Sunday, 8 May 2005

Samuel Pepys

Listening to:

Handel, Concerto Grosso, op. 6, no. 12 in B minor.

Just read:

Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self, by Claire Tomalin.

This is an engaging biography of the famous 17th century diarist. Pepys provides the modern world with eye-witness accounts of the plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, but also provides a revealing window onto his innermost foibles and thoughts. This is quite a contrast with other diarists of the day, such as Pepys’s friend John Evelyn. This additional information about Pepys’s inner life means that his modern biographer can paint a much more rounded picture.

Even in the absence of his diary, Pepys would be an interesting historical personage to observe from afar. He was a great example of a self-made man: he pulled himself into a prominent position, exploiting connections with the high and mighty, but advancing because they valued his administrative skills. For all that nepotism got him a number of his positions initially, his success in the jobs he won makes Pepys an interesting example of an early civil servant. Pepys’s career soon came to centre around the Royal Navy, and the administration of its dockyards and provisioning arrangements. This makes for interesting reading in itself: Pepys was in the heart of things when England fought three successive naval wars against the Dutch. For example, it’s interesting to read about the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667. This coup for the Dutch saw them sail up the Thames, burn a number of ships, and capture the Royal Charles. Pepys was part of the civil service responsible for the Navy, and he had to take care that blame for the disaster did not attach to him.

Earlier in his life, Pepys had to negotiate the tricky waters of the Restoration, when Cromwell’s Protectorate was on the way out, and Charles II needed to be winkled into the nation’s top job. This called for some rather delicate judgement: it was important to time one’s jump into the King’s camp carefully. Too early and the existing government would have you up for treachery; too late and the new government would see you as part of the old regime and to be purged. Pepys was lucky in his benefactors here, and Tomalin describes this part of his career very well.

Tomalin’s biography is also very good on Pepys’s personal life: his relations with his parents, cousins, wife and servants. Pepys comes alive, and I felt I knew and liked him. That’s not to say that he was a saint, but the impression is that he was basically a fairly good-hearted man. When the story of his life comes to an end, and Tomalin describes his deathbed, I felt quite sad about the whole business. That’s surely the sign of a successful biography.