Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

by Claire Tomalin
499 pages,
ISBN: 0670885681

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Prototype of a Diarist
by Nancy Wigston

Claire Tomalin's new biography of Samuels Pepys comes to us trailing its own interesting literary tidbit. Tomalin, who previously has written acclaimed biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and Jane Austen¨to name a few¨won this year's Whitbread Prize for her work about England's most candid 17th century diarist, Samuel Pepys. Also on the Whitbread list was her husband, novelist Michael Frayne, shortlisted for Spies, his latest novel. How very English this all seems, reflecting a cultural milieu¨where everybody knows each other if they aren't actually related¨a story that could almost belong to the crowded, pulsating world inhabited by Samuel Pepys himself.
Before Tomalin lifts the curtain on her latest subject, she presents the full Pepys Family Tree; next appear three pages of maps of the London he knew, and finally a daunting twelve-page "List of Principal Figures", some famous, some not, all of whom figured in Pepys's life. Just when it appears we're in for a bit of a slog, suddenly her talent reveals itself in a sparkling Prologue. A young married couple are fighting. Their names are Samuel and Elizabeth; she has roused her dozing husband to complain that he keeps himself so busy that she suffers from severe loneliness. Some two months ago she wrote him a letter detailing his neglect, which he has callously burnt rather than read.
No matter, she has made a copy. Emotional fireworks fly in their house in Seething Lane. Love letters are dramatically produced, then destroyed; a will suffers the same fate; legal documents are carefully preserved. Finally all her private papers are gone¨not without physical struggle. But the truly interesting thing, happening parallel to the marital turmoil, is that the husband¨who allows that his wife is largely in the right¨is all the while carefully observing the scene so he can record it in the secret diary he has been keeping. Although none of Elizabeth Pepys's personal papers survive, a portrait of her marriage does, because her husband ensured his intimate diary, written in shorthand with odd fragments of foreign tongues, would be secured until someone became curious enough to decode its contents.
The gift to posterity left by Mr. Samuel Pepys, the tailor's son who rose to become Secretary to the Admiralty during a particularly tumultuous period in English history¨"as intellectually thrilling as it was dangerous and bloody"¨remains one of the most vivid and honest documents ever written. He kept it assiduously for ten years during his twenties and thirties; then, almost as mysteriously as he began, he ended it. Tomalin writes Pepys's story both pre- and post-diary, interpreting for us the life of a man who became an important civil servant under the Stuarts' reign. Despite living through civil war, the 1665 plague, the Great Fire of London, the 1667 Dutch attack on the Medway, under Tomalin's scrutiny, Pepys does not emerge as a creature from a remote age. Rather, he appears startlingly like ourselves.
Tomalin shows that the Cromwell era was exactly the right moment for an astute boy to be noticed by influential family members, a boy eager to take advantage of what he was offered. An industrious student, young Pepys attended schools that made him fluent in Latin; he graduated from Cambridge; he was a talented violinist and lifelong music lover; a constant reader and dedicated bibliophile; he became both an MP and a member of the Royal Society, cheerfully willing his body to science. In short he is the very model of self-invention. Born to a tailor and a laundress, he grew into a wealthy man who rubbed shoulders with Isaac Newton and Charles II.
That's the public man, the success story. But in private Pepys was a conundrum: a good friend, he could also be domineering and selfish. He impulsively married for love at age twenty-two, choosing the equally penniless, pretty Elizabeth de St Michel, age fourteen. During their union he regularly groped and cheated with maids, friends, and tarts alike. Yet Elizabeth gave almost as good as she got, and Tomalin's chapters on "Jealousy" and "Marriage" are among her book's great delights. From the earliest days of his employment by his well-connected cousins to his later success at the highest levels of the civil service (albeit with some jail time along the way) Pepys proves himself a very genial fellow and an ingenious fixer. From helping with arrangements for the return of Charles II to England by ship¨his patrons had carefully repositioned their loyalties after Cromwell's execution¨to overseeing the marriage of the daughter of his cousin, Lord Sandwich, to reorganizing the way the English Navy was run, Pepys was the man for the job.
When the private man behaves unpleasantly, for instance when he visits the unwilling Mrs Bagwell for trysts, in exchange for ensuring the advancement of her carpenter husband's career with the Navy, Tomalin does not try to defend him. What she doesn't have to say is that we only know the worst about him because he himself held back nothing. As Tomalin observes, "the shamelessness of his self-observation deserves to be called scientific."
If Pepys's Diary is "always a rhapsody with himself at the centre," identifying the crises that influenced his journey through life becomes Tomalin's own organizing principle. Among the early riveting scenes is the one she paints of his operation for the removal of a stone that has passed from his kidney into his bladder. After a childhood and early manhood marred by near-constant pain, Pepys survived being tied to a chair and cut open by a deft surgeon, who used no anaesthetic and was ignorant of sterile procedure. Pepys celebrated his "Stone" anniversary for the rest of his life. Doubtless his warm embrace of everything life had to offer owes something to this triumph over an illness that would return in his waning years. In today's terms, Pepys was a survivor; like all survivors, he was also lucky. His surgeon, Thomas Hollier, was enjoying a very good year in 1658, with thirty successful operations; the following year his first four patients died.
Yet the combination of intelligence, moderate risk-taking and good luck held for Sam. His wife, whom he undoubtedly loved, died of a fever after they returned from a trip to her native France; she was just twenty-nine. Although saddened, Sam survived, as he did all the crises of his lifetime. In the Great Plague Year of 1665 Tomalin shows him returning again and again to London as the pestilence raged, while most everyone who could afford to fled to the countryside. "I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done during this plague-time," he wrote, while a sixth of the population of London died around him. Tomalin compares this strange ebullience to "men and women at war or under bombardment who have found themselves living on an adrenalin high that gives extra intensity to every experience."
During the last years of Charles II's reign, Pepys endured a serious attack from the odious Lord Shaftesbury, who claimed he was a secret papist (not true, he was barely an observant Protestant). With typical tenacity Pepys employed his former brother-in-law to go to France and get the goods on the man Tomalin calls the "swaggering villain" John Scott, whose testimony Shaftesbury had used to build his case. Although he spent some time in the Tower, Pepys kept his head, while others, equally innocent, did not. Again the tailor's son proved his mettle. In typical Pepys fashion, he amassed a wealth of written material on the outrageous lies and behaviour of the nefarious Scott, who fascinated him. "It has all the raw materials for a novel by Defoe," writes Tomalin, "and it is Pepys most surprising legacy."
Pepys then undertakes a voyage to Tangier for the Navy, tacking on a trip to Spain; he remains loyal to his boss, James II, and so falls out of favour with the new regime of William and Mary; yet many friends and interests¨including scientific experiments¨keep him busy. By the time of his death in 1703, we're fond of the man, and concerned with how the Diary and "its tumbling stream of information" survived. In her Epilogue, Tomalin's detective work traces the slow emergence of the secret document, from its careful removal to Pepys's old college, Magdalene, the first curious incursion into his papers in 1812, to the appearance of the first bowdlerized Diary in 1825. From then on Pepys was never out of fashion, although the whole Diary as he had written it did not appear until 1970. Pepys's publishing history echoes many of the themes in his own life¨ambition, class prejudice, anger, jealousy, money-missing only the joie de vivre that Pepys willed to posterity in his "secret masterpiece." Tomalin leaves us with the firm impression that Pepys would have enjoyed this final chapter as immensely as he enjoyed life itself. ˛

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