A new biography gets inside the colorful, exuberant life of England's greatest diarist.
Sunday, December 15, 2002; Page BW15
The Unequalled Self
By Claire Tomalin
Knopf. 470 pp. $30
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) kept his celebrated diary for only nine years, from 1660-1669, starting when he was 26. Written in shorthand – with the racier episodes related in a potpourri of languages ("mi mano was sobra her pectus, and so did hazer with grand delight") – the book wasn't transcribed into readable English until the 19th century and wasn't commonly available in its unbowdlerized entirety until 1970. Despite a history of puritanical editing, the diary quickly established a reputation as one of those naughty literary classics, like Chaucer's "Miller's Tale," Defoe's Moll Flanders and Wycherly's "The Country Wife."
Pepys, though married to the strong-willed, tempestuous, half-French Elizabeth, herself a beauty, does in fact regularly interfere with pretty serving girls, ladies' maids, tavern wenches, mainly by squeezing their breasts and pinching their bottoms. But there's nothing particularly erotic or even bawdy about his accounts of 17th-century sexual harassment.
He records a tumble with Betty Lane with the same strict accuracy as he does his pleasure in a production of "Hamlet" or the purchase of a keg of oysters. In every sense, Pepys is very much a man of accounts, in his work as a secretary to the Naval Board, in his close attention to his household funds and in his depiction of his own life.
Little wonder, then, that his days, no matter how full and varied, always seem to balance: A variant on "Up betimes and to the office" opens most of the entries, just as some form of the famous "And so to bed" closes them. Everything in between is noted in precise factual sentences: Even when printed as regularized English, the prose sounds like shorthand. Pepys may sometimes confess that he's sad or out of sorts, but he doesn't go maundering on and on about it, or larding his reflections with Latin quotations, as Montaigne or Sir Thomas Browne might. Instead he's a pointillist, quickly daubing in the elements of his daily life as a young careerist on the make in Restoration England.
Though watchful of the world around him and especially attentive to the miens of the men who might advance his career, Pepys also possesses an irrepressible gusto for life itself, and he works his hedonism hard: music-making, theater-going, flirting, drinking, paying social calls, reading, conversing and disputing with his wife. They're all scribbled down in his quicksilver jottings, a nonstop barrage of data, like individual frames of film that the reader joins together to achieve a cinematic sense of life zipping along at fast-forward.
No page of Pepys ever seems mediated or deliberative – he's essentially a "facts, just the facts" kind of writer. But even as the rapid notation and his run-on style ("And . . . and . . .") give his diary vivacity, they also sometimes frustrate: One hungers for expansiveness, quotation, detail, all those matters at which discursive prose normally excels. He keeps you wanting just a bit more than he delivers – one of the secrets, perhaps, of his perennial fascination. Just what, for example, were those erotic tricks by which Barbara Villiers, a k a Mrs. Palmer, a k a Lady Castlemaine, ensnared the king?
Not that Pepys, that ardent playgoer, didn't possess a flair for the dramatic or an eye for a well-put-together scene. The at first halting, uncertain progress of the Great Fire is underscored by his own tentativeness and confusion, succeeded by a burst of frenetic activity. He closely observes the understated drama of the royal barges landing at Whitehall, the King stepping ashore with the Queen and Lady Castlemaine watching and everybody pretending to ignore one another. Best of all may be the series of diary entries that recounts the aftermath of Pepys's involvement with Deb, his wife's maid. As Claire Tomalin says in her fine and engrossing biography, "I know of no other account of marital rage and jealousy to match this one." It opens with a mournful flourish in the middle of Pepys's write-up for Oct. 25, 1668:
"And at night W. Batelier comes and sups with us; and after supper, to have my head combed by Deb, which occasioned the greatest sorrow to me that ever I knew in this world; for my wife, coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats. . . . I wast at a wonderful loss upon it, and the girl also; and I endeavoured to put it off; but my wife was struck mute and grew angry, and as her voice came to her, grew quite out of order; and I do say little, but to bed; and my wife said little also, but could not sleep all night; but about 2 in the morning waked me and cried."
During the next weeks, Pepys's life becomes so hellish that he grows afraid to go home at night. Oddly, though, in spite of all the accusations and denials and general despair, the errant husband and his wronged wife have sex "more times since this falling-out then in I believe twelve months before – and with more pleasure to her then I think in all the time of our marriage before." Such are the strange byways of passion.
Because Pepys's diary spotlights his young manhood so brilliantly, it is easy to forget about his impoverished youth or the last thirty-odd years of his public life. Though Tomalin admires the diarist as an almost inadvertent genius ("the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet"), she frames his self-portrait within the context of the times and his entire public career. To explain how a tailor's son rose to power as, roughly, a cabinet minister in charge of naval affairs, she must describe the Civil War, Cromwell, the machinations to restore Charles II and the impact of the plague. She details the system of patronage, bribes and quid pro quo that kept the Restoration's merry world spinning along. She shows how the older Pepys survived the Popish Plot – in which he was accused of being a Catholic rebel – and she discusses his interactions with the great men of the period: kings, aristocrats such as his patron the Earl of Sandwich, industrial magnates and eminent scholars (Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Hans Sloane). Not least, Tomalin reminds us of Pepys's physical stoicism: He endured painful and delicate surgery for kidney stones at 25, with a fair possibility of death, and worried for years that he was going blind. Because reading and writing eventually caused him such ocular distress, he abandoned his diary.
Not only an able biographer in the lively English style of Richard Holmes, Michael Holroyd and Victoria Glendinning, Claire Tomalin also possesses a particularly graceful and pleasing diction, a proper sense of measure (by no means is her subject a wholly admirable, let alone a heroic, figure) and a piquant willingness to express her own views: We are left in no doubt as to how reprehensible she finds Pepys's sophomoric groping and pursuit of young girls, nor how tough-minded his wife and his later "companion" Mary Skinner must have been to put up with him.
In itself highly agreeable reading, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self should also lead one to either start on or return to this most irresistible, this most addictive, of English diaries. Expect a good time:
"It is strange what weather we have had all this winter; no cold at all, but the ways are dusty and the flyes fly up and down, and the rosebushes are full of leaves; such a time of the year as never was known in this world before here. This day, many more of the fifth monarchy men were hanged." ‹
Michael Dirda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.
FROM "SAMUEL PEPYS"
Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1666)
University of Delaware
Hinchingbrooke Home Page
Project Gutenberg – indice
A biographer's dream
Rachel Redford on Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
Sunday November 10, 2002
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
Read by Jill Balcon
Abridged 6hr 30min
Pepys witnessed the execution of Charles I; the sufferings of a plague-stricken London in 1665, during which time he quadrupled his own fortune; Londoners fleeing their houses consumed by the Great Fire; the 'floating abattoirs' on board the ships in the Medway disaster during the Dutch Wars in 1667. He survived a horrific operation to remove a bladder stone the size of a tennis ball - and he was the greatest naval administrator in history. A biographer's dream.
With Pepys's gimlet eye for detail, the Diary dominates here: he records the poor performance in Parliament of the restored king as he read with lowered eyes, fiddling with his codpiece; the pigeons leaving their City roosts only when their wings singed during the Great Fire.
In his encoded recording of successes - and failures - with servant girls and women, he is not afraid to reveal his less admirable side. The jealous and angry clashes with his wife, whom he had married when she was barely 15, are spectacular. When fear for his eyes forced Pepys to give up the Diary, it was a form of death for him and, after 1669, the times inevitably seem less bright.
Jill Balcon's voice is exceptionally pleasing. She obviously enjoyed reading this fine biography and at the end the listener can sense the regret of both reader and writer that is all over.
Rachel Redford and Kim Bunce were winners in the category of Best Media Coverage at last month's Spoken Word Awards organised by the Spoken Word Publishers' Association
Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self, by Claire Tomalin
Diana Souhami assesses this leading light of Restoration England
05 October 2002
This boook is a great achievement and a huge pleasure. The "unequalled self" of the subtitle is from an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson commending the "unflinching sincerity" of self-disclosure in Pepys's diary. Pepys watched himself behaving well or badly and, for 10 years from 1660, wrote the details down. Claire Tomalin, in her turn, applies unflinching scrutiny to the whole of his life.
Her research is meticulous. For example, in her acknowledgments she thanks the Real Tennis Club of Cambridge for giving her the diameter (2in) of the real as opposed to modern tennis ball, which Pepys's kidney stone (removed in May 1658) equalled. Her description of his surgical process is awful in its vividness. Palliatives of oil of earthworms, cinnamon and chicory make matters worse. Such detail illuminates the book. Pepys recorded an incident in April 1664 when he chanced on his boss's wife, Lady Sandwich, as she sat on a chamber pot. She blushed, Pepys talked hastily. With Tomalin we revisit the scene as modern tourists. She invites us to be startled, amused and quickly to move on. She is keen to reveal everything there is to know about the inner man and his outer world.
Hers is an engaging juxtaposition of author and subject: a bookish, respectable 21st-century woman and a short, pop-eyed, 17th-century fellow in a periwig, who all too often had his hand up the skirts of a teenage maid, or was quarrelling with colleagues or wife. There are centuries of time to separate them. Shared humanity is their common ground.
Claire Tomalin, we are sure, does not spit black phlegm, go to executions, piss in a chamber pot or beat servants with a broom. But she is very loving to Pepys; not uxorial, more a devoted bodyguard. She is gutted that an early fictional work of his has been destroyed, and sympathises with his bladder problems. His energy "burns off blame, making it surprisingly hard to disapprove of him".
Her admiration for him is as a diarist of genius. This "secret masterpiece" places him, in her view, alongside Milton, Bunyan, Dickens and Proust. She describes him as "the most ordinary and extraordinary writer we will ever meet". Part of her intention is to direct her reader to his work.
Pepys began the diary on 1 January 1660, with the entry that his wife, Elizabeth, was not pregnant. He was 26, she was 19, and they had been married five years. It troubled him that they remained childless, even after attempts to combat infertility by drinking sage tea and changing the level of the bed so their feet were higher than their heads. Their marriage was at all times problematic. Both had tempers that flared to violent rows. She had some sort of vaginal boils; he, recurring gall stones. She suspected him of infecting her. His last entry was on 31 May 1669. In the preceding weeks his wife had found him with her maid, his "hand in her cunny". She threatened to shame him, waved red-hot fire tongs at him, kept him awake raging at him. He stopped the diary out of fear for his eyesight, and said that abandoning it was a form of death.
It had been his haven. He ruled the margins in red, wrote in ink with a quill pen, spaced the lines evenly, devised a shorthand for his sexual goings-on with tavern girls and chambermaids. His themes were his career, money, domestic experience, books, theatre, music, sex.
He lived through the confusion of England as a republic and the restoration of the monarchy. He rose from being a poor clerk to a "thriving condition" as a naval administrator. He covered events of huge impact. In the plague year of 1665 he proved immune to infected fleas, chronicled the death of Londoners, work, family quarrels, and his fondling of Mrs Bagwell and Sarah, the girl at the Swan Inn. In the days of the Great Fire, he buried his wine and Parmesan cheese, took his bags of gold, accounts and diary to a house in Bethnal Green, saw looting and a singed cat rescued from a chimney, and 400 streets reduced to smoking ruins.
He was with the fleet of ships that brought Charles II back, triumphant, from the Hague. He procured the "rich barge" to bring the king ashore and the musicians to fanfare him.
Pepys's diary is history and comedy, particular in its detail, universal in its range. Tomalin talks of the "bursting, disorganized, uncontrollable quality of his experience". Her achievement is to organise, control and give it context, without tarnishing its shine. All her excellent research is lit by Pepys's self-revelations. Her biography develops into a vivid chronicle of contemporary history seen through the all too human preoccupations of this ordinary, and extraordinary, man.
Diana Souhami's 'Selkirk's Island' won the Whitbread Biography Award.
Life beyond the diary
How can you write a biography of Samuel Pepys? Claire Tomalin lets the world's most famous diarist speak for himself
Sunday September 29, 2002
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
by Claire Tomalin
Viking £20, pp499
With the exception of Shakespeare, it's difficult to image a terrain more treacherous for the biographer than Samuel Pepys, who has achieved a status as the Ur-practitioner of diary-writing, a man for all occasions. The Pepys of the diaries needs no further drawing out - part Blackadder cameo, all high-octane innuendo; part Everyman - the ordinary put back into history. Writing in 1909, shortly after the birth of Pepysiana as we know it, Percy Lubbock suggested that 'his name expresses in our day, rightly or wrongly, as marked a conjunction of qualities as the name of Falstaff or Juan'.
At the other end of the century, a later biographer, Richard Ollard, recorded much the same popular impression of Pepys: 'The randy bewigged figure whose name, as a symbol of a slightly risque conviviality, has been appropriated by this wine-shipper or that restaurant. An irresistible air of bedroom farce clings to him.'
The energy of Pepys's diary adds to the sense of high-speed costume drama, starring a man rarely bored, who dashes from his work as an administrator for the Navy to the theatre, or to dancing lessons, or to the pub, where he drinks 'a great Quantity of Sack', and falls into a ditch on the way home.
He is a man of emphatic opinions, calling A Midsummer Night's Dream 'the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life' and Twelfth Night 'silly'. His daily life unravels in a succession of quickfire sketches: 'She was a very drudging, working wench; only, she would be drunk'; 'I up with Mrs Pierce to Knipp, who was in bed; and we waked her and there I handled her breasts and did baiser la and sing a song.'
The major dilemma for his biographer lies in the seductive candour of the Pepys we find in the diary, combined with the comparative lack of information about Pepys from other sources. Pepys's glorious set pieces - the Great Fire of London, or the return of Charles II to England in 1660 - can be corroborated and contrasted; his versions of events in his own life cannot be.
Pepys, apart from the diary, is a shadowy figure, as relatively unknowable on either side of the nine-year period covered by the diaries as any other seventeenth-century official. As well, the iconic Pepys, synecdochal representative of all that is self-revelation, has been fashioned by a unique process. It was only in 1825, with the deciphering of his diary from shorthand, that Pepys the diarist was born. His is an unusual case, a man who passed from relative obscurity to hyper-visibility, acquiring a posthumous status as a lead actor in a period of history that knew him as an incidental character.
While the biographer's trade is in revealing the inner self of a public figure, with Pepys we already have Pepys's 'own unequalled self; still that entrancing ego of whom alone he cared to write', as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. Claire Tomalin takes the subtitle to her fascinating biography from Stevenson, and it is less a rhetorical flourish than a statement of her strategy. She proposes that the 'self' of the diary is the best 'self' on offer: 'The diary carries him to the highest point as a hero of an altogether new kind.' Tomalin, importantly, is inclined to believe Pepys's account of himself: 'He allowed himself not a shred of dignity,' she suggests. Accepting the diary as a confession, Tomalin's main enterprise becomes one of explaining and assessing this 'inner Pepys' and displaying him in vivid historical context.
She follows the favoured protocol of past biographers, of thematising Pepys's diary under chapter headings: 'Families', 'Work', 'Jealousy,' 'Death and Plague'. 'Marriage'. She moves serenely through the eclectic frenzy of the diary, supplying an exemplary exercise in mania-management. Everything adds to the sense of order, gently imposed: maps are supplied, a list of principal figures, a family tree. And Tomalin fills in the gaps, starting with the humble origins, the early schooling at St Paul's, the scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge.
This places the Pepys of the beginning of the diary in an interesting light, a young man of 26, with a stall-seat at the Restoration, gained through a lucky family connection to Edward Montagu, later the Earl of Sandwich. 'A great Roundhead when I was a boy', he is now an enthusiast for 'the king... loved of all'. In this volte face, he follows many former Cromwellians, Montagu among them. Yet, as Tomalin writes: 'None of this meant he set aside his sceptical intelligence.' By 1666-7, Pepys is scribbling privately about the 'king who minds his pleasures so much' and his 'sad, vicious, negligent Court'.
Tomalin argues that Pepys's 'gift for comedy makes it easy for us to collude with him'; her reading of the diary is as a sort of saturnalia, 'turning the rigid oughts and ought nots of life upside down'. But her collusion is never blindly accepting and there are Pepysian poses she deflates. She is dismissive of Pepys's attempts at Restoration decadence: 'Pepys's own adventures, so frankly recorded, have given him a great reputation with posterity, but the truth is he had not much sexual confidence,' she writes.
Pepys's indiscretions pale into insignificance when compared with the libertine excesses of the Restoration court, where young blades 'out-swilled Bacchus', and 'swived more whores more ways than Sodom's walls/ E'er knew', as Rochester probably wrote. In comparison, Pepys looks like a latent Puritan struggling to chase the pack, furtively reading smutty French novels, and hunting out his own belles filles with mixed emotions, of 'fear, sweaty panic and relief'.
When Pepys moves offstage with his decision to stop writing the diary in 1669, Tomalin's account becomes less vivid, despite her scrupulous research. She moves cogently through the diary-less years, towards a useful history of the first deciphering of the diary. But the diary is the lifeblood of the book; by accepting this from the start, Tomalin dismisses the complexities that dogged earlier biographers. At times, her annotated renarration of the diaries leaves the reader missing the ebullient prose of the original. Tomalin might have allowed Pepys's voice to appear, unmediated, more often, without losing her authority as guide.
But hers is one solution to the difficulties of writing a life of Pepys and she develops it persuasively. It produces a biography which is notable for its generosity to the Pepysian fan. Her conclusion returns the focus to the Pepys of popular lore: 'Both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet.'
December 3, 2002
Live Life in the Moment, and Relish Every Detail
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
SAMUEL PEPYS The Unequaled Self
By Claire Tomalin
Illustrated. 470 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.
Samuel Pepys, you could say, was the first modern man.
More than three centuries ago, when his contemporaries in England were keeping journals about their religious devotions, political beliefs or travels, Pepys was anatomizing himself in his Diaries with unblinking, ribald candor. Centuries before confessional autobiographies and television talk shows laid bare the modern psyche, this diligent civil servant, who eventually would become one of Britain's most eminent naval administrators, was dissecting his own pleasure-loving nature, laying bare his lusts, his ambitions, his avarice and the ups and downs of his tempestuous marriage, even as he was chronicling the extraordinary public events (from the fallout of the Restoration to the ravages of the plague and the Great Fire of 1666) that were remaking 17th-century London.
Less programmatic than Rousseau, more irreverent than Montaigne, Pepys created a self on paper that was part Falstaff, part Pickwick, part Warren Beatty in "Shampoo." By turns incorrigible and endearing, practical and romantic, shameless and courageous, Pepys possessed an endless curiosity about himself, convinced that his own personality, as Claire Tomalin writes in her exemplary new biography, was "not merely a legitimate but a valuable and glorious subject for exploration."
In "Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self," Ms. Tomalin, the author of a masterly biography of Jane Austen, has written the best work on Pepys since Robert Louis Stevenson's classic essay, published in 1881. Her writing is as supple and lively as Pepys's own, and by fleshing out the backdrop to his Diary writings, she has created the perfect bookend to his own rollicking self-portrait.
Like many readers, she is clearly charmed by Pepys, occasionally appalled by his shameless catting about (bedding his wife's maids and a host of other women, while professing to be disgusted by the sexual profligacy of others), but in the end won over by his candor and refusal to rationalize his behavior. The Pepys who emerges from this book, not surprisingly, is very much the Pepys of the Diary, though in this case the bold outlines of his character are subtly shaded in with additional details and colors.
In Ms. Tomalin's portrait he is a "lecher and liar," as he himself realized, but also "a skeptic and a humanist": a hypocrite and climber, but also a practical man of the world, capable of enormous bravery and pluck (living with chronic pain from kidney stones and undergoing a horrifying operation without anesthesia to remove one) and a dogged survivor, who somehow managed to surf decades of political upheaval.
"Pepys's life was a drama from start to end," Ms. Tomalin writes. "It had its ordeals by sickness, passion, fire, bereavement, imprisonment, false accusation and revolution, and it was played out against the most disturbed years in England's history, a period as intellectually thrilling as it was dangerous and bloody." Pepys had too much energy, however, "to let tragedy be the mode of his life for long," and "he was too much of an individualist, with a sense of his own destiny to pursue." Pepys's youthful bouts of illness left him with a ferocious ability to live in the present moment: to grab what happiness and pleasure he could, even as plague and political cacophony raged around him.
As Ms. Tomalin observes: "More than once he says in the course of the Diary that it is right to enjoy the world while you can, because there will be times when you will not be able to. His authentic self is always so taken up with the immediate that he is quite unconcerned with glorifying his part in defending his country, and much more interested in conveying the texture and character of the world in which he is perpetually meeting new and exciting people and hearing and doing surprising things."
Ms. Tomalin does a nimble job of narrating the bildungsroman that was Pepys's life: his childhood as the son of a tailor and wash maid; his passionate pursuit of and marriage to a 14-year-old girl named Elizabeth, who would become his sparring partner and muse; his rapid rise, thanks to talent and lucky patronage, from lowly clerk to intimate of the powerful; and his evolution from youthful republican to diligent servant of the monarchy.
She gives us novelistic portraits of Pepys's lovers and patrons and friends, conjuring up the noisy, populous world he inhabited in 17th-century London. And she briskly and authoritatively sketches in the history of these tumultuous times, times in which being on the wrong side, in politics or religion, could mean arrest and execution. The paradox of his career, Ms. Tomalin notes, was that Pepys, a parliamentarian by temperament, "found himself trapped on the wrong side, professionally bound to kings whose ambition was doomed and patronage poisoned."
In 1669, as his eye problems worsened, Pepys put aside his Diary, leaving readers of his masterpiece suddenly stranded, with only parliamentary records, naval papers and occasional letters and notes to chart the rest of his life. Ms. Tomalin deftly fills in those remaining years, connecting the emotional dots while supplying the reader with the same compelling mix of the private and public, the momentous and trivial that animated Pepys's masterpiece.
The Unequalled Self.
By Claire Tomalin.
Illustrated. 470 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $30.
By CHARLES McGRATH
Who remembers Samuel Pepys anymore? Of all the dead white males who used to throng the anthologies and the English lit syllabus, Pepys (1633-1703) is now among the deadest, relegated to footnotes and to trivia questions about the correct pronunciation of his name. (It rhymes with cheeps.) In today's literary climate, there are lots of reasons for benching Pepys -- he was a political chameleon, nasty to the servants, and a serial groper and philanderer -- but the most compelling may be that he's such an anomaly. He comes out of nowhere -- writing only for himself, in a form of his own invention -- and he doesn't lead anywhere either. By the time his work was discovered, a century later, he was a curiosity but not an ''influence.'' Yet the decline in Pepys's reputation only makes Claire Tomalin's engaging new biography all the more remarkable: she not only brings him back to vibrant life, but makes a powerful case that he's more central, more ''relevant,'' than we ever imagined.
Pepys had two great accomplishments. He was the creator, in effect, of the modern British Navy, and to this day naval historians so revere him that they regard the other Pepys, the literary one, as an embarrassment and a distraction. He was also a compulsive diarist. Starting on New Year's Day in 1660 (when he was 26), he faithfully wrote down, in a shorthand code, a day-by-day account of everything he saw, felt or heard for the next nine years. The completed diary fills six 282-page notebooks; it's the longest, most personal account we have of life in the 17th century, and also an invaluable eyewitness account of some of the most seismic events in English history: the Restoration (Pepys was in the boat that went to fetch Charles II from the Netherlands), the plague of 1665, the Great Fire the following year and the Dutch raids the year after that. Bracketing the diary are the years of the Civil War and the Protectorate (Pepys as a schoolboy watched the king's execution) and, later, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, during which Pepys, who remained a staunch Jacobite, was briefly imprisoned on suspicion of treason. Few literary figures have lived through more interesting, or more treacherous, times.
Pepys, as Tomalin points out, was hardly the first person to write a diary, but most earlier diaries were written for a specific purpose -- usually religious (as an aid to spiritual bookkeeping) or to record travel and sightseeing. It's not really clear what prompted Pepys to begin his diary, unless it was just a vague intimation that he was living on the eve of great events, but the diary quickly became its own purpose and justification. Pepys kept track of everything: his assignations, his finances, his business deals, his conversations with the king (and erotic dreams about the queen), his hangovers, his bowel movements and ejaculations, his fears and hopes and imaginings, his frequent tiffs with his wife.
Borrowing a phrase from Robert Louis Stevenson (who read the diary after it was decoded and published in close to a full version in 1879), Tomalin subtitles her book ''The Unequalled Self,'' and suggests that over the course of the diary we can watch the evolution of something like a modern version of selfhood. This is certainly true in the sense that Pepys held nothing back, but he's also the least reflective and self-conscious diarist imaginable. We get none of the soul-searching, the self-examination -- the sense of a personality under construction -- that turns up, say, in Boswell's journals, just a generation or two later. There's something almost childlike in Pepys's essential self-delight and in his undifferentiated avidity for experience.
Nor is Pepys a particularly great prose stylist, certainly not by 17th-century standards, which prized cleverness and ornament. The diary contains numerous set pieces -- such as the descriptions of the coronation of Charles II (where Pepys got so drunk he passed out and woke up in his own ''spew''), of the fire and the plague -- which he clearly took some time and trouble over. But there are great stretches that are written in, well, diaryese: up early and to work . . . away to My Lord So-and-So's . . . dine with Sir Such-and-Such . . . conversation with Mr. Somebody or other . . . was mighty merry . . . and so on, until at the end of a long day he closes with his trademark phrase ''and so to bed.'' Except for Tomalin and the Pepys professionals, it's safe to say, few people recently have read all six volumes straight through. (If you want to try, they're on the Internet, as part of the Gutenberg project; there is also a convenient abridgment, edited by Robert Latham.) For a long time, the sexy bits were expurgated, and most of them turn out to have been written in a kind of code-within-the-code, a pidgin of French, Latin and Spanish that today reads like the fevered jottings of a horny and nerdy high schooler. (Pepys was raised as a Puritan, we need to remember.) Here he is on Nov. 16, 1667, talking about riding with a servant girl in a coach, and how after great effort he succeeded in making her ''tener mi cosa in her mano while mi mano was sobra su pectus, and so did hazer with great delight.'' Elsewhere he is always trying to ''toca'' someone's ''jupes'' or thighs, or else attempting to ''poner'' his ''main'' someplace it doesn't belong, as on the awful day when his wife found him feeling up her maid. ''I was at a wonderful loss upon it,'' Pepys wrote, ''and the girl also.''
But the seeming artlessness, and even occasional crudeness, of the diaries turn out to be their greatest strength. Pepys was not a brilliant thinker, or even an especially good shaper of experience, but he was a superb noticer, and picked up on things that others overlooked -- the king's dog, for example, relieving himself in the bottom of the Royal Barge; or the pigeons, during the Great Fire, who were ''loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned their wings, and fell down.'' In short, he was a great reporter, at a time when reporting as we know it hadn't really been invented, and his writing, direct and unmediated, has the virtue of instant credibility. Reading Pepys we intuitively sense that we're getting the genuine version, a true feeling for what life really was like back then.
Tomalin's last book was a biography of Jane Austen, about whom we know next to nothing. Here she has the opposite problem -- Pepys's is one of the best documented lives ever -- and she has solved it by adopting, for the most part, a thematic rather than a chronological approach, with individual chapters devoted to his marriage, his work, his relationship with the king, his career in Parliament, his membership in the Royal Society and so on. This results in occasional repetition, and requires a couple of awkward flashbacks or leaps forward; some of Tomalin's summarizing, moreover, comes at the expense of actual quotation. You don't always hear as much of Pepys himself as you would like, especially on two of his favorite subjects, music and the theater.
On the other hand, Tomalin is a brilliant summarist, with a Pepys-like gift of her own for evoking the sights, sounds and smells of 17th-century London, and she has performed an invaluable service by so patiently and carefully sifting through mounds of documentation in order to bring us back the good stuff. She has restored to us the whole Pepys, not just the young man who wrote the diary, and we can now follow the full trajectory of his life, including the many political scrapes the shrewd older bureaucrat had to dodge. (He had made a lifelong enemy of the Earl of Shaftesbury, for example, who never tired of trying to smear him.) Tomalin also reveals that after the death of his wife, Pepys carried on a 33-year affair with a younger woman named Mary Skinner; though semi-secret, the relationship proved in many ways more satisfying and less fraught than his marriage. (Surprisingly, for someone who slept around so much, Pepys never fathered any children, possibly because of a horrific kidney-stone operation he underwent as a young man.)
In Tomalin's telling, Pepys turns out to be the first modern success story: a poor but talented and ambitious young man who, by dint of luck, connections and hard work, rises to the top of his profession. He becomes, in Tom Wolfe's phrase, a ''Master of the Universe'' -and takes both pride and immense and infectious delight in all the perks that come with that exalted state: the money, the apartment, the clothes, the meals, the girlfriends, the rich and important connections.
Pepys's father was a barely literate tailor, his mother a laundress, and it's doubtful that he would have got on at all in life were it not for the intervention of a wealthy cousin, Edward Montagu (later the Earl of Sandwich), who saw to it that he got an education and eventually a job as clerk in Cromwell's government. Montagu was an ardent Puritan and republican, one of Cromwell's right-hand advisers, but as the Rump Parliament fell apart after Cromwell's death, he secretly and expeditiously began negotiations with the exiled Prince Charles. When the moment was right, he changed his stripes and became a royalist. Most of England eagerly did the same, including Montagu's 26-year-old protege; it was a moment, Tomalin suggests, comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war.
Montagu was given a peerage and appointed Master of the King's Wardrobe; he got Pepys an appointment with the Navy Board. This was the single luckiest stroke of Pepys's life, and it was the making of him. The navy at that time was the biggest industry and the biggest employer in all of England, and Pepys proved to be brilliant at his job, the first naval administrator to keep accurate and useful records and to codify standards and procedures. He was, even in today's terms, a workaholic; by 17th-century standards he was a marvel of energy and efficiency. Most of his peers worked to live; Pepys lived to work, and the diary is full of accounts of early rising and long hours, of getting up in the middle of the night to rush back to the office. The job came with a house, a good salary and, just as important, an opportunity not for bribes, exactly (though he accepted those too), but for ''considerations.'' Pepys was shrewd with a pound, and soon became well off.
Some of his money he spent on himself, on clothes and wigs. (He was one of the first Englishmen to adopt the French custom of wearing a peruke, which explains why in his surviving portraits he always has on an enormous and weighty-looking hairpiece.) He poured even more money into home improvements; his house, on Seething Lane, was usually filled with joiners, plasterers, painters, upholsterers and floor-layers, all of whose comings and goings are faithfully noted in the diary. As he got on in the world, Pepys took up dancing, and even hired a private teacher (who flirted so shamelessly with Mrs. Pepys that it drove him mad with jealously). He gave lavish dinner parties and was a regular at court, where the king joked with him and called him by name. In his spare time he called on his reliable old flames Betty Lane and Mrs. Bagwell, the wife of a ship's carpenter, and also tried his luck with any serving girl or housemaid who came within range.
And all the while he was writing it down. Most of us, at one time or another, have imagined ourselves as actors in the drama (or sitcom) of our own lives. Pepys had the nerve to cast himself as the central player in an epic -- the story not only of his life but of his times -- and it's a story that fascinated him every bit as much as it fascinates us. He abandoned the diary when he was 36 because he was worried about his eyesight. He twice made a stab at starting up again, but these later diaries have none of the energy of the original. ''Something essential was missing,'' Tomalin writes, ''some grit that had caused him to produce his pearl.'' Or it may be that by then he had arrived, and there was nothing left to prove. Being one of the most important men in London wasn't just a thrilling part to play -- it was who he had become.
Charles McGrath is the editor of the Book Review.
A Seventeenth-century Modern
Samuel Pepys did not, in fact, tell us everything
by Philip Hensher
by Claire Tomalin
edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews
University of California Press
October 24, 1662, a man sat down to dinner in his house in London with his
wife. They were in a very good mood; that morning the man had found it hard
to get out of bed to go to work, and the two of them had indulged in a good
long lecherous dawdle between the sheets, dozing, pawing, and lazily
romping. It was a Friday, and our Londoner turned up at the office late and
shouted at his subordinates about their bookkeeping. By midafternoon he was
putting himself outside a gigantic dinner; it was an odd sort of dish he was
eating, a stew of tripe with mustard, but he was enjoying it a great deal.
Maybe it wasn't really all that delicious, but it was exactly the same dish
that he had recently eaten at a very grand dinner party. So they ate the
Commentators on Samuel Pepys always ask why he suddenly abandoned his Diary
in 1669, but the much bigger question is this: Why did he begin it? Why, for
nearly ten years, did he record, in rich detail, the circumstances and the
events of his life? On the surface there is an explanation. The Diary
begins at a time in English history that was obviously of great moment:
Cromwell's Commonwealth was collapsing and the exiled King Charles II was
preparing to return. Pepys was close to the center of events, and in a position
to observe the players in an extraordinary drama; in the years to follow he
became a figure of considerable power and authority. To that extent his
contemporaries would have understood exactly why he should set down a record of
It is important to remember, however, that the seventeenth and, indeed, the eighteenth century knew absolutely nothing of Pepys's Diary. Written in shorthand, none of which was deciphered until the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was not published in full until after World War II. ( , edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, is the best edition now available.) The Diary would in fact almost certainly have baffled Pepys's contemporaries; there is no precedent and no parallel for what Pepys actually did. Others did something superficially similar; among works that are still read, perhaps the closest are the court and . Like Pepys, these men found themselves in a position to observe powerful figures intimately; also like Pepys, both were driven by an urge to expose the failures and weaknesses they saw in princes. But there the resemblance stops. Saint-Simon and Hervey automatically referred to themselves in the third person, and it wouldn't have occurred to either of them to tell us what he had for dinner. They wrote decades after Pepys, but they could never have understood what Pepys was doing.
Pepys didn't explain his purpose, and perhaps he, too, found his urge inexplicable. If, like Saint-Simon's detailed journal of the last years of Louis XIV's court and the Regency, the Diary is in part a romance of public life, the great bulk of it, and its greatest appeal, is on the tripe-and-mustard level. The oddest fact about the Diary becomes apparent when one sets it not against other journals of historical record but against journals that explore the self, whether in this period or subsequently: Pepys wrote a great deal about himself, as many of his contemporaries wrote about themselves, privately or publicly; but his considerations and dramatizations of his consciousness and behavior have almost no spiritual or mystical aspect. Even , which is very engaging, never escapes from the temptation to moralize. Religious questions, one feels, became urgent for Pepys only when they took on a political or a social significance—as perhaps they did when his enemies in the House of Commons started calling him a practicing Roman Catholic.
Pepys was pretty well the only writer at this time who demonstrated that there was such a thing as a secular, worldly way to interrogate an individual life and an individual character; the difference between the self-analysis in Pepys and that in, say, the of Sir Thomas Browne is huge. To come to Pepys after laboriously assembling an appreciation for Browne is to have the sensation of coming out of a ramshackle and dusty provincial museum into a brilliantly sunlit and crowded street.
From the archives:
A dazzling portrait of James Boswell as a literary artist. By Miranda Seymour
biggest oddity in Pepys, and the real core of his undying fascination, is
something one doesn't pretend to be able to explain. He wrote endlessly about
himself, about his life, about his house and his friends and his ambitions. He
examined himself, and he reported exactly what he had done each day, even if he
had only eaten some tripe or seen a play. (The reader should know that in
exploring that particular day in October of 1662 I took a passage completely at
random. Pepys was interested in everything, and everything in the Diary
is interesting.) One concludes that he was deeply absorbed by his own life and
character, but the Diary is the opposite of solipsistic. Set it next to
To our eyes, London in 1660 would seem a little city. Its western edge was marked by Goring House, where Buckingham Palace is now; building stopped short of modern-day Oxford Street to the north, and London had yet to expand substantially south of the Thames. The Tower of London was the easternmost point. The society of this little city had a kind of unity and, despite a rigid caste system, an intimacy; royalty and the upper aristocracy were conspicuous presences. The minute and insignificant details, the relaxed and unimpressed way in which he unflinchingly recorded the foibles and mannerisms and the wanderings in and out of the greatest of men, somehow combine to give an accurate impression of the rhythms and scale of Pepys's London. Every other great evocation of London is for some reason misleading; it is startling to look at early maps of the metropolis after reading Pope, or Blake, or De Quincey, or even Dickens, and see how quickly the town gave way to fields. Pepys's London, on the other hand, seems exactly the size it really was, and from that one can draw the correct conclusion that here we have a writer who can be trusted.
If the Diary is from one point of view an absolutely faithful account of a long-lost society, it is nevertheless not antiquarian in style or appeal. Repeatedly, Pepys strikes us as a great realist novelist, born centuries too early. In part this is down to the subject of the Diary—the story of a smart young man clambering up in society by means of his wits and charm. It is not at all a seventeenth-century subject but one for Thackeray or Balzac. Pepys's commitment to recording the totality of experience would not really be matched until Ulysses and the . A chronology could be drawn up of the moments when the English novel entered successive rooms in the ordinary bourgeois house: in the nineteenth century it ventured out of the drawing room into the kitchen, and then into the bedroom, and at the beginning of the twentieth century into the bathroom and the privy. It was a slow process of annexation. Pepys, long before, had gone everywhere, and had told us everything. Virginia Woolf wrote once in her diary that "if the British spoke openly about W.C's, & copulation, then they might be stirred by universal emotions." Yes, indeed, the reader of Pepys may conclude.
A passion for details, however insignificant or undignified, is what seems to take Pepys out of his time. There are many celebrated instances of this curious quality in him, and it is worth saying that in most cases the observations would have seemed grossly indecorous to his contemporaries. One of the Diary's most magnificent set pieces is the return of Charles II. Pepys was in one of the boats in the flotilla. "I went, and Mr. Mansell and one of the King's footmen, with a dog that the King loved (which shit in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are)." The incontinent dog is a brilliantly improper presence in an account of a great historical occasion, and exactly the sort of thing Gogol would use to great effect. The interesting thing about this passage, which occurs very early in the Diary, is that one can see a certain loss of nerve; Pepys was torn between his instincts and the literary dictates of the time. No one else would even have mentioned the dog, but Pepys drew a not very convincing moral from it in a nod to propriety. That nervousness quickly disappears before the wonderful confidence of the Diary, which lies in Pepys's certainty that his observations were diverting on their own terms.
The two sections of the Diary that readers always remember are the accounts of the Great Plague, in 1665, and the Great Fire, in 1666. The passages proceed by the novelist's technique of amassing tiny, exact observations; and like the greatest nineteenth-century novelists, Pepys always gives the sense that he could go on looking after most people would have preferred to close their eyes. Sometimes it could be Conrad writing—as when, for instance, Pepys walked through London at the height of the plague and wrote, "But now, how few people I see, and those walking like people that had taken leave of the world." The section on the Great Fire is a justly celebrated tour de force, and again, in its extraordinary and unprecedented technique, leaps the centuries into something that trembles on the verge of the high Dickensian manner. There is no distance at all between the following famous observation and the description of the Gordon Riots in : , or , and the difference is immediately apparent. Pepys seems to have been focused primarily on the world, the external circumstances of his society, and in the Diary the "I" strikes us as a character like any other. Just as in Gulliver's Travels, or Defoe, or Dickens, or Proust, no special privilege or indulgence is permitted to the wielder of the first person singular; we feel that Pepys watched himself quite neutrally.
Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stair by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.
seventeenth-century perspective, everything here is a deplorable breach of
literary manners: the undignified interest in inessentials, the failure to
assert any kind of moral about people's scrabbling after their possessions, and
the eccentric, unpolished syntax ("till they were some of them burned, their
wings, and fell down"). Not until Dickens would anyone else exploit the
expressive potential of syntax like this, or demonstrate that the reader won't
really feel the human horror of a catastrophe until he has been shown how the
poor pathetic pigeons behaved.
It is worth stressing Pepys's astonishing modernity, since he has somehow acquired the reputation of a cozy read of mild, olde worlde charm. His brisk, vivid, clean style often surprises first-time readers: "But Lord, what a Hypocrite-like face she made to tell it me," he groaned about some boring anecdote Lady Batten told him. If that is not a modern sentence, it is certainly the sentence of a writer with a modern ambition—to write as men talk. His story, too, seems a modern one, and his preoccupations—lechery, food, money, and music—are much the same as ours; his technique and his way with a really funny story resemble Gogol's much more than any of his contemporaries'. Even more modern than Gogol is the story of Pepys's getting so drunk after the coronation that he was sick all over himself, which is exactly like listening to an account of some undergraduate debauchery.
Of course, it will not do to treat Pepys entirely as our contemporary, and sometimes one realizes with a jolt that he was not very much like us at all. On June 21, 1662, he apparently spent much of the day whipping his houseboy for drinking the whey of the milk, and signed off by complaining how tired his arm was when he went to bed. He was alarmingly attracted by public hangings. His interests in general seem so worldly that it is always astonishing when one realizes that Pepys, like everyone else in his day, took religion very seriously. And his life was lived in circumstances so different from ours that the stylistic modernity of the Diary is rather misleading; in particular, there is no conceivable way that any man of Pepys's time could have the same sanguine view of his health that a man today has. All his life Pepys celebrated the anniversary of a successful operation to remove a "stone" from his bowels. That he recorded the intimate details of his illnesses and his wife's appalling genital sores is evidence not of an obsession with illness but simply of the way people thought at a time when medicine had not advanced greatly beyond Aristotle.
The sense of someone like us, of a universal quality, in Pepys is really only half the story. The Diary is not just an intimate, observant record of an individual life but a grand political drama told by a significant player. Of great writers in English, Pepys is, after Disraeli and John Buchan, among the most important in this sense. His was a brilliant career: he reformed and rationalized the navy, and established the basis for the formidable fighting force of the next 250 years. There are telling glimpses of Pepys's ruthless professionalism in the Diary—his labors over accounting procedures, his contempt for any sign of slackness or incompetence whether in his junior clerks, in his superiors, or in the King (the running commentary on the King's embarrassing inability to rise to any formal occasion is on its own worth the price of admission). He must have been terrifying; when a subordinate started whining about staying late at the office, Pepys had no compunction in resorting to threats and blackmail, saying mildly how surprised he was, having always heard great things about the gentleman's assiduity when he was working for the late regicides.
Although Pepys's contemporaries would not have been surprised to learn that so important and influential a man had recorded the events of his life, they would have found it odd that what posterity values in his journal is trivial things. In that sense, perhaps, they would have been better readers of him than we are; they would have valued much in the Diary that we pass over.
Some writers' lives are so closely bound to a classic account that any modern biographer starts at a disadvantage. Biographers of Johnson, of Rousseau, of Berlioz, have to live with an impossible competitor. Pepys's life falls very firmly into this category, even though the Diary covers only nine years of it. If anyone can overcome this great difficulty, it is Claire Tomalin. For some reason Englishwomen are unrivaled in the field; Hilary Spurling, Diana Souhami, Victoria Glendinning, and many others may look at the genre and be reminded of what Quintilian said about the Romans and satire: "Satura quidem tota nostra est."
From the archives:
Lee Siegel reviews biographies of Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin and David Nokes. No more elaborate recommendation is needed than Tomalin's name. In her previous biographies she has set out the lives of some very disparate figures with unfailing patience and an imaginative sympathy that verges on the uncanny; her lives of , , the actress , are all unforgettable, and her last biography, a , was a breathtaking feat. Any life of Austen must be written on terrifyingly slender evidence, like a life of Shakespeare; this one gave readers the dizzying impression of standing behind Austen's desk, observing her at the moment of creation.
Tomalin's Samuel Pepys faces the opposite problem. We know pretty well what Pepys was doing every day from 1660 to 1669, and everything confirms that his account is not just accurate and truthful in almost every respect but guilty of very few omissions. Subsequently, too, Pepys was so prominent a figure that an enormous body of evidence about his life and career survives. All this gives a biographer enough material for a work like Arthur Bryant's three-volume biography from the 1930s—the sort of heart-sinking groaner that might as well begin with the sentence "Call me magisterial." Claire Tomalin's life, on the other hand, is a magnificent triumph. Her research has been not just scrupulously thorough but dazzlingly imaginative.
The single most impressive thing about this fresh, serious book is that after finishing it, one suddenly reflects that at no moment did one ask the question that ought, surely, to hang over any biography of Pepys: "What is this really adding to what the Diary tells us?" It is impossible to believe that a biographer could expect to do anything more than fill in the events of Pepys's life up to 1660 and generally summarize and concur with his account of 1660 to 1669 (which is the part of his life any reader will be most interested in). The later events must be told, but after the death of his wife, Elizabeth, most of what we know about him involves his work, with only occasional tantalizing glimpses of the familiar unbuttoned personality.
The brilliance of Tomalin's previous biographies has lain in their unfailingly tactful and plausible speculations on sometimes very limited evidence. Indeed, one starts to think that what fascinates and tempts her most is gaps and absences—what her subjects have not spoken and will not speak about. The pre- and post-Diary phases of Pepys's life, which obviously require such speculation, are brilliantly believable in this book, particularly when Tomalin feels her way toward an idea of what Pepys's relations were like with his post-1670 companion, Mary Skinner, and draws the outlines of Skinner's character. It was the longest relationship of Pepys's life, but we know almost nothing about it. Tomalin puts together a few scraps of evidence, tentatively and imaginatively explores the implications, and then stops, admitting the impropriety of venturing any further. It is supremely respectful and convincing.
That fascination and expert resourcefulness in dealing with gaps, with the unspoken, with the unrecorded, yields an absolutely stunning stretch when we come to the great challenge for the biographer: the years of the Diary itself. She draws back from narrative and instead supplies a very satisfying blend of biography, literary analysis, and expansion of the ideas, assumptions, and beliefs in the Diary. There is a series of perceptive insights into the way Pepys structured a story; there are isolated explorations of the way Pepys wrote about the King and other individual actors, and returned to themes, such as jealousy, illness, and marriage; there are proper, serious arguments with Pepys's habitual behavior of the sort in which every reader will occasionally indulge. But the most inspired passages in this biography are explorations of absences. In particular, Tomalin is drawn to contemplate the unheard voices of Pepys's women; the letters Elizabeth wrote, which are lost, are held up to us like shining Christmas parcels, never to be opened. In one wonderful chapter the lives of three overlooked women, all named Jane, are assembled from just enough scattered fragments to reconstruct their voices, and to provide what a biographer ought to long for—a new perspective from which to observe and consider the subject's behavior. In a bold, angry flight of the imagination, Tomalin sees exactly what Pepys must have looked like to these shadowy and transient players in the drama of his life. One of them was a clever and confident servant, condemned to a constrained existence; she and another Jane were unwelcome recipients of Pepys's sexual attention. Most readers of the Diary lazily go along with Pepys's version of himself as an amateurish fumbler, always comically frustrated in his attempts at seduction. But in these portraits and in another, that of Betty Michell, Tomalin coldly refuses this cheerful image, and constructs the situation from the woman's point of view. She grimly recounts how Betty Michell helplessly endured Pepys's insistent assaults; she had no alternative if so powerful and influential a man insisted, and both she and her husband must have known that their lives might depend on Pepys's continuing good will. Tomalin has shored up just enough ground on which to stand and look at the man with someone else's eyes. It is a prodigious feat of sympathy, and of clear, cold analysis.
Here, and throughout this biography, we get the exhilarating sense that we were mistaken after all. Pepys did not, in fact, tell us everything, despite appearances. An ordinarily accomplished biographer might aim as high as stripping Pepys of his cozy fireside reputation and showing us a young man on the make, with anxieties and ordinary human worries—and Tomalin does all this extremely well. But it takes an exceptional biographer to go so confidently beyond the apparent totality of daily experience presented in Pepys's Diary.
Journal Of A London Life
In his famous diary, Samuel Pepys observed everything from the Great Fire of 1666 to his own trips to the bathroom
By Matthew Price
Matthew Price is a writer in Brooklyn.
November 10, 2002
SAMUEL PEPYS: The Unequalled Self, by Claire Tomalin. Knopf, 470 pp., $30.
An intimate, candid record of a man and his city, "The Diary of Samuel Pepys" is strikingly modern. When he began scribbling on Jan. 1, 1660, Pepys was setting out into unknown territory. As English biographer Claire Tomalin writes in her engaging new life, "Pepys started off wanting to write something without quite knowing what it was."
There were other diarists, but what distinguishes him are his keen forays onto the terrain of his own personality. The Pepys of the diary was a spectator not only of the crazed hurly-burly of Restoration England, but also of the flawed grandeur of his character. He did not try to hide his imperfections; there were simply too many. Yet far from putting us off him, his flaws make him all the more likable. Rare is the reader who isn't charmed by his playful curiosity, or moved by his searching self-appraisals.
The diary mixes the trivial and the profound, from the great events of the 1660s - the plague of 1665, the great fire of 1666 - to the minute particulars of Pepys' life. "Just about every aspect of his behavior is set out, from his working practices and his professional and moral struggles to his bowel movements and ejaculations," Tomalin notes. (Little made him blush.) His great subject was himself, but the diary is not simply an act of vanity. While Pepys resides firmly at the center, all around him swirl kings and courtiers, barmaids and beggars, clerks and cads. He writes a portrait of an age. One of the great Londoners of all time, his pages teem with London life; how fitting that he lived for several years on Seething Lane.
In Tomalin, Pepys has found an ideal biographer. Judicious and nonjudgmental, she is clearly fond of her subject. In an age of bloated literary biography, her narrative is lean and concise without feeling the least bit skimpy. This is in no small part due to Tomalin's efficient style; her prose has both vividness and economy. Still, any biographer of Pepys has her work cut out for her: The diary covers only 10 years of its author's long life. (He died at 70.) Though Tomalin has made good use of Pepys' voluminous official papers and other sources, her narrative of his later years lacks some of the vibrancy of her account of the 1660s, the decade of the diary.
Pepys was born in 1633, just off Fleet Street, in the heart of bustling London. His father was a tailor; his mother a washerwoman. Though his parents were of humble standing, the Pepys name was actually distinguished. Through family connections, the young Pepys secured a place at a grammar school outside of London, where he stayed for about a year. After returning to London to finish his schooling, Pepys entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1651. The record of these years is somewhat scant: Tomalin has had to guess in a few places. But her command of the complex politics of the era, which profoundly influenced Pepys' fortunes, is impressive.
Pepys grew up during the fraught years of the English Civil War (1642-1651), when the forces of Oliver Cromwell fought against those of Charles I, who was overthrown. The young Pepys was no royalist; he welcomed Cromwell's reign. He had family connections to the new regime: His cousin, Edward Montagu (later Lord Sandwich), was a rising star in Cromwellian circles. After his graduation, Pepys went into service as a private secretary for his cousin, around 1655; that year, he also met and married Elizabeth St. Michel, an Anglo-French girl some seven years his junior. In 1656, he took on a second job as a clerk in the Exchequer.
Young and gainfully employed, he ran with a gang of fellow clerks, whom he dubbed the "old Crew." They caroused in taverns and debated politics in coffee houses. A man of pleasure, Pepys took delight wherever he found it. He also had a keen eye for the ladies, which drove poor Elizabeth into rages. (The diary is, among other things, a pained record of his marital flare-ups, which were frequent.) "He got pleasure from the chase itself, stealing a kiss, touching a ... thigh, getting his hand under a petticoat," Tomalin writes. As a seducer, however, he was often a failure. By Tomalin's account (she does the math), during the diary years, he succeeds with only three or four women - out of some 20.
The year 1660, when Pepys' diary opens, was a watershed not only for England, but for Pepys himself. A new king - Charles II - sat on the throne, and the 27-year-old Pepys moved into a new position as clerk on the Navy Board. Pepys' subsequent success there would be his second claim to fame: A great reformer and brilliant planner, he was the primary architect of the modern British navy. Yet he never took to the sea. He was an organizer, not an adventurer: "The romance of the navy came to him not through wind, water and tides but through papers, contracts and ledgers, rows of figures and dockyards visits."
The 1660s were largely a decade of professional triumph for Pepys. The diary shows a man of enormous industry - he is almost always at work (though he finds a lot of time to lay in bed, too). He was an intimate in the court of the king and an adviser to his brother, the Duke of York. But two public calamities - plague and fire - were a double blow to the city. Pepys' accounts of these two events are justly famous; he was a natural journalist. Amid disaster, Pepys thrived. At the height of the plague, he notes on July 31, 1665, "Thus we end this month ... with the greatest glut of content that I ever had."
During these years, Pepys found himself caught up in many political intrigues. Former Cromwellians were compelled to make their peace with the new king. The political groupings were extremely fluid; allegiances were quickly made, then broken. Pepys was initially able to navigate these currents deftly; but anti-Catholic sentiment - and office politics - would nearly ruin him.
In the early '70s, he took a seat in Parliament, where he was menaced by his great nemesis, the aptly named Lord Shaftesbury, who harried Pepys for his connections to the Catholic Duke of York. In a crushing reversal, his house on Seething Lane, which survived the great fire, burned in 1673. (Thankfully, he was able to rescue the six volumes of the diary.) Pepys lived on until the end of the century, but we lose focus of him somewhat without his great diary, which ends on May 31, 1669.
Any biographer, like all of Pepys' readers, must wish that he had kept on going. Reading of his later years, one cannot help but recall a few of the last, sad words of his diary, for any Pepysian the saddest he ever wrote: "And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journall."
The most famous civil servant ever
Max Hastings reviews Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin
We know more about a government servant of the 17th century than about any other man who ever lived, not excluding Churchill, Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy. We are familiar with Samuel Pepys's bowel movements and emotions, his human relationships and infidelities, the fluctuations of his finances, and the vagaries of his professional fortunes.
The diary which he kept from 1660 to 1669 is an enchanting monument to vanity. Pepys was fascinated by himself. Each night as he wrote, he held a mirror to his own feelings and reactions, as well as to his doings. The diary, as Claire Tomalin puts it, "allows us to experience the world from inside his skin, and for all its huge, Shakespearean cast of characters, it is always a rhapsody on himself at the centre".
Pepys was born in 1633, son of a London tailor who lived off Fleet Street. He might have remained one of countless millions of extras in history but for a chain of accidents. There was just enough money in the family, and brains in this scholarship boy, to enable him to be educated at St Paul's and Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was a cousin of the Montagus, whose principal ornament, Edward, became a successful soldier for Parliament in the Civil War, emerged from it as a rising man, and remained one through the rule of Cromwell and into that of Charles II - with Pepys clerking at his coat tails.
In 1658, against the odds, Pepys survived the unspeakable operation for removal of a stone, which Tomalin describes vividly. The patient was bound, and a probe was inserted through his penis to locate the offending body. An incision was then made, the stone - as big as a tennis ball, in Pepys's case - was grasped with pincers and extracted. The patient, fainting with shock and pain - having suffered the experience without anaesthesia - afterwards endured weeks of suspense, to discover whether infection would kill him.
One theory about medical practice until the 19th century is that patients fared better in the early days of any month, if they were operated upon soon after a surgeon's instruments received their monthly wash. But Pepys was opened on March 26 and lived to celebrate the anniversary of the happy day for ever afterwards - and to record it.
The final miracle about his life was, of course, that his journal survived to be discovered 200 years later, published first in bowdlerised form and finally triumphantly in the 1970s in an unexpurgated edition.
The challenge for a biographer of Pepys is to better the account he has given of himself to history. The early chapters of Tomalin's book are obliged, inevitably, to make frequent play with the words "he must . . . ", to explore the geography and history of the world in which her subject grew up, filling the gaps in known facts. She does this very well, painting a convincing picture of rural Huntingdon, where he spent part of his boyhood with relations, of Civil War England, of 17th-century government clerking.
We know from his own words that Pepys attended, and applauded, Charles I's execution. But no man so joyfully self-indulgent could much have relished the cultural constraints of the Commonwealth. He welcomed the Restoration, the revival of his beloved theatre and of music, even if he deplored the decadence of Charles II and his court.
Thereafter, he rose with his Montagu patron - elevated to Lord Sandwich - and ultimately became Secretary of the Navy. It is impossible to assert that he was a pillar of moral or political courage, but the very banality of his trimming to maintain his career gives it charm. He rose to play a critical role in the development of the Royal Navy by passionate commitment and industry.
Not surprisingly, Tomalin's narrative shifts into much higher gear amid the years of the Diary. But she sets Pepys's experience in perspective with a sure touch, especially in writing of his marriage. I had always been inclined to regard his wife Elizabeth as a tiresome woman. This book persuades me first, that the storms and vacillations of the marriage were no worse than most, and second that Pepys's love for Elizabeth remained unbroken until her early death, even amid the pathos of his love for their servant girl Deb.
One of the most important influences of Pepys upon many of us is to render vivid the fear of God. Any man who lived through the Civil War, the Restoration, the Plague, the Great Fire, the Dutch bombardment of the Medway, the Catholic persecutions and the ministrations of the 17th-century medical profession was granted good and persistent reasons to invoke the mercy of a higher Being.
Even after the Diary ends, a biographer is on good ground, because by 1669 Pepys had become sufficiently a public figure to feature in state documents and in such private ones as Evelyn's diary. The eclipse of the Montagus and the rise of anti-Catholic fever swept Pepys from office, though he defended himself with skill and energy against the unjust charges of his enemies.
One accusation he could not shrug off, however, was that of hypocrisy. Pepys often inveighed against corruption, and indeed could claim credit for introducing to the Navy examinations for officers and a small degree of promotion by merit. But he had made himself a modestly rich man entirely through bribes and presents from Navy suppliers and those eager for advancement. Most notoriously, he enjoyed an affair with poor Mrs Bagwell at the incitement of her husband, an uncommonly cynical naval carpenter.
Tomalin declares, surely rightly, that the Diary is one of the critical texts of the English language. Pepys's genius in examining his own character and experience was matched by his boundless curiosity about science, the arts, and the entire world in which he lived. His reporting of the Great Fire is one of the great set-pieces of historical narrative and of course he played his own part by being the first to carry news of the conflagration to the King.
One suspects that if the Diary had continued, melancholy would have become a dominant theme in Pepys's later years. He suffered many setbacks, frustrations and even persecutions. He enjoyed the long companionship of Mrs Mary Skinner. We do not know why they did not marry. He became President of the Royal Society, and was much beloved by his friends. But he lacked the consolation of children, even if in his younger days he had not wanted them. William III had no use for such a prominent Stuart government servant. Many of his old fiends and colleagues pre-deceased him.
Tomalin tells the tale with all the skill she has shown in her earlier literary biographies. Her book should sit beside the peerless 10-volume edition of the Diary in every house where Pepys is revered. His faults and limitations are those of most of us, which is why the man, as well as his writing, inspires our love.
Max Hastings's new book, 'Editor', will be published next month by Macmillan.
M A G D A L E N E C O L L E G E
C A M B R I D G E
S A M U E L P E P Y S
The most famous diarist of them all
by Robert Latham
The best known of all the graduates of Magdalene is probably Samuel Pepys, who made his name immortal by his diary. He made a unique contribution to our national history by his work as a naval administrator, and he bequeathed to the College its greatest treasure - his library, a unique collection of 3,000 books and manuscripts, still preserved as he left it.
Samuel Pepys was born in Salisbury Court off Fleet Street in London, on 23 February 1633. His father, John, was a tailor who came from a family of good yeomen stock long-settled in Cambridgeshire. Pepys's Elizabethan great grandfather had married well and acquired the manor of Cottenham. Pepys was a boy of ability and, after a short spell during the Civil War at the grammar school in Huntingdon, he was sent to St Paul's School and thence, with a leaving Exhibition, to Magdalene in 1651. Here he was awarded a scholarship and took his degree in 1654. Possibly he meant to become a lawyer, but seeing the execution of King Charles I and the establishment of a republic, another career opened up for him.
Edward Montague, a distant relative, had become a Councillor of State under the Cromwellian Protectorate. He took Pepys into his service as a secretary. Shortly afterwards Pepys acquired a clerkship in the Exchequer. This job gave him a little money, and he married Elizabeth St Michel in 1655. In 1658 he moved to a house in Axe Yard, off King Street, near to the palace of Whitehall.
It was in this house that Pepys started to write his diary, at the age of 27. He was 36 when fear of losing his eyesight forced him to end it. In June 1660 he was appointed Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, a key post in what was probably the most important of all government departments - the royal dockyards.
Pepys's diary is not so much a record of events as a re-creation of them. Not all the passages are as picturesque as the famous set pieces in which he describes Charles II's coronation or the Great Fire of London, but there is no entry which does not, in some degree, display the same power of summoning back to life the events it relates.
Pepys's skill lay in his close observation and total recall of detail. It is the small touches that achieve the effect. Another is the freshness and flexibility of the language. Pepys writes quickly in shorthand and for himself alone. The words, often piled on top of each other without much respect for formal grammar, exactly reflect the impressions of the moment. Yet the most important explanation is, perhaps, that throughout the diary Pepys writes mainly as an observer of people. It is this that makes him the most human and accessible of diarists, and that gives the diary its special quality as a historical record.
Instead of writing a considered narrative, such as would be presented by the historian or biographer or autobiographer, Pepys shows us hundreds of scenes from life - civil servants in committee, MP's in debate, concerts of music, friends on a river outing. Events are jumbled together, sermons with amorous assignations, domestic tiffs with national crises.
The diary's contents are shaped also by another factor - its geographical setting. It is a London diary, with only occasional glimpses of the countryside. Yet as a panorama of the seventeenth-century capital it is incomparable, more comprehensive than Boswell's account of the London a century later because Pepys moved in a wider world. As luck would have it, Pepys wrote in the decade when London suffered two of its great disasters - the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of the following year. His descriptions of both - agonisingly vivid - achieve their effect by being something more than superlative reporting; they are written with compassion. As always with Pepys it is people, not literary effects, that matter.
The rest of Pepys's life after the spring of 1669 - some 34 years - is not recorded in the diary. To some extent it is recorded in history. He was Secretary to the Admiralty in 1673, and in the same year became a Member of Parliament. He commanded the naval organisation during the Dutch War of 1672-74, and was responsible for some important developments after it - a shipbuilding programme of unprecedented dimensions, and the introduction of half-pay for officers which, together with other reforms, laid the basis for a professional naval service for the first time in English history. He was President of the Royal Society from 1684-86.
Most of his leisure he now spent on his library. He intensified his search for books and prints, setting himself a target of 3000 volumes. Pepys and his library clerk devised a great three-volumed catalogue; collated Pepysian copies with those in other collections; adorned volume upon volume with exquisite title pages written calligraphically by assistants; pasted prints into their guard-books; and inserted indexes and lists of contents.
The work was in sight of completion by the time that his health began to deteriorate seriously in 1700, with renewed attacks of the stone. Only a handful of books remained to be bought to complete the scheme. In 1701 he moved to Clapham, where he died two years later, on 26 May 1703, his life's work done.
The library survives at Magdalene - to which it was bequeathed under stipulations that ensure that its contents remain intact and unaltered. It is still housed in the glazed bookcases that Pepys had had made for it by dockyard joiners over the years, and still arranged in the order in which he and his heir had left it. In the first of the bookcases, on the back row of the second shelf, are the volumes of the diary.
Pepys earned his place in history by his work for the navy, but perhaps these diary volumes, and the library containing them, are his most eloquent memorials. They speak, as no other relics can, of the man himself.
This brief monograph was one of the last from the pen of Robert Latham, who died early in 1995. He was a Fellow of Magdalene from 1972 to 1984 and an Honorary Fellow from 1984 to 1995. Few works of twentieth-century British scholarship can have evoked such pleasure as the Robert Latham and William Matthews edition of Samuel Pepys's Diary. Started in 1950, the new edition took more than 30 years to complete. Sir Arthur Bryant described the edition as "complete perfection", and Richard Crossman asserted that "the editors have achieved the impossible".
And so to modernism
Pepys bio celebrates his everyday life
Sunday, December 22, 2002
The Unequalled Self
By Claire Tomalin
Modern man, that peculiarly self-conscious, self-important person, has many celebrated and disputed origins. His birth has been traced in Shakespeare's work and in Rousseau's; you could argue that spiritual modernity began as late as the teachings of Freud or as early as the teachings of Jesus, with his emphasis on individual salvation. But few can dispute that in the annals of European literature, modern man raises his head and bawls in the modest person of Samuel Pepys of London, 17th century civil servant, husband, adulterer and diarist.
In Pepys' journal, private life becomes a stage on which, as Pepys shamelessly testifies, no emotion is too fleeting, no incident too trivial to record. With Pepys the invention of the modern diary takes place before our eyes, signifying something more momentous than all the private journals that preceded it. Now it is Pepys' fumbling quotidian self, uncensored, unimproved, that is the story, both the motive and the plot, not the events that our diarist encounters. Our diarist is the event, and humankind is locked toward a future where anonymity is failure.
In Claire Tomalin's biography, "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self," we are fortunate to have a wonderfully gifted and experienced author to play anti- Pepys and lead us through Pepys' world without undue authorial intrusion. On display throughout this magisterial book are Tomalin's thorough knowledge of her subject and the England he lived in, along with an elegance and concision that few historians could match.
Yet what defies explanation, even for a commentator as canny and well- informed as Tomalin, is the leap into the future made by a largely unremarkable 17th century Englishman, a leap of the spirit comparable in its way to the discoveries of Newtonian physics. Although Sir Isaac was one of the indubitable geniuses of history, no one could make such a claim for Sam Pepys. Indeed, Pepys' place in history, as the advance guard of a transformation in the idea of an individual life and its significance, is all the more startling for being a leap into the future of confessional writing made by a person with no remarkable tale to tell. Pepys was no explorer, no adventurer, no Casanova tallying seductions like home-run statistics. His terra incognita was the ordinary, his treasure the particulars of domestic life amid the stink and turmoil of a 17th century London house, painstaking accounts of domestic rows, quarrels at work, extramarital dalliances -- all chronicled in greater profusion and candor than ever before.
As ordinary as his life was, as the head of a prosperous London household, Pepys was hardly a 17th century everyman. Only the few were literate, and Pepys had risen from modest but well-connected beginnings through his own quick wits and aptitude for book learning. Ill health, often the doorway to introspection, dogged him from childhood onward. In a city where most children perished in infancy, Pepys' very survival is testimony to his dynamism. It brought him, in time, a measure of security and influence as a successful civil servant, and it placed him where he loved to be, in the swim among London's notables at a time of vivid events and vivid characters.
Cromwell and his Puritan revolution rose and fell in Pepys' lifetime, and the restoration of the royal court parted the waves of English life once more. Some die-hards sank with their cause, while others, such as Pepys, graduated seamlessly from youthful radical to practical politician. As a schoolboy, Pepys witnessed the beheading of Charles I, and as a grown man he attended Charles II's resumption of the throne. His insider's view of the century's leading lights is fascinating and convincing, yet this isn't why we read Pepys.
Nor are the details of 17th century domestic life Pepys' chief legacy. Historians, antiquarians and the insatiably curious can glean most of these facts elsewhere, from fellow diarists, from letters, paintings and other sources. No, we read Pepys with greedy fascination, holding our breath as if granted a glimpse into another world, for the sweet candor of his love life, for its comic failures, for its wonderfully reassuring witness to the perennial features of love and lust.
Day by day, his confessions reassure us that neither we nor Dr. Freud invented the inner toils and the tyranny of our passions; as he annotates his erotic misadventures, Pepys' use of linguistic disguises -- shorthand and mangled foreign words -- reminds us of the timeless embarrassments of the truth; while the fact that he cannot resist recording his private affairs, regardless of success or failure, reflects the vanity that makes us modern and consoles us. Here is the godfather of peccadilloes, our progenitor in narcissism. You have to love Samuel Pepys. He is us.
Carey Harrison's novels include "Egon" and "Richard's Feet."
Samuel Pepys After the Famous Diary
by Rob Hardy -- 07/10/2002
Samuel Pepys is well-known
among historians for his illuminating diary. But he lived for many years after
he penned his last entry -- what happened to him? This continuing story is now
told in Samuel Pepys: A Life.
Samuel Pepys : A Life
The biographer of Samuel Pepys has an enormous problem. Pepys himself has given a huge block of information in his famous diary. It illuminates his life from age 27 to 36, in twelve massive volumes, and contains amazing reporting about Restoration England. Pepys was on hand to describe the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London, which he did with unforgettable vividness and feeling. He knew the day to day life of the court of Charles II, the taverns of fleet street, and the prostitutes of London. He had some sort of amorous endeavor almost daily, enjoying serving girls, prostitutes, and neighbors' wives, in a recreational fashion that might fit the image of a modern rock star. The detail about outside events is profuse, but Pepys's emotional candor is throughout the amazing foundation of the work. He was writing for himself, and would have been shocked to find his work a classic. This was a man who knew himself well, and put himself on the page, both pleased with his delights and openly (to his diary) embarrassed by his own hypocrisy when, for example, he is jealous of his wife's flirting with her dancing master while he knew it only took small temptation for him to be false to her -- repeatedly.
It is almost certainly true that we would not remember Pepys without the diary. He was, simply, a competent and often brilliant civil servant, even though he was involved in epochal and dramatic governmental changes. He did, however, live for thirty-four years after he had written his last diary entry, and so our picture of him is imbalanced. Stephen Coote has written a new biography, Samuel Pepys: A Life (Palgrave), to correct the distorted picture Pepys unknowingly gave us. It is no small feat that Coote has been able to give almost as lively account of the years without the diary as the years so memorably recorded within it. Pepys was the son of a London tailor who performed a social rise that was almost unimaginable in his time. He was educated in St. Paul' s School, and afterwards at the then-unfashionable Magdalene College in Cambridge (now the repository for his magnificent library and diary). He became assistant to a relative, Edward Montagu, the head of Cromwell's navy. Montagu was to become the Earl of Sandwich, turning Royalist and doing his part to effect the Restoration. Pepys had signed on to the right master; he rose within demanding naval administrative jobs to become secretary of the Admiralty Board in 1673, a post he held for almost two decades. Pepys was simply brilliant at his job. He had been raised Puritan, and although he loved his pleasures, he also loved order, efficiency, control, and domination. He found the navy, especially the process of procuring ships and stores for them, full of corruption, and did what he could to bring responsibility and reliability to it. He had a magnificent command of facts and figures, and his opponents time and again were unable to stop his innovations because he could marshal insurmountable data and arguments for his cause. Some of his innovations were small but useful; no one else is on record as starting the business lunch, but Pepys took his clerks home with him, "by that means I having opportunity to talk to them about business, and I love their company very well." Some innovations shook the navy to its foundations, such as insisting that even a member of the upper class who bought himself an officership in the navy would have to serve a term as midshipmen and pass an examination.
Such innovations invariably rubbed some people the wrong way, as did his strong loyalty to the crown. The Whigs, using whatever tools they could, encouraged fear of Catholic domination via the "Popish Plot," a stew of dangerous lies about how Catholics had invaded the government at all levels. In their attack on the king, Pepys was labeled as a Papist, lost his offices, and was actually imprisoned in the Tower of London for a year. His accusers said he was a closet Catholic who displayed openly such papist trash as crucifixes in his home, and that he had declared that the Protestant religion had "come out of Henry VIII's codpiece." It was Pepys's ability, which he had perfected in his years of naval administration, to gather massive quantities of exculpatory information that enabled him to expose and explode the case against him brilliantly. Pepys wrote of the Plot atmosphere, "Such is the credulity of this unhappy age that no accumulation of evidence can be too much to support the most obvious truth." He recovered his post at the Admiralty, but the "Glorious Revolution" toppled James II and put Pepys into permanent retirement.
He had plenty to do. He was a widower, and it is sad that we don't know just what sort of sexual shenanigans his single status had enabled him to carry on. He had stopped his diary because of eye strain. Probably he had nothing more than a bad case of astigmatism, but his eye problems were severe enough that blindness was always a fear, and he thought writing secretly in his diary was straining them. He did keep up a correspondence that tells something of his latter years. He was busy for the most part building up his fine library, but he was also the president of the Royal Society, and Newton's Principia was printed with Pepys's imprimatur on its title page. He bought a microscope to study the flea. He collected prints, and he continued to enjoy playing music, a life-long love second only to wenching.
As Coote says, after the diary, Pepys wrote even private memoranda which would "show him as a public figure. The artist had, perforce, given way to the bureaucrat." His enormous service to the navy would have been what Pepys would have wanted to be remembered for, but his diary has made him immortal. Coote has diligently pursued ancient administrative documents as well as letters to give a bigger picture (even if it is not possible to examine the years after the diary with any hope of Pepys's detail), and has placed him within some of the most complex decades of English history. His explanations of the forces of history in the time are excellent, and his comprehensive portrait of the diarist and the bureaucrat gives us in full one of the most fascinating figures of English history.
A singular life
Claire Tomalin's exceptional biography of civil servant, royal adviser and diarist extraordinaire Samuel Pepys
Stuart Sherman. Stuart Sherman is an associate professor of English at Fordham
University and author of "Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal
Form, 1660-1795," which is mostly about S
December 29, 2002
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
By Claire Tomalin
Knopf, 470 pages, $30
Three hundred years ago next May, Samuel Pepys died near London after a phenomenally productive life of seven decades. During one of them, the 1660s, when he was in his late 20s and early 30s, he kept a diary reckoned by many as the first and best in the long history of that wildly variegated genre: about 11/4 million words, narrating 3,429 days in exuberant and unbroken succession.
That proportion--one decade diarized amid seven lived--poses problems for any would-be biographer. At its Greek root, "biography" means life-writing, and Pepys was a pioneer in the craft, setting down in prose at once plain, precise and passionate a running counterpoint of public events and private intimacies. Attending the coronation of the new King Charles II, he rejoiced in the costumes and protocols, in "the pleasure of the sight of these glorious things," but celebrated so hard and drank so much that when he woke up the next morning, "I found myself wet with my own spewing.
Thus," he concludes, "did the day end, with joy everywhere."
Sturdily staying put in London during the year-long depradations of the bubonic plague, Pepys noted with surprise that in his personal life (work, wealth, friendships) he was enjoying "the greatest glut of content that I ever had; only, under some difficulty because of the plague, which grows mightily upon us." A year later he tracked almost street by street the annihilatory progress of London's Great Fire, where "with one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops--this is very true," and "we saw the fire as only one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge, and in a bow up the hill, for an arch of above a mile long. It made me weep to see it."
Between these Big Moments he sustained a narrative of more routine experience (meals, marriage, music, theater, politics, commerce, colleagues, clothes, gossip), couched in language that continually points up his capacity to savor all experiences twice over, to live them out and then write them down with (in the diary's recurrent phrase) "great pleasure."
Confronted with this plethora, what's a biographer to do? How far should this single, spectacularly documented decade be permitted to dominate the account, and to overshadow the more scantily chronicled others?
In "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self," Claire Tomalin, accomplished biographer of writers Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, and actresses Ellen Ternan and Dora Jordan, solves the problems of Pepysian biography by a design different from any predecessor's. She devotes fully half her page count to the decade of the diary, and she makes the choice pay off plentifully.
It is in many ways justified by the facts alone. As diarist, Pepys timed things well. Setting down his first entry on New Year's Day 1660, he guessed right from the outset that the coming years would prove pivotal for his country and himself. The restoration of the monarchy, after years of civil war, regicide and Puritan rule, brought a shift, in culture as well as clothing, from Puritan black and white to continental color, a recrudescence of the great pleasures (plays, parties, science, shopping, sex) that pervade the diary.
Pepys promptly acquired the means for pursuing them. A well-connected cousin who had helped orchestrate the king's return drew Pepys early into the new government. There, by dint of diligence, cunning and a passion for particulars, he became (in a phrase that pleased him) "a very rising man," ascending from near-penury at the diary's start to prosperity and power at its end. The intoxicated onlooker at the coronation couldn't have guessed that within five years he would become one of the king's most astute advisers and one of the chief administrative architects (tough, efficient, obsessive) of the British navy, which would in turn, over the course of the ensuing century, shape and sustain the empire. Tomalin rings these changes skillfully, making clear what an important cusp the Restoration was, how sharply it ushered Pepys, and many of his contemporaries, "into what feels like the modern world."
There are at least two ways to grasp whole so huge a document as Pepys' diary. One is to read it straight through, more or less as Pepys wrote it (though he sometimes backtracked to make revisions): an ongoing life story whose outcome is endlessly deferred, since tomorrow is always another day. The other approach is to work the index (which, in the definitive edition, takes up a volume of its own), gathering together all the diary's data on one topic or one person, in order to tease out links, implications, trajectories of emotion that may have eluded even Pepys himself. Tomalin balances both methods but proves matchlessly adroit at the second. She devotes some chapters to straight narrative (of the plague year, of the fire), others to subtle reckoning of specific themes: Pepys' relations with the king; his habits and rhythms of work; his interest in science; even his relationship (in the chapter's intriguing title) with "Three Janes"--three very different women of that name with whom Pepys sustained three very different friendships.
Tomalin's triumph of collation comes in her account, spanning several chapters, of Pepys' marriage: the imprudent but abiding love match, sealed at a church wedding when the groom was 22 and his penniless French bride, Elizabeth St. Michel, had just turned 15; the ensuing exasperations and jealousies (on both sides), and the infidelities (on his), which beset the union but didn't break it. Tomalin, long skilled in the close reading of complex lives, manages to reconstruct from Pepys' words not only his own experience but also Elizabeth's, and even to surmise persuasively the feelings of the other women Pepys pursued. Extending sympathy and critique in every direction, Tomalin makes good on her pronouncement that the diary's "great achievement is to map the tidal waters of marriage, where the waves of feeling ebb and flow from hour to hour and month to month." No biographer before has drawn up the Pepyses' tide charts as exactly and as feelingly as Tomalin does here. Later in the book, working from more scattered evidence, Tomalin offers a similarly nuanced, moving account of the decline in Pepys' power, pleasures and health (though not his acuity and curiosity) during his final years.
At other times, Pepys' signal gets somewhat muffled in transmission. Tomalin occasionally paraphrases or summarizes the diary where she might more profitably quote it. And her emphasis, from her curious subtitle onward, on Pepys' "enthusiasm for himself" can be misleading. Though Pepys, as she shows, is perhaps without peer as a near-scientific observer and recorder of his own experience, behavior and emotions, the self operates a little differently, and in a way less prominently, in his diary than in many that came later. He is no self-psychoanalyst. He spends very little ink on introspection; he rarely lets himself get lost in the labyrinth of psychological cause and effect. Pepys treats the self as not maze but lens, as a means of seeing the world more acutely, of taking it in--to his mind, to his manuscript--more powerfully.
The pleasures of sight pervade the diary. Early on, Pepys praises a boy he knows who "like myself, is with child [i.e., bursting as though pregnant with curiosity] to see any strange thing"; often when Pepys encounters some new strange thing, he abducts it onto his page by means of a simple, fervent exclamation: "But Lord! to see . . . " whatever it is he has freshly seen. In "Finnegans Wake," James Joyce worked the near-inevitable pun on the diarist's name as it is commonly pronounced: he called Pepys "Peeps."
In the end, Pepys stopped writing the diary because he feared, mistakenly, that he was going blind, and that his nightly work in the manuscript's minuscule shorthand cipher was hastening his loss of sight. He wrote, in the final paragraph, that to make this ending cost him "almost as much as to see myself go into my grave." Still, in that phrase, the privilege of sight persists past blindness and death. Who, after all, will provide this posthumous seeing? It's tempting to guess that Pepys is envisioning not a celestial afterlife but an earthly one, achieved by means of ink and paper. Decades later, he bequeathed his diary to the library of his alma mater, along with the shorthand textbooks to help in its deciphering. Surely, eventually, someone would (as several did) see, decode, transcribe and perhaps even publish the text, inviting other readers to make of it what they might.
Tomalin has made much, and produced a book teeming, like the diary, with clarity, momentum and great pleasure. She has supplied the second-sharpest pair of eyes, the second-richest skein of words, to witness and assess this astonishing life. The sharpest and richest, as Joyce's pun implies and as Tomalin confirms on every page, belonged to the diarist himself.
Pepys into the past
The London Samuel Pepys knew has been transformed, but many of his old haunts can still be found. Sally Varlow is your guide
Read this article here
A wealth of detail amplifies Pepys's diaries
By Amy Graves, Globe Staff, 3/12/2003
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Reasonable Mr Pepys
Periwigs and posterity
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Englands erster Ehemann
Ein funkelndes Zeitporträt: »Die geheimen Tagebücher« von Samuel Pepys in neuer Auswahl und Übersetzung
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N Z Z Online
24. Mai 2003, 02:16, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
Gut hundert Jahre lang blieben die Tagebücher des am 26. Mai 1703 verstorbenen Samuel Pepys unentdeckt - und nochmals hundertfünfzig Jahre sollte es dauern, bis man den Lesern auch Einblick in die pikanteren Episoden gab, welche sie verzeichnen. Interessierte und bewundernde Leser hatte dieses reichhaltige und blendend formulierte Lebenszeugnis freilich schon von Anfang an gefunden.
Von Ronald D. Gerste
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He was born in London, above the shop, just off Fleet Street, in Salisbury Court, where his father John Pepys ran a tailoring business, one of many serving the lawyers living in the area. The house backed on to the parish church of St. Bride's, where all the babies of the family were christened and two were already buried in the churchyard; when he was a man, Pepys still kept the thought in his mind of "my young brothers and sisters" laid in the ground outside the house of his youth. Salisbury Court was an open space surrounded by a mixture of small houses like John Pepys's and large ones, once the abodes of bishops and ambassadors, with gardens; it was entered through narrow lanes, one from Fleet Street opposite Shoe Lane, another in the south-west corner leading into Water Lane and so down to the Thames and river steps fifty yards below. The south-facing slope above the river was a good place to live; people had been settled here since Roman times, and when Pepys was born in 1633 a Christian church had stood on the spot for at least five hundred years. A block to the east was the Fleet River, with the pink brick crenellated walls of Bridewell rising beside it; it had been built as a palace by King Henry VIII and deteriorated into a prison for vagrants, homeless children and street women, known to the locals as "Bridewell Birds." A footbridge spanned the Fleet between Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill, and from St. Bride's you could look across its deep valley-much deeper then than it is today-with houses crammed up both sides in a maze of courts and alleys, to old St. Paul's rising on its hill above the City.
This was the western edge of the City, and Pepys's first playground. The City was proud of being the most populous in the world; it had something like 130,000 inhabitants, and in the whole country there were only about five million. If you went west from Salisbury Court along Fleet Street, you came to the gardens of the Temple lawyers, with their groves of trees, formal beds and walks, and further west along the Strand you were out of the City, on the way to Whitehall and Westminster. To the east was the only bridge-London Bridge, almost as old as St. Bride's Church, with its nineteen arches and its spikes on which traitors' heads were stuck-and then the Tower. The river, without embankments, was very wide, with a sloping shore at low tide, a place for children to explore; and the great houses of the aristocracy were strung along the riverside, each with its own watergate. The best way to get about fast in London was by boat.
The Pepys house centred round the shop and cutting room, with their shelves, stools and drawers, cutting board and looking-glass. At the back the kitchen opened into a yard, and in the cellar were the washing tubs and coal hole, with a lock-up into which troublesome children or maids might be put for punishment. The stairs to the living quarters went up at the back. Timber-framed, tall and narrow, with a jetty sticking out over the street at the front, set tight against its neighbours, with a garret under the steeply pitched roof: this was the pattern of ordinary London houses. On the first floor the parlour doubled as dining room. Above there were two bedrooms, each with a small closet or study opening off it, and high beds with red or purple curtains. In one of these Pepys was born and spent his first weeks. Older children, maids and apprentices slept on the third floor-Pepys mentions "the little chamber, three storeys high"-or in the garret, or in trundle beds, kept in most of the rooms, including the shop and the parlour; sometimes they bedded down in the kitchen for warmth.
In one of the bedrooms was a virginals, the neat, box-like harpsichord of the period. John Pepys was musical: he played the bass viol, and his eldest daughter, six-year-old Mary, could have started at the keyboard by the time Sam was born. Singing and musical instruments-viol, violin, lute, virginals, flageolet (a recorder of sorts)-were an essential part of family life, and music became the child's passion.Music was not only in the family but literally in the air for many months during the first year of Sam's life. It came from one of the large houses in Salisbury Court, in which a young and ambitious lawyer, Bulstrode Whitelocke, was preparing a masque to be performed before King Charles and his queen. Whitelocke and Edward Hyde, together representing the Middle Temple, had joined with members of the other three Inns of Court in a plan to celebrate Candlemas in a great masque to be produced before the Court at Whitehall, and Whitelocke, who had some skill as a composer, was in charge of the music. He assembled a large group of singers, including some from the Queen's Chapel, and "caused them all to meet in practise at his house in Salisbury Court where he . . . had sometimes 40 lutes, besides other instruments and voices, in consort together." The noise must have been terrific. On the day of the performance, 2 February 1634, three weeks before Pepys's first birthday, the masquers, in costumes of silver, crimson and blue, some riding plumed horses draped in cloth of silver, some carrying flaming torches, processed along Holborn and Chancery Lane, through Temple Bar to Charing Cross and so to the Banqueting House. Inigo Jones was the designer, and the poet Thomas Carew wrote the words.The event was such a success that Queen Henrietta Maria asked for a repeat performance at the Merchant Taylors' Hall in the City. This was done, and gave "great contentment to their Majesties and no less to the Citizens, especially the younger sort of them." It may be too much to imagine the infant Pepys held up to enjoy the festivities among the many Londoners agog at the sound of the music and the brilliant show of the young lawyers; but music, theatre, celebration, processions, ritual and fine clothes delighted him throughout his life.
A tailor's family was likely to be well dressed. There was a looking-glass upstairs, in which the children could look at themselves in imitation of the customers below and make themselves fine with scraps of cloth. But clothes, fine or plain, were hard to keep clean in London. Every household burnt coal brought from Newcastle by sea in its fireplaces and cooking ranges. So did the brewers and dyers, the brick-makers up the Tottenham Court Road, the ubiquitous soap and salt boilers. The smoke from their chimneys made the air dark, covering every surface with sooty grime. There were days when a cloud of smoke half a mile high and twenty miles wide could be seen over the city from the Epsom Downs. Londoners spat black. Wall hangings, pictures and clothes turned yellow and brown like leaves in autumn, and winter undervests, sewn on for the season against the cold, were the colour of mud by the time spring arrived. Hair was expected to look after itself; John Evelyn made a special note in his diary in August 1653 that he was going to experiment with an "annual hair wash." But every house, every family enjoyed its own smell, to which father, mother, children, apprentices, maids and pets all contributed, a rich brew of hair, bodies, sweat and other emissions, bedclothes, cooking, whatever food was lying about, whatever dirty linen had been piled up for the monthly wash, whatever chamber pots were waiting to be emptied into yard or street. Home meant the familiar reek which everyone breathed. The smell of the house might strike a new maid as alien, but she would quickly become part of the atmosphere herself. When Pepys wrote of his "family," meaning not blood relations but everyone who lived in his household-the Latin word familia has this sense-we understand that, as a group sharing the same rooms, they also comfortably shared the same smell.
His mother was a connoisseur of dirty linen, having worked as a washmaid in a grand household before her marriage. It was not a bad preparation for eleven children in fourteen years; the babies followed one another so fast that she was always either nursing or expecting one, and each made its contribution to the monthly washing day. Samuel was her fifth, hardly more than a year after John. Paulina and Esther, who preceded him, were both dead before he was born, but by the time he was five there would be four more, Thomas, Sarah, Jacob and Robert, of whom only Tom would live to grow up. God's system was inefficient and depressing. A doc- tor writing in 1636 regretted that humans did not reproduce like trees, without the "trivial and vulgar way of coition."This was Sir Thomas Browne. He might have added a further expression of regret at the wearing out of so much health and happiness, but he failed to, and instead overcame his distaste at the triviality of the act often enough to father twelve children on his wife. Pepys's mother must have been always busy, tired, distracted or grieving for the deaths of his brothers and sisters when he was a child: soon worn out, physically and emotionally.
Pepys's birthday was on 23 February and his baptism by the vicar of St. Bride's, James Palmer, is recorded on 3 March 1632/3, "Samuell sonn to John Peapis wyef Margaret."The same year, in October, the queen gave birth across town at St. James's Palace to her second son, James. After his christening, he was given the title of duke of York. He had a staff of officials paid to rock his cradle; and, unthinkable as it would have seemed then, he was destined to become one of Sam Pepys's close associates. Another boy who grew up to influence Sam's life, Anthony Ashley Cooper, was also living off Fleet Street, in Three Cranes Court, from 1631 to 1635. Sam's brother Tom was born in the summer of 1634, making a trio of little Pepys boys, John, Sam and Tom, and a sister Sarah the following summer. Other tailoring families in the district produced playmates. There were the Cumberlands, also in Salisbury Court, with three boys, Richard and his younger brothers William and John; Richard would go to school with Pepys later, and to college, and become a bishop. Another tailor, Russell, in St. Bride's Churchyard, was landlord to a bachelor scholar, poet and schoolmaster, John Milton, who had his eight-year-old nephew Johnny living with him when Pepys was six. Here was an outstanding and conveniently placed teacher; but there is no sign that the tailor's sons took any lessons with him.
Who did teach the little Pepys children? The learned and leisured John Evelyn coached his eldest son into reading and writing at the age of two, but John Pepys, who had left his native Cambridgeshire for London at fourteen to be apprenticed, was only just literate himself, and if his wife could write at all she left no trace of it. Manuals for parents of the period recommended they should start their children's education at home by playing with them at mealtimes or when sitting by the fire before they started school; but John and Margaret Pepys were unlikely readers of manuals. The household must have been in a perpetual scramble between babies and apprentices, and what energy there was to spare was for music-making. Sam put nothing on record about early lessons. Instead he recalled boys' games in the backyard; being carried by one of his father's workers into one of the Temple Halls, to see the law students gambling with dice at Christmas; and street activities such as "beating the bounds," when the children of the parish went in procession, carrying broomsticks and shepherded by the constable and churchwarden, had water poured over them from the windows of their neighbours and were playfully beaten before being rewarded with bread and cheese and a drink-the whole ancient ritual intended to fix the limits of their own parish in their memories.
Contemporary books of manners for children give some idea of what was expected of them at home. There was advice on how to set the table for family dinner, with trenchers (wooden plates), napkins, salt and bread; glasses should be placed well away from the edge of the table to avoid knocking them off. Children should not crumble their bread into "mammocks" but cut it up properly; salt was taken with the knife, and they should not overload their spoons with "pottage," which might spill on the cloth. A polite child would volunteer to remove and fold up the cloth after the meal, and bring a jug of water, basin and towel for parents to wash their hands. Since there was no dining room in the Pepys household, only a folding table in the parlour, meals can rarely have risen to such elegance; but it was something to which Sam paid attention later in life, when he could hardly bring himself to eat food served by a woman with greasy hands, and was sharp with his wife about the presentation of dinner in his own house. Children were also told to keep their clothes in decent order at all times:
Let not thy privy members be Layd open to be view'd It is most shamefull and abhord, Detestable and rude.
Four adjectives seem a lot for one small privy member, but children had to be given a sense of its sinfulness.
When he was six, in 1639, his closest brother, seven-year-old John, fell ill and died. Two years later a second John was born, never much liked by Sam, perhaps because he missed the first so much; but he had a strong sense of duty towards his siblings. He was now top of the hierarchy, as the eldest boy in the family. Tom, who was closest to him, was not clever; he learnt to write but not much better than his father, and he struggled with a speech impediment; Sam was always protective towards him. Mary, at twelve, was almost grown up, one of the solid loving presences in his world; but Mary failed to grow up. When she was thirteen, at Christmas 1640, a year after John's death, she sickened and died. The next year Sarah, who had reached five, followed her to the grave; so did the family maid Barbara. Sam was left with only Tom, besides the two new babies, Paulina, or Pall the second, born in October 1640, just before Mary's death, and John the second.