Observations on a remarkable life
I’m in love with a man who has been dead for 300 years. His name was Samuel Pepys*, royal civil servant, husband, employer, hedonist, and a more than a little lecherous. He was also a keen observer, lived at the center of London’s cultural and political life, and happily for posterity, a dedicated diarist. Pepys’ diary, kept between 1660 to 1669, details epic events in London’s history, most famously the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire the following year. But for anyone who has read the diary, much of its charm lies in the daily travails and wonders of its author. Originally written in shorthand only deciphered in the early 19th century, Pepys meant for his diary to be strictly for his own enjoyment—and held back nothing. The king is held in some contempt—Pepys expresses disapproval of His Majesty’s lavish lifestyle after the trials of Commonwealth and civil war—and free rein is given to expressing opinions of court intrigues, office bickering and the joys and pains of marriage. Most readers of the diary, however, find the best bits to be Pepys’ observations of the mundane bits of daily life: his fear that his obsession with home improvement will get the better of him, funny little episodes like the loss of lobsters in the back of a hackney cab and especially his relentless (and decidedly mixed) pursuit of success in love or lust.
Pepys’ turns of phrase and his talent with narrative within the diary is well worth the read (even if some bits get a little tedious and daunting), but for those who want to forego reading the entire diary, or wish to have a greater sense of context of Pepys’ world, biographer Claire Tomalin has written an account that makes a worthy companion to the diary. In Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Tomalin provides a lively account of the world before and after the diary. For instance, Pepys’ allusions in his diary to his operation for kidney stones, becomes more immediate and gruesome when Tomalin describes medical remedies of the day. Her extensive footnotes (worth reading on their own) allow the reader to trace specific examples in the diary, while a list of characters is helpful to anyone trying to sort out which Jane is which. I particularly enjoyed how Tomalin fleshed out the characters of the women in Pepys’ life: his cultured wife Elizabeth, married at 14 and dead at 29, comes to life more fully with Tomalin’s research and proves as engaging a subject as her husband. The only disappointment comes when Tomalin runs out of diary; lacking the daily record, Tomalin has to rely on official records and surviving letters, and the loss of Pepys’ vivid voice is missed.
More than anything, reading Pepys underscores how modern his life was. As a young man he rose from poor roots by drawing on connections to get ahead, went clubbing (his word) with his friends, and took time to enjoy life in spite of the political turmoil that surrounded him. In later life he again weathered changing regimes, fell out of favor and died in comfortable, if not as powerful, circumstances in 1703. For modern readers, Pepys’ life seems oddly familiar, even separated by centuries of history, and the richness of the diary, supplemented by Tomalin’s biography, attests to a life lived in full.