John wilmot, Earl of Rochester
was born in Ditchley, Oxforshire, the son of a Puritan mother and a Royalist father. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Rochester was rewarded with a royal pension of £500 a year for his father’s loyalty to Charles I. From 1662 to 1664 he traveled on the Continent with is tutor, the Scottish physician Sir Andrew Balfour. In 1665, after a failed attempt to abduct the heiress, Elizabeth Malet, he was appointed a commander in the navy and distinguished himself in battle. In 1667 he married Elizabeth Malet and began to write a series of love lyrics, ostensibly addressed to her. Within a few years Rochester’s reckless personality involved him in a series of escapades. Though his poetry and satires were much admired and he became a leading literary figure, he gradually sank into illness and depression. On his deathbed he experienced a religious conversion and repented his lifelong excesses.
was brought up by Sir William Davenant, a friend of the earl of Rochester. When she first met the young earl in 1675 she had just started her acting career. To win a bet, Rochester undertook her training for the stage and promoted her in fashionable society, in return for which she became his mistress from 1675 to 1677. Her first success was as Leonora in Aphra Behn’s Abdelazar (July 1676), after which she played a number of leading roles including Hellena in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, Emillia in D’Urfey’s A Fond Husband, and Philisides in The Constant Nymph. In December 1677 she bore Rochester a daughter, Elizabeth Clarke, whom he took out of her care, possibly in the summer of 1678, and who died when she was 12 or 13 years old. Elizabeth Barry went on to have a prolonged and brilliant career, establishing her reputation as England’s leading actress in her performance of Monimia in Otway’s The Orphan. She died at age 55.
So much mit and beauty as you have should think of nothing less than doing miracles, and there cannot be a greater than to continue to love me. Affecting everything is mean, as loving pleasure and being fond where you find merit; but to pick out the wildest and most fantastical odd man alive, and to place your kindness there, is an act so brave and daring as will show the greatness of your spirit and distinguish you in love, as you are in all things else, from womankind. Whether I have made a good argument for myself I leave you to judge, and beg you to believe me whenever I tell you what Mrs. B. is, since I give you so sincere an account of her humblest servant. Remember the hour of a strict account, when both hearts are to be open and we obliged to speak freely, as you ordered it yesterday (for so I must ever call the day I saw you last, since all time between that and the next visit is no part of my life, or at least like a long fit of the falling sickness wherein I am dead to all joy and happiness). Here’s a damned impertinent fool bolted in that hinders me from ending my letter. The plague of **** take him and any man or woman alive that take my thoughts off of you. But in the evening I will see you and be happy, in spite of all the fools in the world.
Your humble servant
The story of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, and the actress Elizabeth Barry has similarities to the famous play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (adapted in 1956 by the lyricist Alan Lerner and the composer Frederick Loewe into the famous musical My Fair Lady). It started with a bet made in 1674. The love story that followed was outrageous and touching. Rochester wrote the letter extracted here in 1675 with characteristic humor, originality, and solemnity, echoing the language of the Anglican communion service in the phrase,
“when both hearts are to be open.”
Rochester, poet at the court of England’s Charles II, was as quoted here,
“the wildest and most fantastical odd man alive.”
He also had an irrepressible eye for the women, including the beautiful heiress, Elizabeth Malet.
Seven years before his romance with Barry, the 18 year old Rochester abducted the heiress, Malet, snatching her from a coach from under the nose of her aged guardian, Lord Hawley. Rochester was pursued, arrested, and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London, before begging and receiving the king’s forgiveness. Shortly after her rescue, Elizabeth rejected other more wealthy suitors and unexpectedly married Rochester on January 29, 1667. During the years that followed, the young earl lived a double life: at Adderbury, his country house in Oxfordshire, he enjoyed the forgiveness of his wife; at court he pursued a free-wheeling, scandalous life.
Elizabeth Barry was not an obvious choice for Rochester. Her stage début in 1675 was distinctly unimpressive, and according to contemporary opinion she was in fact quite ugly. On wit wrote of her that she was,
“The finest woman in the world upon the stage and the ugliest woman oft on’t.”
In spite of these seeming disadvantages, Rochester made a bet with friends that he could make her into a successful actress in six months. She apparently had a good voice, and Rochester put her through intensive training that taught her to understand and interpret the feelings of the characters she played. He won his bet; Elizabeth was very successfully launched on the road to both wealth and fame. For the two years that their love affair lasted, Rochester, who was genuinely infatuated with his mistress–some contemporaries said that she was the love of his life–wrote her many adoring letters, of which the following extract is typical:
“…seeing you is as neccessary to my life as breathing, so that I must see you or be yours no more, for that’s the image I have of dying.”
Winning the bet, however, carried its own risk: the loss of exclusivity. The theatre was a place of low morality, and Elizabeth Barry’s prominence meant that she received the advances of many other men. reveling in her popularity, she swiftly developed a reputation as a
“mercenary prostituting dame.”
An untitled lyric, written in his own handwriting in 1676 or 1677, was probably addressed to Elizabeth:
“Leave this gaudy gilded stage
From custom more than use frequented,
Where fools of either sex and age
Crowd to see themselves presented.”
In 1677 Elizabeth gave birth to his child, a daughter who they also called Elizabeth. The affair ended soon after this, and the following year, for reasons not known, Rochester took his baby daughter out of Barry’s care. He also remembered her in his will. After their separation, Elizabeth Barry’s fame made it possible for her to pursue an independent life, and her one-time sponsor seemed reconciled:
“…’tis impossible for me to curse you, but give me leave to pity myself, which is more than ever you will do for me.”
Rochester returned to his family, and they spent a peaceful few years together, away from the court after his many years of over-indulgence. In the end husband and wife died within a year of each other.
During his last months, with his health in decline, Rochester turned his thoughts to serious matters. He developed an interest in philosophy and religion, discussing both with his friend Gilbert Burnet, royal chaplain and later Bishop of Salisbury. Rochester, at age 33, was a physical wreck. He had, in the words of the famous 18th century critic Dr. Samuel Johnson,
“Blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness.
At the end, however, Rochester made an unexpected conversion to religion under the guidance of Burnet, who stayed at his bedside. He had lived a life ruled by the emotions: passion, jealousy, devotion, and forgiveness. After he died, his contemporary, the playwright Aphra Behn, wrote of him:
“He was but lent this duller World t’improve
In all the charms of Poetry and Love;
Both were his gift, which freely he bestow’d.
And like a God, dealt to the wond’ring Crowd.”
Elizabeth Barry outlived Rochester by 33 years and became the most celebrated actress of the day.?