sense of debauched behaviour throughout the university, rather than specifically to denigrate Wadham – or, as Dr Davies puts it, ‘to stoke up a sensationalist account of Wadham’s alleged particular homo-erotic activity.’ I would argue that my brief account of the college later becoming notorious for homosexual activity, ‘revelling in its nickname of Sodom’, refers less to the embarrassment of the academics than the delighted irreverence of the students. The poem that Dr Davies refers to is clearly satirical rather than documentary truth, but then, as I am at pains to note in the piece, Oxford in 1662 was a place torn between duty and frivolity. For the poor students, it was a demanding and rigorous existence that was designed to instil a classical education to lead to work in the ministry or teaching. For the aristocrats – such as Rochester – no such necessity existed, enabling a sense of freedom and, if you’ll pardon the pun, gay abandon. I am pleased Dr Davies agrees with me about the ‘good deal of homo-erotic sentiment or practice’ existing at the time; as I say in both the piece and my book, the relationship between Rochester and the (Merton) fellow Robert Whitehall was a crucial one for both parties, but a far from atypical one in the context of the time. I would agree with him that Wadham was unexceptional in this regard; indeed, I allude to New College, All Souls and Magdalen as similarly lost to the alcoholic and sexual abandon of the time.
It is slightly regrettable that Dr Davies clearly hasn’t read my book. Had he done so, he would realise that his accusation of my underselling Henry Wilmot is unfair; I spend the first chapter establishing not only the closeness of his relationship with Charles II, but also attempting to explain why his influence on the son he barely knew was so crucial. Of course, in a 1000 word feature, this is inevitably hard to convey fully, but the idea that I have ‘understated’ his character is unfair. I would merely argue that my intent was both to offer the lay reader an insight into a time and place that Henry Wilmot was only tangentially related to, and, secondly, to interest them enough into investigating the period further, either in my book or in one of the others that exists.
As for other criticisms, I am prepared to accept that Phineas Bury was more than merely ‘a ridiculous and ineffectual figure’, as I state, but in the absence of any convincing proof to the contrary I am happy to agree with the conclusions of Anthony à Wood and regard him as someone who was less than worldly. Of course, Gilbert Burnet, Rochester’s final confessor and spiritual advisor, described him as ‘a very learned and good natured man’, and many might agree with that conclusion rather than mine. Gross mockery or speculative conclusion based on (admittedly limited) evidence? I’ll leave that for the reader to decide. Pembroke was indeed the youngest Oxford college in 1662, an error of mine that I am indebted to Dr Davies for pointing out, and it will be altered in the forthcoming paperback edition of the book. And as for his final point that Oxford did not, as I suggest, enter into a decline that did not fully abate until centuries later, I would argue that, like its great rival Cambridge, the late 17th and 18th centuries saw a stagnation in student interests and academic prowess as the university’s numbers dropped, and the earnest, hard-working and poor students became subsumed to those who wished to use the place as a place of entertainment before the Grand Tour. Whether this could be blamed on Puritan interests or not is a subject for debate and discussion, which I hope that we have begun.
Dr Davies states that he is working on a study of Rochester’s boyhood and time at Wadham. I very much look forward to reading it. Indeed, it would have been wonderful to have had the benefit of his erudition and experience to draw on while researching and writing my book. He writes that this material will emerge in ‘the decent obscurity of a learned journal.’ It is not for me – an upstart popular writer – to comment on the whys or wherefores of this ‘decent obscurity’, save to say that, as mentioned before, I would relish the opportunity for a discussion about Rochester, and that, rather than regretting my article’s appearance in Oxford Today, I would hope that it has led to a healthy and open spirit of debate. Rochester, at least, would approve.
Alexander Larman, 6th November 2014