Summer Reading Sale

Reviews From


The New Republic Online
Thursday, March 20th, 2003


Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

by Claire Tomalin

Pepys Show

A review by Lawrence Lipking

In the summer of 1665, a great plague descended on London. The sickness spread like an invisible fire, fueled by anyone who helplessly crossed its path. Stealing from west to east, at last it penetrated the walls of the city. People of means and fashion fled to the country, while the bodies of those who could not escape were piled in carts and dumped into pits. Preachers cried up the wrath of a vengeful God; quacks peddled their cure-alls until they too succumbed. The city became a vast prison: watchmen guarded the doors of infected houses, sealing the doom of the inmates. Grass grew in the desolate streets. Eventually one hundred thousand people died, one-sixth of the city's population. These were among the happiest days of Samuel Pepys's life.

It is not that Pepys was callous. The reason we know about his happiness, in fact, is that he keeps fussing about it. How strange, to feel so good while so many poor wretches are dying! "I do end this month with the greatest content, and may say that these last three months, for joy, health, and profit, have been much the greatest that ever I received in all my life in any twelve months almost in my life — having nothing upon me but the consideration of the sicklinesse of the season during this great plague to mortify mee," he wrote. "For all which the Lord God be praised!"

In truth, Pepys did have much for which to be thankful. His appetite and his energy seemed to be boundless. As a rising star in the Navy Office, he mixed with the great and powerful, and found opportunities to make loads of money; with his wife safely away in Woolwich, he could pursue women freely; he organized an elegant aristocratic wedding that made him feel like an important person; he flitted about on business; and in his spare time he hosted parties with merry music and dancing. Staying alive was proof of God's favor (apparently the fleas that carried the plague did not relish the taste of his blood). Each drop of life, at such a time, was sweet.

Even his dreams could be turned to advantage. One night he enjoyed the king's most beautiful mistress,

the best that ever was dreamed — which was, that I had my Lady Castlemayne in my arms and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her, and then dreamed that this could not be awake but that it was only a dream. But that since it was a dream and that I took so much real pleasure in it, what a happy thing it would be, if when we are in our graves (as Shakespeere resembles it), we could dream, and dream but such dreams as this — that then we should not need to be so fearful of death as we are this plague-time.

In Pepys's good mood, to be or not to be might be equally productive of pleasure. Hence Hamlet's dread of the dreams that may come "in that sleep of death" melts into eternal erotic bliss.

A happy wet dream can make someone's day, despite or because of the plague. But not many people admit or bask in such self-indulgence. Pepys does, when he whispers into the ear of his journals; it is one thing that makes him human. In every way he is a self-interested man, perpetually looking after number one, surprising himself, conniving at snatching some profit or fresh sensation. Nothing can quench that interest. A famous sentence of Camus's The Plague maintains, "No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all." But Pepys is not so high-minded; he holds on to an individual destiny and does not pretend to share collective emotions. Though fully engaged in the public affairs of the day, at night, in his diaries, he contracts the world into what truly matters to him, and there the world is centered on himself.

Claire Tomalin appreciates that world. One problem in any biography of Pepys is conveying the shock that awaits every new reader of the diaries, their amazing intimacy and candor. From 1660 to 1669, when he began to fear for his eyes, Pepys filled notebooks with about 1.25 million words, in shorthand and sometimes a polyglot pidgin. He may or may not have intended them to be read, but at his death in 1703 he left them, along with the rest of his books, to the library of Magdalene College, Cambridge. There they reposed for more than a century. Finally a drastically edited transcript was published in 1825, then other, expanded versions appeared; the complete text came to light only in 1970, in the superb edition of Robert Latham and William Matthews.

This peculiar history adds to the charm of Pepys's writing. It is as if each reader were prying into a secret cabinet, cracking a code, and suddenly present inside the text — not so much meeting the author face-to-face as seeing with his eyes. One almost feels guilty at coming so close. Tomalin keeps this experience fresh. Though long acquaintance has made Pepys familiar to her, she never forgets the surprise: somehow dead hopes and passions have come back to life. The opening scene of this biography watches Pepys watching himself as he argues viciously with his wife, at first in bed and then as he roams the room, half dressed, while tearing up her private papers (including his own love letters). All this is almost too shameful to read. How can we still be friends with this man? But of course we want more.

We also want to understand the context. For all their vividness, the diaries are far from self-explanatory. Pepys does not have time to interpret what he is doing. Nor is it his business to tell us how he spent the first part of his life (the diaries begin when he is nearly twenty-seven), who his relatives and mistresses are, how English society is structured, what history has shaped the present day, or what is going to happen in the future. He does give us the daily news, quite wonderfully, but no map of London. Some readers might enjoy the clutter and buzz into which the diaries thrust them; a skimpy background seems a small price to pay for such immediacy. But other readers will want a fuller picture.

Tomalin offers an excellent guided tour. She sorts out the complex political and family relationships that one must know in order to make sense of Pepys's career; she colorfully sketches the habits and street life of seventeenth-century London; she shows us another possible way of viewing her subject, in which the diarist counts for less than the administrator who re-organized the navy — the hero as bureaucrat (as in the older studies of Pepys by John Tanner and Arthur Bryant). This book makes it easy to get around in Pepys's world. It includes a family tree, nice maps, a useful list that identifies principal figures (where we can find that Lady Castlemaine was Barbara Villiers and later the duchess of Cleveland), and good notes and illustrations. And Tomalin does her best to bring Pepys's early and later years to life as vividly as the years of the diaries — though no one but him could have finished the job.

The portrait of Elizabeth Pepys is especially fine. Married to Samuel in 1655, when he was twenty-two and she was fourteen, she brought good looks, intelligence, and a bit of style (she had grown up in Paris), but no money and not much sexual satisfaction. (A recurrent cyst made intercourse painful for her, and the couple never managed to have a child.) At times he was happy and proud of her; at times he abused her, including occasional blows. But Elizabeth held her own. As Tomalin shows, she never stopped scrapping, and turned the tables on his affairs by flirting and making him jealous. And when she caught him embracing her maid, Deb Willet, "con my hand sub su coats; and endeed, I was with my main in her cunny," her rage put her in charge. A full-scale family war broke out. Pepys sheepishly heard her insults, followed her orders (when he could not sneak away), and eventually gave Deb up. Unfortunately Elizabeth's ascendance did not last. She died quite suddenly the following year, just after her twenty-ninth birthday. The memorial bust of her that Pepys commissioned still survives. "She is shown as though in mid conversation," Tomalin writes, "slightly smiling, her mouth open and her eyes wide, still intent on the comedy of the world."

That description also catches the tone of this book. Tomalin is lively, amused, and worldly. Though quite aware that Pepys exposes himself as "lecher and liar," she loves the humanist in him, the frisky skeptic enthralled by the way that people really behave. After all, cos fan tutte — and tutti, too. "What he expressed in his Diary was what many — most, perhaps — men feel at some time in their lives, when success is within their grasp and their energies are running high: that they would like to possess every pretty girl in the world, or at least to make love to every girl who catches their eye as she passes by in the street," she writes. Similarly, if Pepys used his office as "surveyorgeneral of victualling for the navy" to cash in on "presents" from the suppliers, he was only doing what any enterprising steward would have done. Such behavior may be corrupt, but it is all in the way of the world.

Moreover, it suits London. Pepys's virtues and vices alike belong to the city, the place where he was born, above his father's tailoring shop, and which he made his own. Something was always happening around the corner: royal weddings and royal beheadings, parades and riots, one year a plague and another a fire. Pepys keeps his nose in everybody's business. He delights in a well-acted play or a hot piece of gossip; he revels in music and gadgets and new scientific ideas (in 1684 he was elected president of the Royal Society and put it in trim, as he did with the navy). And though he pays homage to rank and fortune, his eyes are always wide open.

One day he went to a council meeting in Whitehall. "All I observed there is the silliness of the King, playing with his dog all the while, or his codpiece, and not minding the business, and what he said was mighty weak; but my Lord Keeper I observe to be a mighty able man." Later that day he took his wife to Bartholomew Fair to see a Punch and Judy show, then "sent for a side of pig" that he ate at the house of an acquaintance, where he inspected "some learned physique and Chymical Bookes," then dropped in on Mustapha, a grandiloquent tragedy that he admired despite some fluffs that broke up the actors, and ended the evening by chatting at home with friends. And so to supper and bed. Days in the city can be amazingly full.

For city people this life often seems a heaven on earth. Not a moment is empty, with so many things to do and so many people to meet, and when one pleasure has jaded another elbows it quickly out of the way. Curiosity is the essential virtue for someone like Pepys. Perpetually on the qui vive, he flits through the streets, and infinite riches pave his nimble steps. The diaries capture the lure of the city. In the golden days of the "Talk of the Town," before The New Yorker succumbed to celebrity fever, all its writers wanted to be Pepys — supremely unshockable and urbane, shielded by the crisp prose of Strunk and White from anything vulgar or fancy, tickled by all the fabulous cranks who popped into view, and never absorbed enough by a scene or idea to be tempted to linger. The blood of city people is stirred by rumors of a great party on the next block.

A country mouse might be overwhelmed by this bustle. From the perspective of honest squires and moral censors, life in the city can seem a shortcut to hell. Pepys himself was afraid of being seen at the playhouse, a frivolity or laxity that his superiors might condemn, and the debauchery of the court sometimes disgusted him, even while he imitated it. Guilt flavors his whoring and drinking. Pepys came from puritan stock, and he does not forget that God might be looking over his shoulder. On occasion the naval official takes kickbacks, cheats friends out of money, and lies under oath. That is just what a country moralist would expect and a cynical courtier would take for granted. But city people have to grow thick hides or sum things up, like Pepys, one day at a time.

From day to day life might change. It was not only London and Pepys but the times themselves that were caught in a whirlwind. We moderns, the heirs of Henry Adams, like to imagine that no one has ever had to adapt so fast to so many new ways of being. The latest technological wrinkles leave us gasping for air while consciousness limps behind. But Pepys's world moved just as quickly. At fifteen "a great roundhead," he watched the execution of Charles I and told his schoolmates "that were I to preach upon him, my text should be: `The memory of the wicked shall rot.'" He began his career by clerking for his cousin Edward Montagu, one of Oliver Cromwell's stalwarts. But after Cromwell died in 1658, Montagu secretly came to terms with the royalists, and early in 1660 he asked Pepys to accompany him on a mission to bring the son of Charles I home to England. The project was a success; and when Pepys read aloud the new king's letter to the fleet, "the seamen did all of them cry out `God bless King Charles!' with the greatest joy imaginable." Soon Montagu would be the earl of Sandwich, and Pepys a loyal servant of the crown. Meanwhile some former comrades lost their heads.

Survivors had to be ready to turn their coats. In 1659 John Dryden, who had been at Cambridge with Pepys and shared many sympathies with him, published his "Heroic Stanzas, Consecrated to the Glorious Memory of his most Serene and Renowned Highness Oliver, Late Lord Protector of this Commonwealth." The following year he published "Astraea Redux, A Poem on the Happy Restoration and Return of His Sacred Majesty Charles the Second." To encourage the others, Cromwell's head was chopped from his corpse and hung on a pole near the houses of Parliament, where it sat for twenty-five years. This played with people's minds. Dryden and Pepys had grown up in righteous households, but now libertinism seemed to be their civic duty.

Nor did the wheel stop turning. When Lord Sandwich fell from power in 1665, Pepys deftly disengaged himself from his great patron and henceforth avoided him like the plague. Worse was to come. The higher Pepys rose, the more enemies he attracted, particularly Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first earl of Shaftesbury, an old Cromwellian who knew how to nurse a grudge. When Titus Oates cooked up the Popish Plot in 1678 and hysteria about a Catholic takeover reduced the whole government to "such a state of distraction and fear, as no history I believe can parallel" (in Pepys's words), Shaftesbury struck. At the navy office Pepys had long served the duke of York, a devoted Catholic and the king's brother. Now guilt by association tainted the office. Pepys was accused of papist subversion and cast into the Tower. The evidence was ridiculously bogus — Pepys was never a Catholic, let alone a traitor — and soon he was free. But he did not get his job back. Charles II took care of dogs, hawks, and horses, but not his old servants.

One full turn of the wheel was left. A few years later Shaftesbury sank, with the new Whig party he founded, and Dryden imposed the name of Achitophel on him forever. Pepys discovered that he himself was a Tory, and that was a good thing to be. As the duke of York rose in power and finally, in 1685, was crowned James II, his friends also rose. For a shining moment Pepys had the ear and the trust of the king. But the Glorious Revolution of 1688 sent James into exile, and his faithful retainer, after a short stay in prison, to permanent retirement.

The rest of Pepys's life passed comfortably enough, by the standards of the times. He still had some money, as well as friends to look after him when he fell ill. Mary Skinner, a cultivated woman who had become his mistress not long after Elizabeth's death, gave him the ease of having a wife without any formal commitment. He published a little defense of his work in the Navy Office, and set his library in order. And before he died he took some pains to make sure that his books — and those six secret notebooks in shorthand — would find a safe haven.

Perhaps he had even managed to slow the revolutions of time. During those decades of rapid and frightening change, poets such as Dryden worried about the survival of English itself. Already Shakespeare's language was decomposing; to keep the plays alive, Dryden and other surgeons did them the favor of modernization, reviving Antony and Cleopatra as All for Love. Meanwhile the propaganda of cults and factions had twisted the meanings of time-honored English words, including "authority" and "the people." Would the next generation be able to understand what its parents had written? That seemed unlikely, just as unlikely as the survival of Chaucer, a poet Pepys loved. But Dryden, encouraged by his fellow outcast Pepys, converted some tales of Chaucer into snappy modern verse, and the public lapped them up. Nor did the next generation have any trouble reading Dryden.

Age has not withered Pepys either. Tomalin ranks him among the great writers, and a final plaudit brings in Milton, Dickens, and Proust. That air seems too rare for Pepys, who flew under the radar. But Tomalin is more convincing when she notes how close the language of the diaries comes to speech and what a fine ear the diarist has for the various ways that people talk. This stripped, spontaneous prose was made to last. Pepys did not write nearly so well in other, more public styles; evidently shorthand, like the prospect of hanging, concentrates the mind. But his greatest gift is simply paying attention to what he is thinking and doing and seeing and hearing. He tries not to lose a single tick of the clock.

In his final diary entry, Pepys describes another typical day: making a pass at an old flame whose husband is out of town, consulting with the duke of York at Whitehall, drowning his cares at a drinking house called the World's End. Then he says goodbye to his journal. "I must forbear; and therefore resolve from this time forward to have it kept by my people in longhand, and must therefore be contented to set down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know." Longhand and decorum are equally deadly, and when writing goes, life will go with it. "And so I betake myself that course which [is] almost as much as to see myself go into my grave."

Beneath the entry Pepys inscribes the date, May 31, 1669, and a monogram that elegantly twines his initials together (his bookplate, on the same page, anchors the S and P in a sailor's knot). This monogram might be considered a signature, a mark of pride or possession, or even the trace of an epitaph — hic jacet, more than thirty years premature. But it also serves as one last lively flourish. Hugging himself, the underground writer takes leave of the readers he will never know, who yet will know him inside. Here is his blazon, his strut. Pepys is still winking at us.

Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

  • back to top
Follow us on...

Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at