Thursday, April 01, 2010

Book Review: ROCHESTER THE MAD EARL by Kathleen Kellow aka Jean Plaidy

This is the story of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester-Restoration poet, wit and rake. As a boy he was eager to take his place among the immortals. Two passions prevented him; women and wine. He was the lover of many women, but there were two who had his life-long devotion.
He sought an heiress in marriage and, when she refused, abducted her under her grandfather's eyes. He realized the genius of a serving girl and made her a great actress.
He set up as a quack doctor, roamed London in disguise, and mocked the King to his face. Nothing was too daring or too fantastic for 'The Mad Earl '; and madly he squandered his life and his gifts, until, with life scarcely begun, he found that it was over.
This is the story of the most brilliant, the most gay, and the most tragic of men". 

Thank you to Arleigh from Historical and Jean Plaidy's Royal Intrigue for setting me on this search for the mythical unicorn of historical fiction. Since there is probably not a single HF lover out there that has not heard of Jean Plaidy, for those of you who do not know Kathleen Kellow is one of Jean Plaidy's earlier pen names. What is it that makes this book so special? Kathleen Kellow is one of Plaidy's more uncommon pen names. For more on this rare book that I was lucky to get from the library check out my other post on it.

"Rochester: The Mad Earl" was briefly mentioned in "The Loves of Charles II" which I read not to long ago. I noted the brief mentions that the Earl wrote funny, and outrageous notes to or about fellow nobility or to anyone he deemed fit. In "The Loves of Charles II" he seemed more "mad" for voicing his true opinion whether it was right or wrong. I bring up my prior read because Rochester is a wonderful companion to Charles. This is Rochester’s story, the good, the bad, and even the mad. He was one of the first original "ballers" and leader of Charles II band of merry men.
As a young child Rochester was not Rochester, his father was given the title of Earl of Rochester for his exemplary service to the exiled King Charles II. His father was the man who his with him in the great oak tree and who with his own hands cut the king beautiful curls off to be disguise him from Cromwell's pursuing men. While his father was in the king’s service his mother conformed easily to the Puritan England giving that she had previous ties to it, leaving her household unscathed. Rochester had an older half brother from his mother previous marriage but Rochester was the distinct opposite of him. He was a well-learned young child, wise beyond his years. His father snuck into home for a visit just so he could check in on the boy and tell his son of his escapades with the exiled king. When he left Rochester would dream for the day of his return but that day would never come. Someone else would return home in his stead and change the face of England forever.

On Charles II return to England Rochester had been still a young teen-age boy going to college at Oxford. The king’s men came to Oxford to bestow degrees and award merits the Chancellor also brought a very special message from Charles for Rochester. Good thing it came when it did because Rochester was so gifted he had already used up all Oxford had to offer educationally and socially. He was to go on a world tour courtesy of Charles. The funny part of is that the person who was put in charge of him was his cousin’s husband. His cousin was the notorious Barbara Palmer. That Charles was so sneaky sending his mistresses husband off to baby-sit her younger cousin so he could have a grand old time with her all to himself.
After his tour was completed he was invited to court and what better way to make a grand entrance then to hand deliver a letter from Charles sister Henrietta in France. In life Rochester lived by "his muses" who were really just plain old wine and women. He came across as a genius, he had the type of mind that was an egocentric genius verging on insanity. It is quite possible that he was extremely intelligent with a hint of manic behavior; it was like his mind never slept. He loved a good ruse. This is my favorite encounter with Barbra Palmer:

"He bowed mockingly. He could not resist mocking Barbra although he knew she disliked mockery, and that Barbara offend could be a formidable enemy".

"In the streets, at the play, in the park, there were always people to gape at Barbara; Rochester was extremely handsome, extremely elegant, and she would not be adverse, he knew, to entering into a love affair with him. But then Barbara was prepared to make love with anyone who could interest her for a brief hour or so".

"He took her hand as she alighted, and then some spirit of mischief prompted him. If Barbara wanted a display for the spectators, let her have one. He kissed her passionately on the lips".

"Up came Barbara's hand, and Barbara was a strong woman. Rochester felt a stinging slap on his right ear, and then Barbara's fist struck him such an unexpected blow on the chest that he fell sprawling on the grass".

"There was a roar of laughter from the crowd on seeing the elegant courtier sprawling there, his wide breeches, with their frills of lace and bunches of ribbons, stained by the wet grass, his plumed hat awry".

I laughed so hard at this brief excerpt that I had tears in the corners of my eyes. This was one of his earlier exploits at court. Rochester was a lovable man and I found his antics somewhat insane but this man had his logic and even to me it made logical sense. A true genius with melancholy whose quest it was in life was to experience what life has to offer, the pleasures of life especially. If you ask me he was too smart for his own good and that type of intelligence leads to bigger questions. He really struggled with faith in religion and the after life's existence. He wanted proof it was really there and when none was forth coming he chose to live under his own gods rules.

Rochester's crazy ways continued to lead to him to frequently being banished from court at the king’s pleasure. From abducting an heiress, openly mocking the king, wars with other poets, raising serving girls to actresses, stealing the kings purse, cross dressing, and posing as a quack doctor, nothing was ever too far fetched for Rochester.
5/5 In typical Plaidy fashion this book really is spectacular. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on this rare beauty do not let it pass you by, there is a reason it is the HF unicorn. I did notice in comparison to some of my other Plaidy reads that this one has a thicker dialect yet even with its sometimes thickness it was fabulous and down right hilarious. It is going to have to take every ounce of restraint I have not to keep it and tell the library I lost it. Historical fiction at its BEST even if it released in 1957. If anyone ever sees a copy of this for sale please email me.
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  1. Gosh - I had no idea that Jean Plaidy wrote as Kathleen Kallow - thanks for sharing!


  2. Fabulous review Liz! Rochester sounds like quite the character and I hope to one day get my hands on this one! Maybe it'll be republished one day?! We can all hope!

    Thanks for the review!

  3. Fabulous review, Lizzy! You are lucky to have had the special experience. He sounds like he woudl make great movie material.

  4. Great review, Lizzy -thank you for discovering this! I already have my son at PSU tracking down the copy in their library for me. Rochester IS lovable and very funny, for all his demons, which is why I can understand perfectly why his friends (and long-suffering wife) put up with him.

    One tiny quibble with Jean. Young Rochester didn't tour the Continent for three years with Barbara's husband, Roger Palmer; he went with Sir Arthur Balfour, a noted physician and naturalist that the king carefully chose for his discipline (which wild-child Rochester needed!) Barbara got into trouble enough whether her husband was in town or not. *g*

    Oh, well, that's being picky. The book sounds like great fun, and I'm looking forward to it.

  5. Hannah, I had no idea either until I read about this book on Plaidy's Royal Intrigue, the link for the site is in the blogroll if you want to check it out. It is a really cool site just about Plaidy.

    Amy, I wish they would reprint it you never know though. Maybe if I write the publisher it might bring it to light that there are people who really want this book.

    Marie, He is movie material and there actually is a movie called Libertine, Johnny Deep play Rochester. I watched it last night and it was kind of creepy after reading the book. They were very different from each other.

    Susan, PSU hu? Portland State? My brother graduated from there a few years back and it is a wonderful school if that is what you are referring to. I watched Libertine last night because of your recommendation and I have to ask what the heck was up with his disfigurement? The nose? We they trying to imply he had syphilis or something? the movie burst my dream bubble about him.

    Hum I will have to check the book again I could have put it down wrong because the person he did go on tour with was really into plants maybe I mixed it up on accident. I will get back to you on it. It was a great read and I left out some funny stuff because then it would have been the longest post in the whole free world. My second funniest part in the read was when Rochester was robbed by a prostitute. It was too funny for words.

  6. The PSU I meant is on the other side of the country - Pennsylvania State University. I bet we could probably come up with a half dozen other schools that fit those letters, too. *g* But I saw the Penn State library on your list of interlibrary loan sites for the book, which made it easy for me. My poor son is always getting asked to go photocopy whole books for me - at least this one is short.

    I warned you that "The Libertine" is, well, flawed. It's entertaining to see Johnny Depp work the wigs, but then it really deteriorates, and the prolonged death scenes are hard to watch.(Not to mention John Malkovich being the lamest Charles II EVER.) I read somewhere that Depp originally wanted to use that fake nose for Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, but Disney (wisely) wouldn't let him, and so he inflicted it on poor Rochester instead. Yes, the earl did die of a combination of long-term alcoholism and syphilis, but he didn't lose his nose!

    Rochester was funny in a classic bad-boy way. I love all the "pranks" that he and Nell Gwyn did together - the pair of them did things that probably would have gotten other people tossed into the Tower. That's one of the things I like about Charles II's court: it actually had a sense of humor, because Charles did. Can't say that about too many other English kings.

  7. Susan, I should have known that but I guess I wish more people were in Portland. I still am considering coping the whole book. I still have it because I can not bring myself to take it back.

    No kidding Libertine was flawed. Johnny was perfect for it if they would have just not gone so left field with him. I too felt J.M. was the worst Charles Ever, not suave at all. I just knew something was wrong with his nose it made me jump when I saw it like "what the hell is that"? Makes sense now I did not think it was fake. So glad they did not let him us it in Pirates. I wont spoil it for you but wait for the copy from your son because you will not see her ending coming but it is logical. No mention of nose loosing either! LOL

    The read did get into Nelly a bit and she helped him with his bastard child. She was in it but not as much as I would have liked. I love her. Very true Charles himself was a funny man. I really laughed out loud at one story in the read about Rochester getting robbed by a prostitute and then Charles laughed at him so Rochester set Charles up. It was so funny after I read it I called my mom and told her about it. She even laughed. The Very Merry Monarch indeed.

  8. Oh I missed all the fun... was in a bit of a bad place when you posted this Lizzy. Excellent review. I was on a waiting list for this one but I never heard back and then I moved from Cobb County so now I have to submit a new request from my current county. I really want to read it!

  9. Arleigh, I am so glad you read it! You are going to have to submit a new request asap. It is well worth it and I can say it has Nell in a even funnier light. You will love it.


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