“Thus have I given you a summary account of my life, from the Non-Age to the Meridian of my days. If there be any expressions either scurrilous or obscene, my onely design was to make Vice appear as she is, foul, ugly, and deformed: and I hope, he that hath sense will grow wiser by the folly that is presented him; as Drunkards are often cured by the beastliness of others that are so. The subject would not permit to be serious, neither would it have been suitable to our merry age, being generally of Tully’s minde, when he said, Lectionem fine ulla delectatione negligo: He hated reading where no pleasure dwelt.”
And so do I, Tully, and so do I…
Hindsight being what it is, I can now see clearly enough that I would have been much better off knuckling down to The English Rogue in the first place, rather than finding excuses to push it further along in the chronobibliography, so that I ended up dealing with some of its obvious descendents first. This grand-daddy of all English rogue’s biographies is easily three times the length of most of its imitators; and in a genre where a little goes a very long way, reading The English Rogue has been something like setting out for a stroll up Mt Wycheproof and finding myself confronted by the Matterhorn instead.
No offence to Mt Wycheproof intended.
All in all, I find it profoundly depressing to reflect that this was probably the most successful and popular work of its time. Its original publisher, Henry Marsh, reissued it several times between its original appearance in 1665* and his death in 1666. The rights then fell to Marsh’s former partner, Francis Kirkman, who not only followed suit, but tried desperately – and vainly – to persuade Richard Head to write a sequel. Furthermore, this was one of the very first English works, possibly the first, to be widely translated and distributed across Europe, where it achieved an equal success; and while the picaresque tale from which the rogue’s biography evolved was already an established genre in France and Spain in particular, the influence of The English Rogue in what would become the Netherlands (I never know what to call that territory at this time!) is clear enough from the subsequent wave of similar publications appearing in Dutch—some of which, as we have seen, ended up being turned into mock-English works.
(*Of course, at its real first appearance some months earlier, The English Rogue was denied a publication licence on the grounds that it was “too much smutty”. Copies of the original manuscript were, it seems, in circulation anyway; but the book achieved its real success after Head reworked it and resubmitted it. Given what survives, I can only suppose that he reduced the detail of the various sexual encounters described; he certainly doesn’t seem to have reduced their frequency.)
The details of Richard Head’s life are shadowy, and there is a definite tendency on the part of biographers to take the early sections of The English Rogue as straight autobiography—as their author probably intended them to be taken, not reckoning on the consequences. Genuine biographies were very popular at the time, and the writers of fiction soon learned to imply that the events they were describing were based upon real people and events. The English Rogue is told in the first person, with the apparent name of its protagonist, Meriton Latroon, mentioned nowhere in the text beyond a faux-preface attached to the first edition; the namelessness of the teller of the tale would have helped to fuse his identity with that of his author. However, as has been mentioned previously, this ploy backfired on Richard Head when readers of his book took him at his word, and concluded him to be just the same sort of scoundrel as his alter-ego.
The English Rogue being what it is, a synopsis is largely pointless. The text is divided into phases according to the particular type of criminal enterprise in which Latroon is involved at a given time. In this respect, it is worth considering the boundary between the picaresque tale and the rogue’s biography—and as far as I can see, the division between these closely related styles of fiction is that in the picaresque tale, the central character tends to be the victim of fate, however criminal his (or, occasionally, her) actions become of necessity after that; whereas in the rogue’s biography, its all a matter of choice and inclination.
The opening phase of The English Rogue is perhaps its most inherently interesting, as the child Latroon and his family, living in Ireland, get caught up in the 1641 Catholic uprising. Latroon’s father and infant brother are killed, while he and his mother are helped to escape back to England by a loyal servant. They spend some years drifting about, Latroon’s mother professing whatever religion is necessary to draw financial aid from the local minister and his flock, while her son gives hints of the glories that are to come via acts of animal cruelty (and we know what modern psychologists would have to say about that) and an alarmingly precocious sexuality. In time, Latroon is packed off to school where his criminal career starts in earnest with a course of theft and extortion—accompanied, of course, by that great signifier of this school of fiction, the commission of acts of grotesque revenge against anyone who has, or who is perceived to have, in any way injured him:
“That he, going about to correct me for this unlucky and mischievous fact, was by me shown a very shitten trick, which put him into a stinking condition, for having made myself laxative on purpose I squirted into his face upon the first lash given. That being upon boys’ backs, ready to be whipped, I had often bit holes in their ears. That another time sirreverencing in a paper, and running to the window with it, which looked out into the yard, my aged mistress looking up to see who opened the casement, I had like to have thrown it into her mouth; however for a time deprived her of what little sight she had left. That another time I had watched some lusty young girls, that used in summer nights about twelve o’clock to wash themselves in a small brook near adjacent, and that I had concealed myself behind a bush, and when they were stripped, took away their clothes, making them dance home after me stark naked to the view of their sweethearts whom I had planted in a place appointed for that purpose, having given them before notice of my design.”
Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. And can I just point out that this thing is nearly 300 pages long??
In our previous examinations of Richard Head’s work, we discovered that he is well-known in academic circles as a plagiarist, and long seems to have been so. George Saintsbury, writing in 1913, points out that while Head certainly stole ideas and content from other works for The English Rogue, he had a tendency to follow the conventions of, and steal from, works that were popular decades earlier, with the result that his writing often had an odd anachronistic feel. We saw a concrete example of this in The Floating Island, which was identified as being plagiarised from a work published in 1623, and barely altered by the thief.
Another such “throwback” happens here, after Latroon eventually runs away from both his school and his mother and is taken in by a band of gypsies, where he is taught criminality as a career rather than just a hobby. While describing his new life, Latroon appends to his text a dictionary of thieves’ cant, which runs for several pages, and which George Saintsbury suggests was drawn from a series of publications about the criminal milieu that were popular in the 1620s and 1630s. Here, however, we can’t really condemn Richard Head without acknowledging his possible influence upon a much later writer. As you might recall, in Rookwood, published in 1834, William Harrison Ainsworth also provided an extensive translation of thieves’ cant for his readers, one which subsequent writers have, only too clearly, plundered for their own purposes. Confronted now by Richard Head’s own urban dictionary, I can’t help wondering whether Ainsworth, too, wasn’t guilty of a little pilfering…
Anyway, Latroon becomes a professional beggar and thief, usually successfully, sometimes attracting retribution, until a passing merchant takes a fancy to him, “Being extraordinarily pleased with the form of my face and body [and] liking well both my speech and understanding.” On this basis, the merchant takes Latroon into his employ—more fool he. Latroon soon falls into company with a band of apprentices who make it their business, literally their business, to defraud their masters—although the profits made are generally wasted in drinking, gambling and whoring. Meanwhile, Latroon has been sleeping with the maidservant (as well as drinking, gambling and whoring), and she gets pregnant. Knowing that doing the right thing would both be expensive and damage him in his employers’ eyes, Latroon comes up with an alternative:
“Well, I bethought myself how to be rid both of cow and calf. I told her I would get together what money I could, and so marry her, upon condition she would be willing to travel with me whither I went, which I knew was her only desire. I informed her of my intention to go for Virginia… She assented to all I propounded, relying herself solely on me to dispose of her as I pleased. To palliate my design, I went with her to Gravesend… Being aboard, I suddenly seemed to have forgot something ashore; having well laid my plot upon the basis of a good sum of money I had distributed among the seamen, with a considerable present to the master, and telling my Lindabrides I would return to her instantly, I got into the boat, and immediately after, the ship weighed anchor, and quickly was under sail…”
We should pause here upon this momentous occasion: this is the single point in his entire career when Latroon admits to feeling bad about something he’s done…although it doesn’t stop him seducing and robbing the next woman he sees…who he meets on the dock. And in fact, later on it actually inspires him, as he embarks upon a dizzying orgy of seduction, impregnation, and enforced emigration.
Its attitude to women is one of the more perversely interesting things about The English Rogue, which, while it is certainly an extreme example, is by no means alone at this time in the opinions it expresses. Put simply, if men are bad, women are worse—perhaps because while men have a choice in the matter, women are just made that way, their whole lives being built about their insatiable sexual desire, and their behaviour utterly without conscience or restraint as they seek to satisfy it.
And by the way, gentlemen: if you can’t get into a woman’s, any woman’s, drawers after no more than ten minutes’ trying, well, you aren’t really a man. All you have to do is get your hand between her legs, and the battle will be over. Although at the same time, you’d best be careful: women are just naturally carriers of venereal disease, from which men are in great danger…poor things.
While having to listen to Latroon as he sits in judgement on women generally is rather sickening, I have to admit I’m both bewildered and fascinated by the abrupt evolution of society’s vision of the female sex. How on earth, and in a reasonably short space of years, could we have gone from “woman as uncontrollable sexual demon” to “woman as sexless”!?
At the same time, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that, as a woman, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Later on, Latroon hears a friend’s account of his pursuit of a married woman, who turns out to be virtuous and true to her husband—and so outraged is this individual at having his advances rebuffed, he revenges himself on the woman by destroying her marriage, Iago-like, with forged love letters.
Anyway— From mercantile fraud Latroon graduates to professional thievery, and from there to forgery and confidence tricks, and finally to highway robbery. (I’m skipping over about 150 pages here. No, no, don’t bother to thank me!) I may say here that the stretch concerning the defrauding of merchants gave me my only moment of genuine amusement while reading this book, in spite of its subtitle’s insistence on Latroon’s “wittiness”—probably because it’s a rare moment where Richard Head is simply speaking in his own voice:
“If I discover the fraud of any particular person, as long as I name him not, I do him no wrong; but if I detect by what deceitful and sinister means he worketh upon the infirmity of the youth of a green-witted gallant, it may serve for an use of instruction. In the most famous Universities there are some dunces resident, that by disgracing themselves, disgrace also their fellow students. In the most virtuous Courts there will be some parasites. So in the most goodly and glorious city under Heaven’s canopy, there are some asps lurking, that sting the reputation of their brethren by their poisonous and corrupt dealings. There are knaves in all trades but book selling.”
His career as a highwayman Latroon practices for a considerable time, both as a solitary marauder and as a member of various gangs. The most interesting phase of this enterprise is when Latroon himself is attacked on the road, and ends up battling an adversary who is at length overcome and found to have a great secret:
“Then did I come to his breeches (which I laid open) my curious search omitted not any place wherein I might suspect the concealment of moneys. At last proffering to remove his shirt from between his legs, he suddenly cried out (and strove to lay his hand there, but could not) ‘I beseech you, sir, be civil,’ said he. I imagining that some notable treasure lay there obscured, I pulled up his shirt (alias smock) and found myself not much mistaken…”
Latroon hastily apologises for his roughness and “rude dealings”, asserting – get this – the “greatness of love and respect I have for your sex.” The “highwayman” subsequently introduces Latroon to two friends of hers who have likewise donned men’s clothing and taken to the road rather than submit to a life of marriage and domesticity. For a time Latroon joins forces with these sisters in crime, but although the partnership is profitable, he finally has to separate himself from them—because he just can’t keep up with their sexual demands…
Hereabouts we reach the most tiresome part of The English Rogue, wherein every other rogue that Latroon encounters insists on telling him their life-story, with every criminal enterprise spelled out in detail. Subsequently, Latroon himself, supposedly as evidence of his “reformation” (we’ll get to it), provides an equally lengthy guide to how the average punter can recognise when he’s in the company of rogues, and what he should do to keep himself safe. As any number of critics have demonstrated, much of this content is lifted from popular jest-books and pamphlets released over the preceding few decades; and however edifying these accounts may be in small doses, the reader of The English Rogue (as least these days) can only cry out in exhausted gratitude when the forces of law and order finally, finally, catch up with Our Hero and cart him off to Newgate, from whence the gallows beckon.
You know—I’m not generally an exponent of the death penalty, but in this guy’s case I would have made an exception. Alas, that’s the problem with first-person biographies: while they can end at Tyburn, miraculous escapes are far more the norm. So it is here, when for no earthly reason we can conjure Latroon’s sentence is commuted to seven years’ (!!) transportation. First, however, we have to sit through the rather nauseating spectacle of his repentence and discovery of religion; this it is that provokes his helpful guide to avoiding the criminal element.
And with this next phase of Latroon’s career we get a rather glorious blunder on the part of his author, who apparently forgot that he gave his anti-hero the same same birthdate as himself, 1637:
“The ship that was to transport me lay at Woolwich, about the latter end of Aug. 1650…”
Ironically enough, Latroon’s destination is Virginia—and just think of all the women (and children) who’d be there to meet him! But alas once more for those of us who would rather enjoy seeing Latroon undergoing hard labour—or being beaten to death by his discarded mistresses—we are thwarted again here, as he manages to survive not one but two shipwrecks. He finally ends up in Spain, and becomes the comrade of a Spanish merchant, who he agrees to accompany to “the Indies”. They have not been long at sea before their ship is attacked by three Turkish galleys; Latroon, one of the very few survivors, is sold into slavery. Now that’s more like it!
Sadly, however, even this doesn’t last: Latroon is passed from master to master—allowing him, who now professes Christianity, to throw ugly slurs at first the Muslims, then the Jews—and finally ends up owned by a Greek, “that in show was a Mahometan, but cordially a Christian”, despite the fact that he does things like owning slaves. The Greek and his possessions embark for the East Indies, but have gotten no further than southern India when they are yet again attacked by the Turks, from whom Latroon yet again excapes.
From here, The English Rogue turns from rogue’s biography to travelogue—another extremely popular form of literature and one where a writer could make quite an impression, as long as he didn’t have too much regard for the facts. As we saw in the early days of this blog, many and varied were the literary hoaxes practised on the reading public in the second half of the 17th century, fake accounts of travel, or descriptions of non-existent lands, being perhaps the most popular form. Richard Head dabbled openly in this brand of writing, with his pamphlets The Western Wonder and O-Brazile.
Perhaps the single most notorious example of the genre, however, is The Travels Of Sir John Mandeville, which was first—well, not published, but circulated in the 1370s. This often openly fantastical work was immensely successful and widely believed, in spite of its extravagance, and continued to be read well into the 17th century. And apparently one of those who did read it was Richard Head, since (as has been demonstrated in a paper published by Charles Moseley, who translated and edited a 1983 edition of the Travels) the last section of The English Rogue is a cut-down, plagiarised version of portions of it.
With a group of companions, Latroon spends time travelling around what we take to be territories in Africa and India, describing to the reader some of the more outré customs of the locals, such as cannibalism and suttee—the latter explained as a means of dissuading women from murdering their husbands, Which they were frequently guilty of, by reason of their extreme lechery and insatiate venery—shaking his head disapprovingly over their religious practices, and dwelling upon their sexual practices…as well as indulging in them. Like the protagonist of The Isle Of Pines, Latroon goes out of his way her to tell us how nauseating her finds the thought of having sex with a woman who isn’t white; and also like George Pine, he shuts his eyes, grits his teeth, and does it anyway.
Latroon’s wanderings take him from India to Zeyloon (Ceylon, Sri Lanka), where we get an account of the worshippers of Jagannath being crushed under temple cars; from there to Siam (Thailand), and onwards again to Do-Cerne (Mauritius) and Bantam in Indonesia. On the personal front, Latroon progresses from dallying with the natives, to castrating and murdering a man who tries to sodomise him (while he’s dallying with a native), to elaborately defrauding a Chinese merchant – an act that sees most of his companions end up the victims of a revenge killing:
“Whereupon I was strictly examined; but for all this sifting, I would not let drop anything of a confession that should convict me of guilt; but with lifting up of hands and eyes to Heaven, I utterly denied that e’er I saw this man, or ever had any dealing with him… I had now forgot what promises and vows I made to Heaven, when in Newgate, and sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn, what a serious, pious, and honest life I would lead, if I escaped that eminent danger…”
You don’t say.
But we’re nearly in the home stretch, folks, because after all this wandering and his narrow escape from the Chinese merchant’s vengeance, Latroon decides to settle down, in company with an Indian woman whom he marries—or rather, “marries”, since he’s been down that road two or three times before—after a severe struggle with himself:
“She from the first shewed me as much kindness as could be expected from that lump of Barbarism; and I could discern her inclinations in the same manner as a man may from beasts, when they are prone to generation, but yet it went against my stomach to yield to her motions. However, she continued her love to me… Gold and jewels she had in great quantity, with an house richly furnished after the Indian fashion. For this consideration I persuaded myself to marry her; and with several arguments alleged, I gained so much conquest over myself that I could kiss her without disgorging myself…”
Oh, Latroon, you romantic devil!
And having found a woman who can and will keep him in the style he is convinced he deserves, Our Hero settles back to reflect upon his life and closes with an extensive piece of moralising that very nearly made me disgorge myself. As for writing down his life, well, that was done with the very best of intentions, and above all in the most delicate language, as we have seen:
“As the daylight is purest, so I have endeavoured to make my slender wit appear terse and spruce, without the fulsomeness of wanton language. If I have in any place transgressed the bounds of modesty by loose expressions, you need not fear to be offended with their unsavoury breath, for I have perfumed it: but if it should chance to stink, it is only to drive you from my former inclination and conversation…
“If any loose word have dropped from the mind’s best interpreter, my pen, I would have the Reader to pass it over regardless, and not like a toad, gather up the venom of a garden; or like a goldfinder, make it his business to dive in stench and excrements…”