I’ve always been fascinated by Samuel Pepys, a man who virtually on a whim, decided to keep a detailed account of his daily life in London for almost ten years, starting, auspiciously, in the year 1660, the same year Charles the II was crowned and the English monarchy restored. In this biography of the ambitious, observant, egotistic but also incredibly forthright (often at his own expense) man, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Claire Tomalin offers the reader incredible insights into not just Pepys, who rose from very humble beginnings to wine and dine with as well as earn the trust of powerful men who appreciated his intellect and cunning, but the King and court as well. It was Samuel Pepys who not only sailed with Charles when he returned to English shores after his exile, but in September, 1666, took it upon himself to warn King Charles that London was burning.
From his marriage to the much put upon and very young Elizabeth, to his rise up the ranks as an efficient and knowledgeable navy administrator and, later, parliamentarian, we follow Pepys’s footsteps up the ladder of bureaucracy and social life but also through some of the great events of that century – from the civil wars to the execution of Charles I and the Interregnum, followed by the Restoration. Against the backdrop of war, religious turmoil, plague, fire and the rebuilding of London, Pepys records his thoughts, desires, actions and those of others he observes in delightful (coded) detail, using French (or a version thereof) when the specificities are a little too saucy. Pepys was a staunch supporter of Cromwell until practicality made him switch loyalties to first Charles and, later, his brother, King James, proving himself over and over as man worth having by your side.
Throughout the decade that the diary records and the fuller, rich life on either side of the volumes into which Tomalin gives us incredible insights, we learn of Pepys’ patronage of various people, his pleasure in good food, clothing, books, theatre and women – from barmaids, to actresses, to his maidservants – and even his obsession with the King’s mistress, Barbara Palmer, about whom he dreams. Proud, clever, and incredibly hardworking, Pepys was also brave and endured much, especially in terms of his physical health. He survived an early kidney stones operation and his recording and Tomalin’s recreation of the surgery (if you can call it that), is not for the feint of heart.
With an eye for scandal, a love of gossip and the ability to place the reader in the moment by recording the most intimate of moments – Pepys’ diary and the life Tomalin introduces us too are really quite exceptional. I felt a cease of bereavement when I finished the book because I so enjoyed getting to know Pepys. While there were times I felt a little repelled by some of what he shares (eg. when he masturbates and how readily he touches up other women and lusts after them – he is a lecherous soul), the man, for all his faults (which we only know of because he so readily reveals them), grew on me. Mellowing in old age, allowing his ready compassion for fellow humans to come to the fore, Tomalin continues to give us the same type of depth of understanding that Pepys’ own words did, and this is testimony to her fine research, ability to analyse her discoveries and effortless prose, that she keeps Pepys alive not just socially, but also emotionally and psychologically.
The final words in the book sum up both Pepys and, indeed, this wonderful book beautifully. Tomalin writes of the diary: “The achievement is astounding, but there is no show or pretension; and when you turn over the last page of the Diary you know you have been in the company of both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet.”
Tomalin is extraordinary rather than ordinary and her book on Pepys is a marvel. That we have the diaries at all (and thus, Tomalin’s work) is more accident than design and the story of how they were found after years languishing on dusty shelves, unread and unknown, is a terrific way to end Pepys’s tale.
Whether you’re a lover of history, are curious about this well-known figure who was, in essence, just another London gent, or enjoy the period about which Pepys and Tomalin write, or are a fan of biographies, then I can’t recommend this highly enough.