Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: Not Quite As Fun As the Real Thing

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Lately, I’ve been fascinated by Samuel Pepys, mostly thanks to a twitter account that’s tweeting his diary line by line. The diary itself is a hell of a beast: it runs for several volumes, was written in shorthand and wasn’t published in full until the mid 1970s.

For about a decade, he kept a detailed diary of his day-to-day life: what plays he saw, what gossip he heard at work, what he did for pleasure and what was happening around him. He did it in an objective way, often writing about himself as just another character, exposing his flaws. It’s a fascinating look at turbulent time in English history.

Thing is, it’s a daunting read. You can get public domain editions for cheap for the Kindle, but they’re old and likely bowdlerized. There’s a few print editions, but they’re either edited down (Penguin’s edition runs over 1,000 pages, only covers a selection of the diary and is pricy to boot) or based off those older versions. And Oxford, who I usually turn when it comes to older English lit, doesn’t have an edition at all.

So with all that in mind, I turned another way to learn more about Pepys, to Claire Tomalin’s biography Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self. I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed, but I feel like there should be a better choice out there.

Her biography covers the life of Pepys, divided basically into three sections: before, during and after he wrote the diary. While we have a glut of information on the middle period (thanks to Pepys), details on the other two are a little spotty. Here’s where Tomalin’s biography works best: taking information from a huge range of sources and distilling them all into a cohesive whole, giving readers a clear narrative of how the son of a poor tailor rose to a position of power and riches in Restoration-era England.

And even here, there are still problems. For example, we don’t know how Pepys met his wife Elizabeth, just that they were a couple by the time the diary started. This isn’t shocking, considering they met nearly 400 years ago. There’s a lot we don’t know about people of a much more recent vintage and I think it’s a testament to Tomalin’s researching abilities to form a narrative out of this spotty record. And she does a good job at pointing out the foibles of the man: he had his flaws, including a couple that’d probably land him in jail today.

What I enjoyed her less were the diary years. She switches from a linear history of Pepys to cover his diary thematically: one chapter covers his life at work, another his extramarital affairs, etc. It’s a bit of a jarring switch and has the effect of spoiling itself. When she quickly moves through the diary, jumping over whole sections, we learn what’s going to happen to people before we get there.

Another problem I had was her interpretations and extrapolations of the diary. There’s a general sense of not letting Pepys speak for himself: he’s often quoted and referenced, but rarely at length. Instead, Tomalin often suggests what she thinks Pepys meant by a certain phrase or why he wrote the way he did. There’s a lot of supposition here – probably a trait any biographer would have – but it’s hard not to wonder why she didn’t let someone who wrote so much speak for himself so much. Especially given the praise she has for his diary.

An example of such extrapolation:

Moving so fast through the events of each day and the crowds of the people with whom he had dealings, his energy burns off blame, making it surprisingly hard to disapprove of him. Pausing for a moment to make a few vows to curb his own behaviour, he remarks that “my love of pleasure is such, that my very soul is angry with itself for my vanity in so doing.” He means, I think, that is moral vanity in him to be making vows that aim above his real level, and that in his soul, he thinks it might be better to remain his authentic, pleasure loving self. (Pg. 188)

Some of the conclusions seem a little odd too. A point is often made that Pepys was unusually forward in his thinking, that his objective look at himself is a more modern attitude than a 17th century one. I suppose this is true, but only in a general sense: it’s neat that he was thinking about himself the way many of us do, but what’s not to say that’s a modern thing? Even Gilgamesh had some of the same issues on his mind as we do now and he’s been dead for what, 4,000 years?

Tomalin’s book closes with a look at Pepys later life: he was elected as a MP, with a high post in the English Navy. He was pretty well off financially, wrote a history of the Navy and had formidable library to boot. He’d risen from humble beginnings to friendly relationships with Earls, Dukes and even two different Kings: Charles II and James II. He even spent a spell as a political prisoner in the Tower of London.

And while he was in many ways a fascinating man with an interesting life, Tomalin makes it clear that his greatest contribution was his diary, which doesn’t just cover a turbulent period of English history or show an inside look at the government’s workings. It’s that he has a clear, lucid and insightful look at his own life and everything that happened within.

And that is what makes it tough to really recommend the biography. I felt sometimes like I was reading a padded out introduction and afterward, but maybe that’s unavoidable when reading a book about a book. And while it’s occasionally a gripping read, I was often bogged down in the supporting details; I understand that the Earl of Sandwich played a role in Pepys life, but I didn’t need nearly this much information on him.

Rating: 5/10. I don’t regret reading her biography of Pepys and I’d even recommend giving it a read if you’re interested in this period of English history. But next time I feel like reading about Pepys, I’ll go to the real thing.


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