Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
by Claire Tomalin
A review by Philip Hensher
On 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 lot.
Dinners were eaten all across the world on October 24, 1662, but it is fair
to say that only the Recording Angel knows, or could ever know, about more than
half a dozen of them. This dinner we do know about: we know what they ate, why
they ate it, why they enjoyed it, why they were in a good mood with each other.
And we happen to know lots of other things about the circumstances in which
they sat and ate tripe: how much money they had at that moment, what their house
looked like, how good their health was. Not one of these circumstances could
be considered important in any obvious way; each has the quality, instead, of
being interesting, which is much stranger and much harder to achieve. We know
about the socially aspiring dish of tripe and the randy morning because the
man wrote it all down.
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 events.
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. (The
Diary of Samuel Pepys, 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 memoirs of Lord
Hervey and those of Saint-Simon.
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
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 John
Evelyn's Diary, 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 Religio
Medici 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
The 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
journals, or Benjamin
Haydon's, 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.
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 diaries
of Virginia Woolf. 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 Barnaby
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.
From a 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
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."
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
Jordan, are all unforgettable, and her last biography, a life of Jane
Austen, 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
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.
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