Gripped by a Pepys show

Samuel Pepys
February 14, 2003

Claire Tomalin is one of this country's most accomplished biographers. Painstaking research enables her to really get under the skin of her subject; the points of contact between the individual life and the surrounding context are always convincingly established; and her style of writing is consistently engaging, lively and compelling. Readers who might balk at the prospect of taking on a 500-page conventional history book are unlikely to be daunted by a Tomalin biography.

This book is Tomalin's first venture into the 17th century, and Samuel Pepys makes an ideal choice of subject. Caught up in the political seesaws of the day as the English republic gave way to the Restoration, living under three kings and serving two of them as a senior naval administrator, Pepys was an astute observer of his age as well as an intrinsically fascinating individual. He lived through the Anglo-Dutch wars and, at first hand, experienced the two apocalyptic visitations of the mid-1660s, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. He moved in a world still dominated by patronage and perks and possessed extraordinary personal networks that extended from the aristocracy (and indeed the king) at one end to naval dockyard workers, servant maids and other working women (favourite objects of his lechery) at the other. His involvement in, and experience of, rapidly changing post-1660 society was remarkably wide. He relished all that prosperous, boisterous, free-living, expanding London had to offer - its theatres, shops, parks, inns, its Royal Society, its cosmopolitanism, pomp and ceremony and public executions. Though his rise was less meteoric than others who profited from the Restoration, it was still, by any reckoning, impressive; his personal fortune increased by a staggering 40,000 per cent in the 1660s. Though as a Jacobite he found himself left out in the cold after 1689 under William and Mary, he had made enough in earlier, happier times to enjoy a comfortable and satisfying old age, living until 1703.

Pepys' memory survives, of course, not just as an individual but on account of a unique document, his diary, kept methodically for a decade until eye strain caused him to abandon the habit. Bowdlerised editions of it appeared in the 19th century. Walter Scott was well aware of its existence. Macaulay was entranced by it. R. L. Stevenson took careful stock of its value.

Generations of later historians have produced assessments of Pepys and his work - J. R. Tanner, Arthur Bryant and Richard Ollard among them.

Remarkably, the first full edition of the text, all 11 volumes of it, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, was not completed until 1983.

Tomalin draws on all this and the weightiest section of her biography deals with the years covered by the diary itself, for which she has a loving respect. (Her sensuous description of the original manuscript is positively poetic.) Pepys' significance as a diarist is enthusiastically applauded here, and high claims are advanced for seeing its candour, teeming immediacy and curiosity, and distinctive style as the creative forces that produced a new literary form. But the long section dealing with the diary years of the 1660s is framed by good, insightful treatments of Samuel's youth and later life. His early isolation from the rest of his own family - as the best educated among them - set the pattern for the rest of his life. Though he married for love and in later life showed great affection for his nephew, John Jackson, he kept his parents, his siblings and his in-laws at arm's length. Pepys' naval career - much discussed by others - is revisited here and Tomalin makes a spirited attempt to connect Pepys firmly with the Royal Society and with the scientific revolution.

(That he survived an excruciatingly painful operation for the removal of a large stone from his bladder - the stone was proudly preserved as an exhibit and each anniversary of the operation was celebrated as part of his ritual year - no doubt clinched his appreciation of the wonders of science.) Pepys, larger than life in some ways through his self-projection in the diary, has his portrait repainted in even brighter colours in this biography.

There are downsides, however. Tomalin's own surmises fill in where historical evidence is lacking; tell-tale words such as "perhaps", "may have", "guess", "imagine" occur all too frequently. Her grasp of the complexities of the civil war period and of Puritanism is simplistic. Some of her comparisons and conjectures are distinctly far-fetched. The fact that she sees in Pepys' naval scene, which rested squarely on old-style patronage and long-extinct working practices, "a recognisably modern world", strains the reader's credulity too far. Factual errors abound. Mid 17th-century London was not the largest city in the world. Charles I was not executed in 1647. Oliver Cromwell was not repeatedly offered the crown.

A "whole population" did not change its political allegiance at the Restoration. Pepys was deeply disappointed by Charles II's address in July 1663 to the House of Lords and not to the House of Commons. The modern historian of the 17th-century civil service is not called George Aylmer.

The bibliography confuses the distinction between primary and secondary sources and some sections of it suddenly abandon alphabetical sequence.

Enthusiastic biographers, of course, run the risk of falling under the spell of their subject. Sir John Neale's Queen Elizabeth I (1934) is a classic example; he worshipped uncritically at the Virgin Queen's feet.

Tomalin's Pepys , it has to be said, comes very close to this. She writes at one point of his "godlike" energy and the very title of the book boasts of Pepys' "unequalled self". His diary is celebrated as "a triumph of humanism" that "carries him to the highest point, alongside Milton, Bunyan, Chaucer, Dickens and Proust". The quintessentially ordinary side of Pepys, the shameless egotist, somehow gets lost amid such plaudits.

R. C. Richardson is professor of history, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Author - Claire Tomalin
ISBN - 0 670 88568 1
Publisher - Viking
Price - £20.00
Pages - 499

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