Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self: Claire Tomalin

★★★★½

On 1 January 1660, a young clerk in the Exchequer in London began to keep a diary. He wasn’t the first diarist in history, far from it; but he was the first to find such potential in the form, and to make of his diary more than a dry chronicle of the times, or a self-examination of sins. This diary was different. From its very first page it showed an almost shocking candour as the young clerk recorded not only his work and social life, but also the most frank and intimate details about his marriage and his own turbulent sexual desires. This honesty sat alongside a lively intelligence which drank in all the events of the world around him. This clerk was Samuel Pepys and, from a historical point of view, he couldn’t have chosen a better moment to start such a detailed account of his life.

Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City … By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge. … [I]t begun this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane … So I down to the water-side, and there got a boat … Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that layoff; 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 stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.

Sunday 2 September 1666

Pepys wrote in his journal daily until 31 May 1669, when he laid down his pen with regret, fearing that such close work was damaging his eyes. When he began writing, England was still a Commonwealth, but Oliver Cromwell had been dead for more than a year and Parliament and the army were at each other’s throats. Pepys allows us to see at first hand the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660; the initial enthusiasm for the king and its gradual falling away as he proved to be feckless and irresponsible; the plague year of 1665, which Pepys lived through in a kind of carpe diem delirium; and the Great Fire of 1666, which reduced his world to ashes.

And in this time Pepys himself rose to great things. When the diary begins he’s only a clerk, a grammar-school boy made good from a very undistinguished family. His father was a tailor and Pepys made his way by hard study and thanks to a few very useful connections (most notably Edward Montagu, Lord Sandwich: a prominent Parliamentarian commander who later played a key role in bringing back Charles II, and who benefitted accordingly from his shrewdness). Pepys and his wife live relatively simply at this time, with one (long-suffering) servant. But by 1669 he’s become an administrator on the Navy Board, an acquaintance of the king, a member of the Royal Society, and a man of wealth, with a smart new house, a large collection of books and curiosities, and several servants.

I’ve had Tomalin’s book lying around for a while, because I felt I should read it but the moment never seemed apposite (I’m not a big reader of biographies). I picked it up after Meadowland because I realised it was a long time since I’d read anything ‘improving’, but fortunately it turned out to be much more engaging than I’d anticipated. Tomalin writes with warmth and affection: she clearly developed a great fondness for Pepys in the course of her research, and her enthusiasm is infectious. But she doesn’t gloss over his weaknesses and faults, of which there are many: she maintains the same balance as he himself put into his diary. Pepys was, remarkably, willing to show himself in a brutally honest light. He takes bribes; he launches himself lecherously on the servants and on any woman in his social circle with whom he thinks he has a chance; he holds grudges with a resolute pettiness; he’s baffled by and slightly scared of his wife; and at some points he comes across as an overgrown man-child. I was struck (though it’s not surprising, I suppose) at how strongly I was reminded of Rose Tremain’s roistering, lascivious Merivel.

But the wonderful complexity of Tomalin’s book is that you get a sense of all this alongside a great admiration for Pepys’s excellent qualities: his organisation; his love of his work; his poetic eye for detail; and his clarity of understanding. In later life he introduced key reforms to the running of the Navy: he made it obligatory for captains to keep written records while at sea, and he stressed the importance of having an exam for young officers to ensure their competencies before putting them in charge of ships. Tomalin has also unearthed an absolute wealth of everyday detail with which she puts Pepys in context. The problem with being a historian and reading a book like this is that I find myself always asking, “But where did she find that? How did she know how often the carrier went from London to Huntingdon, and where did she find that it left from Cripplegate?” I’m daunted by her research skills as much as by the easy flow of her writing.

Let me admit it now. I’ve never read the Diary. We had a copy at home when I was a child, but as far as I remember I just skipped through looking for details of Pepys’s sex-life. (What a little heretic I was.) Now I would love to read it. From the sections quoted in Tomalin’s book, it has the joint appeal of giving a lively window onto another world, and offering glimpses of a lifestyle that isn’t all that alien. I was tickled to hear Pepys speak of going ‘clubbing’ with his friends when he was a young clerk in Whitehall – he meant to alehouses and coffee-houses, no doubt, but the word has a familiar snap to it that dissolves the three hundred and fifty years in between. Tomalin paints a picture of young men on the prowl, perhaps drawing on self-help books which advised them on chat-up lines and how to seduce girls, such as The Mysteries of Love and Eloquence; or, the Arts of Wooing and Complementing, published in 1658 by John Milton’s nephew. Pepys’s quarrels with his wife , his ambition to better himself, and all his small, silly foibles are things that any one of us can relate to today. They’re what make us human. And it’s rather wonderful to know that humanity was much the same in the 1660s as it is in the 2010s. Tomalin notes that the Pepys of the Diary feels so alive, so real and vibrant, that when it finishes the reader feels almost bereaved. It was a sensation that he himself recorded when he decided to end it:

Giving up [his diary] was, he wrote, like a form of death, ‘almost as much as to see myself go into my grave’. This was not rhetoric but a serious statement. He was killing off a part of himself, the self created daily in his narrative, a creature more complete than he could ever allow himself to be again … The loss for his readers is brutal as they find themselves suddenly stranded, the brilliant, troubling intimacies of the Diary replaced … by official papers… Once the form he had created was abandoned, he and the world stood in a different relation to one another; and, as well as losing him we are losing an unequalled record of the events of the time.

Fortunately we can always go back and reread. I’m happy to report that Pepys has seized the opportunities offered by modern technology and his diary is now appearing day-by-day as a blog (the website is currently posting ‘on-this-day’ entries for 1662), with highlights being posted on Twitter. The only downside is that these entries are taken from a bowdlerised Victorian version (I have an innate dislike of any editor who presumes to know what is ‘suitable for my eyes’ or not), so you might miss out on some of the more colourful passages. And for those, like me, who are daunted at the thought of taking on such a behemoth of literature without more context, I can thoroughly recommend Tomalin’s book as a primer. Lucid, warm and generous, it’s a biography fully worthy of its subject.

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3 thoughts on “Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self: Claire Tomalin

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    No, it's actually been around for quite a while: it was published in 2002. It's the first of her books I've read, but I also have “Mrs Jordan's Profession” waiting to be read. I enjoyed this one so much that I'll probably be reading “Mrs Jordan” sooner rather than later!

  2. Helen says:

    I read this a few years ago and enjoyed it, although I don't often read biographies. I also appreciated the fact that while Tomalin was obviously fond of Pepys she still managed to give a balanced, unbiased account, discussing his flaws as well as his good points. Her biography of Charles Dickens is excellent too – I really must find time to explore the rest of her books!

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