Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Samuel Pepys - The Unequaled SelfOn January 1, 1660, a British man in his late 20s, with a promising career in naval administration ahead of him, began to keep a diary. He wrote in shorthand, occasionally incorporating other languages when his subject matter – usually an affair or other illicit sexual encounter – caused him sufficient guilt. He stopped at the close of the decade, when his failing eyesight and the fear of blindness made continuing too onerous. But for almost a decade, he chronicled his life with unblinking faithfulness, giving us insight into his marriage, his career and the demands of the London social scene. More than that, his career gave him an incredible vantage point from which to survey one of the most explosive periods in the history of England, from the fall of Charles I and the rise of Cromwell to the Great Plague of London, the Restoration of the monarchy, the Great Fire of London and the Second Dutch War. He consulted for both Charles II and James II, befriended the poet Andrew Marvell and would eventually become President of the Royal Society, in which capacity he met some of the age’s greatest scientists, including Isaac Newton (Pepys’ name appears on the title page of the Principia Mathematica, published under his tenure in the Royal Society). He is widely considered the greatest diarist of all time, and has been a subject of endless fascination to scholars and lay readers alike. For those in the latter category, or for anyone who finds the 9-volume, million-plus word definitive edition of the Diary too intimidating, Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self is a marvellous introduction to the man and his writings, a condensing and a contextualizing that brings Pepys and his London to life.

This is a biography, beginning before the first entry in the diary and ending long after the last. To recover the six decades of his life not exhaustively chronicled in his own hand, Tomalin spent a decade of her own life doing research, reading the writings of his contemporaries – from shipbuilding manuals to romance tutorials for young men – as well as historians, biographers, and naval and literary scholars. The diary itself takes for granted that its readers would be familiar with the people, places and events it describes, but Tomalin immerses us in that history, reviving for us the London of the 17th century, a place of excitement and optimism as well as political turmoil, religious strife and shifting identity. Pepys is very much at the center of this, as he begins his life a republican and staunch supporter of Cromwell, and gradually changes sympathies as the political winds change. Nepotism is the fastest and most reliable way to rise in the England of that period, but it is also dangerous: as the country tilts between republicanism and monarchy, or Catholicism and Protestantism, allegiances become more and more fraught with peril. For most of his career, Pepys deftly managed this aspect of his public life, and managed to rid himself of most of his republican baggage just as Charles II returned to the throne. As readers of the diary, we witness the immense effort he puts into his career – the long days, and longer weeks – and the skill with which he gradually amasses a fortune. He takes great delight in building up his personal library or in upgrading his home, for example, but Tomalin is equally interested in his romantic relationships. His choice of wife, for example, offers some insight into the young Pepys. When he is 22 years old, he marries a 14-year-old daughter of a French Catholic family; she comes with no dowry or helpful political connections. Their marriage is tumultuous, marked by frequent affairs on Pepys’ part, and quite a lot of domestic strife – he “blackens her eyes” on multiple occasions – but there is a great deal of affection and mutual respect there as well. He helps her cultivate an interest in the arts, and she takes great pride in his career accomplishments. In the diary, Pepys frequently condemns himself for his infidelity, making grandiose promises of repentance and a change of ways, but always he returns to his philandering. If his conscience is ever particularly in need of assuaging, he buys his wife an expensive item of jewelry or clothing, as if he kept some ledger of debits and credits that enabled an expensive present to cancel out an infidelity.

What Tomalin insists is unique about Pepys’ writing – and what she conveys in her own biography – is his insistence on looking at himself with the same penetrating honesty with which he scrutinized the exterior world. We see Pepys at his worst, cheating on his wife or refusing to support his sister, for example, but we see him also at his best, taking an active interest in the career of a promising young man, or working tirelessly on charities he was involved in. He does not romanticize about himself, and while we see aspects of him that are off-putting or dishonest, these combine with the rest of his character to present us with that much more complicated, that much more detailed a portrait. “It is life,” Tomalin writes, “but as he writes it down it becomes art, and it is the art of a diarist of genius, one who does not choose to give himself the beau rôle.” Tomalin synthesizes that genius for us, and conjures up for us the England that he lived, loved and died in. And by so doing, she revives him for us, in all his complications and contradictions.

Finally, a thank you to my mother for the gift of this beautiful book.