Recently, historical fiction has been enjoying a boom in popularity. An increasing number of readers seem to relish the bones of bygone fact fleshed out with imagined happenings to bring the past off the page and back to life. Susan Cooper-Bridgewater’s Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue – Lord Rochester in Chains of Quicksilver is another example of this bestselling genre. Here, Cooper-Bridgewater has as her subject John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, a courtier, poet, and general lovable scoundrel.
Of Ink, Wit and Intrigue details the life of Wilmot from his birth in 1647, through his attendance of Oxford University at the age of twelve, and onwards across Europe before embarking upon life at the court of King Charles II. The book is written as though it is the diary of the man himself. And, whilst, this ensures the reader feels a certain affinity with Wilmot, the narrative does lack almost any kind of emotional insight. The decision to focus on description of events rather than personal elements makes it a little difficult to fully grasp Wilmot’s personality. Obviously, the author couldn’t possibly have a full understanding of the true character of Wilmot, but historical fiction allows for supposition and it would have been perhaps preferable for Cooper-Bridgewater to loosen the reigns slightly.
That said, when it comes to the actual proceedings in the book, it is very hard to know where fact ends and fiction begins. It is to the author’s credit that only a reader already well-versed in Wilmot’s biography would know whether the accounts of exploits such as his kidnapping of his future wife on her way home from the theatre are truth or not. Just the knowledge that some of the outlandish episodes are historically accurate makes it clear that the second Earl of Rochester certainly was a man of great wit and intrigue. And with connections ranging from the orange sellers in the street to the King of England himself, these extracts from Wilmot’s “diaries” provide an insight into 17th century life that traverses the classes, and does so with a familiarity that won’t be found in history books. This far-reaching cast of characters does have a downside though. With an abundance of earls and lords, ladies and mistresses, even the glossary of characters at the back of the book doesn’t quite manage to untangle the confusing web - I counted at least four different Elizabeths.
Susan Cooper-Bridgewater’s embodiment of John Wilmot certainly is an interesting read. Though confusing at times, and lacking in a fully accessible image of the man, it is full of amusing anecdotes and insights. And with Wilmot’s own poetry interspersed among its chapters, the book also familiarises a new set of readers with the literary work of the second Earl of Rochester.