Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
For a decade, beginning in 1660, an ambitious young London civil servant kept an astonishingly candid account of his life during one of the most defining periods in British history. In Samuel Pepys, Claire Tomalin offers us a fully realized and richly nuanced portrait of this man, whose inadvertent masterpiece would establish him as the greatest diarist in the English language.
Against the backdrop of plague, civil war, and regicide, with John Milton composing diplomatic correspondence for Oliver Cromwell, Christopher Wren drawing up plans to rebuild London, and Isaac Newton advancing the empirical study of the world around us, Tomalin weaves a breathtaking account of a figure who has passed on to us much of what we know about seventeenth-century London. We witness Pepys’s early life and education, see him advising King Charles II before running to watch the great fire consume London, learn about the great events of the day as well as the most intimate personal details that Pepys encrypted in the Diary, follow him through his later years as a powerful naval administrator, and come to appreciate how Pepys’s singular literary enterprise would in many ways prefigure our modern selves. With exquisite insight and compassion, Samuel Pepys captures the uniquely fascinating figure whose legacy lives on more than three hundred years after his death.
Claire Tomalin was born to write a biography of Samuel Pepys. Her previously acclaimed biographies of Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft have defined her as a scrupulous biographer who establishes a unique empathy with her subjects. In Pepys Tomalin has found her perfect subject, a man who is “both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet”.
Pepys wrote his diary throughout the 1660s, “a period as intellectually thrilling as it was dangerous and bloody”, and Tomalin’s book vividly brings to life the tumultuous world of 17-century London, where Pepys grew up. Pepys’ life spanned the execution of one king and the restoration of another, and Tomalin elegantly recreates both Pepys’ public and private lives. From his early days in London and then Cambridge, Tomalin pieces together the crucial years when “the private Samuel Pepys began to develop and yearn”. She chronicles his rise through the bureaucracy of the restored king, Charles II, to his position as energetic reformer of the navy and successful husband to his vivacious, mercurial wife Elizabeth. But the book also deals with Pepy’s personal tragedies, his struggle to secure patronage as a commoner, his frank and hilarious extra-marital exploits, and the cataclysmic Fire of London in 1666.
This is a fine biography of an extraordinary man who “found the energy and commitment to create a new literary form” while also coming across as a generous, likeable, flawed human being. Tomalin’s admiration for her subject is infectious, and will ensure that her biography becomes the standard reference for anyone interested in both Pepys’s life and his art.—Jerry Brotton