Lives of the English Rakes by Fergus Linnane

When skirts fell down and maypoles went up
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Above all, the book tells the story of the attempts by the aristocracy over the years to resist the takeover of middle-class morality. Rakery is a revolt against Puritanism and parliamentarians, it is the spirit of the Cavalier in opposition to the Roundhead, it is the spirit of eating, drinking and being merry today and not waiting until tomorrow. In fact, we may say that, in rakery, what we see is the occasional resurfacing of a medieval approach to life, a hearty, knockabout fatalism, almost Oriental, as opposed to the pleasure-hating creed of earnest self-denial that came later.

I was tempted throughout to make a judgement on whether or not a particular rake was a good one or a bad one. The "idle rogue" John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, for example, as well as a serial shagger, was a very fine poet and clearly excellent company. His rakism seemed to be motivated by a sort of nihilism, a sense of the futility and meaningless of life. "After death, nothing is," he wrote. Then there was John Wilkes, a politician of genius, an accomplished poet and a brilliant journalist who was also well loved by the man in the street.

Other rakes, however, were merely venal, disgraceful exploiters of men and women. One fascinating character in the book is "Old Q", William Douglas, the Earl of March and Duke of Queensbury, who died in 1810 at 85. Far from being possessed of a poetic sensibility, he was only interested in servicing his considerable sex drive and spending money, and indeed his greed (although not his promiscuity) was attacked by contemporary poets. Both Robert Burns, himself no friend to conventional morals, and the admittedly priggish Wordsworth, criticised him for cutting down an ancient wood in Scotland in order to sell the timber. For this act of vandalism Wordsworth called him "Degenerate Douglas!" and "unworthy Lord" while Burns called him a "reptile" in a "ducal crown".

The debt-ridden gourmand and bed-hopper George IV was also attacked by contemporary poets. Charles Lamb was moved to write about the then Prince Regent's corpulence, calling him the "Prince of Whales". And Leigh Hunt called him: "A libertine over head and ears, a despiser of domestic ties, the companion of gamblers and demireps, a man who has juts closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of authority." This comment earned Hunt two years in jail.

It is hard to see many redeeming qualities in the rather sad figure of Bertie, Edward VII, but he was a popular monarch: a quarter of a million people filed past his coffin at Westminster Palace. Perhaps this was simply due to the fact that he wasn't Victoria. Worst of all, though, was Colonel Francis Charteris, nicknamed the "rape-master general" who really was breathtakingly evil, a blackmailer, usurer and card cheat as well as a serial rapist without a scrap of compassion for his many victims.

Rakism at the top levels of society seems to happen as a reaction to a previously restrictive regime. After a tightening of the belts, the nation wants to let it all hang out. The Restoration of Charles in 1660 followed 11 years of Puritanism, during which time Merry England had seen its theatres, brothels and bear-pits closed down, music and dancing banned, and even an attempt to cancel Christmas. Charles opened the theatres and let the maypoles go back up. He was known as the "merry monarch" and the poet Andrew Marvell called his gang the "joviall crew". It was a similar story with Bertie, Edward VII. During the Edwardian era there was a noticeable relaxing of morals after the stern seriousness of the Victorian age.

Now for a rake to be a rake he must find female accomplices, and Lives of the English Rakes is also good on the lives of the London actresses, courtesans, prostitutes, hotel owners, bohemians, aristocratic adulterers and good-time girls who hung around with the rakes in search of fun and money. In the case of Edward VII, his mistresses were certainly more impressive characters than he was. There was Lillie Langtree, whom the artist John Everett Millais called "the most beautiful woman on earth" and whom Oscar Wilde praised for "her charm, her with and her mind". There was the "shameless" Sarah Bernhardt, and society beauty Daisy Warwick and the voluptuous Alice Keppel. The affair with Keppel was public knowledge: one story says that Mrs Keppel climbed into a cab and said "King's Cross", to which the cabbie replied: "Is he? Oh dear."

In the court of Charles II there was the redoubtable cockney wit Nell Gwynn, pregnant at 19 by Charles, and the beauty Lady Castlemaine, who had scores of lovers besides the King. To be the lover of a rake was not a bad career option for women who would have felt suffocated by the domestic life.

Lives of the English Rakes is great fun and a racy read, as you would expect from a former Fleet Street journalist. The cover, sadly, seems to have emerged from the Department of the Bleedin' Obvious in book jacket design: it shows a detail from Hogarth's A Rake's Progress with the title written in faux-quill script - YAWN! This quaint historicising of the issue may be our only criticism: why also does the book stop in 1910? It might have been fun to bring the account up to the present day and include, for example, the Keeler affair and the late rake Alan Clarke. Surely rakery - or "good" rakery, at least - should not be consigned to history as an amusing tale but recognised as a serious and ongoing artistic, moral and political atttitude.