Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

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.

333295From 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.


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King Charles II by Antonia Fraser

imgres-1It is a literary accomplishment to write a detailed and well-researched biography so that it reads like a rollicking piece of great fiction. Antonia Fraser’s, King Charles II is, like her other fabulous historical non-fiction works, such a book. In this wonderful and erudite tome, she tells the tale of a monarch who, against a backdrop of religious, political and cultural upheaval, dissent and change, rises above the conditions of his early childhood and the untimely and savage death of his father, Charles I, and consequent exile, to restore the monarchy and an uneasy peace to England.

Known as the “merry monarch” (among other less favourable appellations) and for being lazy, lustful, debauched, dissolute and inclined to petticoat government, Fraser presents a different picture of this rather marvellous and fascinating king. Born to loving parents, Charles was given all that a young royal should be: a good education, belief in himself and his family, an understanding of the important role he was set to inherit, and an awareness of the religion he must adopt as his own: the Anglicanism of his father as opposed to the Catholicism of his mother.

Protected from much of what was occurring in the realm and beyond its borders, the execution of his father was a shock. First challenging Oliver Cromwell and his troops, Charles is later forced to flee England. His unbelievable flight (Fraser describes this period of his life wonderfully, claiming the truth is better than much of the fiction – she is right) allows for the rise and ultimate rule of the Protector, Cromwell and the period known as the Interregnum. Homeless and dependent on the grudging charity of his Scottish vassals as well as various rulers across the continent for many years and the loyalty of committed (if few) royalists, Charles, as Fraser argues, could not help but be affected both by what he endured (poverty, dependence, hunger, pain) and witnessed in the lives of others. These experiences would remain with him for the rest of his life.

Restored to the English throne in 1660 and returning by invitation of the Parliament that was only recently the enemy of the monarchy, Charles determines to be an arbitrator. For all the goodwill and gratitude Charles has, the return of the king also inspires opposition. Describing the rise of the Whigs and the development of the Tories, Fraser paints a picture of a city (London) and of a country slowly tearing itself apart with political and religious discord and suspicion and a monarch seemingly helpless to prevent it. Only, as the author acknowledges, he isn’t helpless at all. Learning from his mistakes, Charles uses whatever in his power to delay what he feels are poor decisions or the pressure of the Commons. Proroguing parliament many, many times, he manages (mostly, but not always) to avoid catastrophic results; procrastinating (like Queen Elizabeth First) becomes a strategy to exert benign control, a practising of what Fraser terms “negative capability”. It is a stroke of brilliance that allows Charles II to have his way without accusations of absolutism sticking.

Weathering the storms of anti-Catholic sentiment and various plots and accusations against the throne, particularly those delivered towards his immediate family, lovers, and favoured retainers, as well as enormous debt and an inability to repay it, Charles II also had a reputation as a seeker of pleasure and an irreverent ladies man. The father of his people, he was also father to 12 illegitimate children from different women – nobles, actresses, and gentry. In fact, the only woman with whom he had a long relationship and who did not produce a child was his wife, Catherine of Braganza – a tolerant and devout woman who stood by Charles even after his death.

A good, interested father, and a well-regarded lover, Fraser argues that far from using women, Charles II adored and respected them. Allowing women on stage for the first time in English history, and encouraging female playwrights such as Aphra Behn, women, according to Fraser, held a better position in the seventeenth century than they did in the nineteenth. But it wasn’t only women who piqued his insatiable interest, Charles also supported science, music, landscaping, building and, importantly, was the monarch who ruled throughout the Plague that decimated a quarter of London’s population in 1665, and earned the undying admiration of his people when he fought side by side with them during the Great Fire of 1666.

There was much to esteem about Charles II and, if it hadn’t been for his wheelings and dealings with his cousin, Louis XIV, from whom he was promised money ensuring he wasn’t dependent on parliament for the same, his record (disregarding morality) as a tolerant (he tried to introduce Bills to allow religious toleration, but such was the anti-papist sentiment in the country, the Commons and Lords wouldn’t pass it) would have been relatively unblemished. Relatively.

Certainly, the popularity of the king rose and fell according to various goings-on at home and abroad – war with the Dutch, religious persecution, accusations levelled against his brother and queen and the choler and sustained antagonism levelled against him by figures such as Shaftesbury who could stir up both the gentry and the masses.

Overall, however, Fraser tries (and succeeds) in persuading us that far from being a “merry” monarch, Charles II was melancholy, “cynical and dissimulating”. He was simply able to hide it well and present, especially in the first decades of his reign, a contented, “lazy” face. But she also describes him as “witty and kind, grateful, generous, tolerant, and essentially lovable, he was rightly mourned by his people…”

Beautifully written, impeccably researched, peppered with quotes from dramatists and poets of the age, as well as from Charles II himself and those nearest and dearest to him (such as his wife and his mistresses like Nelly Gwyn), we are given insights into the man “born the divided world to reconcile,” this is a book and life that is difficult to tear yourself away from.

For lovers of British history or just history; for those wanting an insight into the tumultuous Seventeenth Century and an oft misunderstood but charismatic ruler who formed a bridge between the Interregnum and the events leading to James II’s fall, as well as those that changed the world (from colonial expansion, trade and the beginnings of factories, never mind religious division and dissent), this is a terrific book by a marvellous historian and writer.


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