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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Restoration by Rose Tremain

imgres-1I only discovered the existence of Rose Tremain’s Booker Prize shortlisted (in 1989), Restoration, after watching the sumptuous film of the same name starring Robert Downey Jnr, Sam Neil, Meg Ryan, Ian McKellen, Hugh Grant and a host of other famous faces which was made in 1995, and sought information about what inspired it. Lo and behold, it was an award-winning novel – and what a novel it is.

imgres-2Set during the early years of Charles II’s reign, it follows the rather hedonistic pursuits of the middle-aged doctor, Robert Merivel. At first it was hard to reconcile the rather chubby, unattractive Merivel in the novel with the young and gorgeous Downey on film. Once I was able to cast his image aside, I could imagine the spoiled, well-fed and self-indulgent Merivel who, eternally curious finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the decadent court of his king.

Told from Merivel’s perspective, the book follows his introduction to court life, his “rise” to becoming a seemingly indispensible part of the king’s retinue, the order he receives to wed and the calumnies that follow. From London, to the countryside, to the fens, through plague, fire and war, from favourite to disgraced, the novel follows Merivel’s attempts to restore himself to the life he knew and loved – but which one exactly?

Beautifully written, what’s strange and compelling about this book is Merivel himself. Usually, most readers would be repelled by a narrator who is so determined to satisfy his every whim, want and base desire, regardless of who he might con, hurt or inconvenience in the process. Yet, it’s testimony to Tremain’s fantastic portrayal, the insights she gives Merivel into his own short-comings and the fact he so rarely makes excuses for his lapses in judgement or undoubtedly selfish choices, that he nonetheless is so endearing. A rogue, a drunkard, a fornicator, liar and procrastinator, Merivel revels in his body and urges in a Bacchanalian fashion that’s both appalling and utterly fascinating.imgres

A clever man, Merivel is also fundamentally kind and, in a strange way, loyal and with an ability to accept the circumstances he finds or places himself in with reluctant equanimity, and these qualities really do shine. Philosophical and insatiably inquisitive about people, we experience the micro events of his life and the greater macro ones of his liege and kingdom, as well as the characters he encounters and who help to shape his life through his eyes – and what an original and wonderful set they are.

It’s hard to do justice to this book and the quality of the prose. It is outstanding and I found it difficult to tear myself away from the time, the events and, in the end, Merivel himself.

More sumptuous than the film with its lavish descriptions that fire the mind, and with a plot that owes as much to the picaresque as it does to the diaries of Samuel Pepys (there is something very Pepysian in Merival’s revelations and the honesty with which he explores his own faults and flaws and both revels in them and acknowledges the limitations they set), if you’re looking for a terrific novel in which to lose yourself, an accurate but exciting and thoughtful rendition of a period (it’s as much about the 1980s as it is the 1660s), and an original and beguiling protagonist to take you on the journey, then I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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