Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote in bibliophilia,

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

This book richly deserves all the praise it has received. I'd sort of prepared for it earlier in the year, when I came across the third volume of Arthur Bryant's biography (first published in the 1930s), and then again encountered Pepys in Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. So I was aware that Pepys was a senior naval civil servant who dabbled in science (he was President of the Royal Society when it published Newton's Principia so his name is on the title page) and famously kept a secret diary. (The Secret Diary of Samuel Pepys, aged 26-35???)

But Tomalin makes him really come alive. The early period, when Pepys witnessed civil war in the streets of London, and truanted from school to watch King Charles I's head being cut off, is superbly depicted, as is the story of how he used distant family connections to climb away from his humble origins (his father was a tailor, his mother a laundrywoman). Then we follow him through the uncertain times of Cromwell, a hasty (and ultimately childless) marriage to a fourteen-year-old bride, and then the dramatic year of 1660, when suddenly everything goes right for him; he starts keeping a diary on January 1st and within a few weeks he is chatting to Charles II on the boat bringing him back to England to retake the throne.

For the 1660s, of course, Tomalin is helped by the existence of Pepys' diary - and anyone interested just in the skill of writing should just sign up pepysdiary to their friends list and follow it day by day. The political stuff is fascinating, and as an aspirant on that career path myself I would make this compulsory reading for all young wannabee statesman. Among other jewels, Pepys is the man who tells the King that the Great Fire of London has broken out in 1666. And he intermingles love, politics, mistresses, religion, illness, friendship into what can rapidly become an addictive combination. The diary lay hidden in plain view in Magdalen College Cambridge for a century and a half after his death before it was decoded; a full version, leaving in all the naughty bits, wasn't published until the 1970s.

The post-1669 story is inevitably a bit flatter, because mostly gained from secondary sources. (Pepys stopped keeping a diary because he was worried that he was losing his sight, though in fact he had no real problems with it in the remaining thrity-four years of his life.) Even so, he gets elected to Parliament, imprisoned in the Tower of London, demolishes the British naval base at Tangier in Morocco, publishes Newton's Principia and rapidly acquires a new permanent lady friend after his wife dies. Tomalin leaves us with a sympathetic but honest portrait of a man who saw his entire world (a world which actually didn't extend very far out of London) change in his lifetime, and left us a unique chronicle of what he thought about it. Strongly recommended, to anyone who likes a good story.
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