Here’s an article on Happy Days, a new book by Thomas Mellon on the life and times of Samuel Pepys, who some consider to be the father of blogging.
On another note, if you are interested in joining another webring, why not consider The Pepys Project, an index of journals and diaries from all over the world.
November 14, 2002
by THOMAS MALLON
The life and good times of Samuel Pepys.
Issue of 2002-11-18
Late in December, 1867, Charles Dickens lost his pocket diary. In a letter to his sister-in-law, he described its disappearance as something ” ‘which,’ as Mr Pepys would add, ‘do trouble me mightily.’ ” Dickens preferred to destroy his diaries himself rather than leave them to accident and prying eyes. The disposable books were never meant to preserve the past for future savoring, only to keep track of Dickens’s busy present and immediate future, especially his endless railway travel between his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and the far-flung platforms on which he gave dramatic public readings from his work. The pocket diaries provided no secret relief, as diaries sometimes do, from the mask of rectitude; they were a hedge against slipups and contradiction.
This story of Dickens’s lost diary comes from “The Invisible Woman,” Claire Tomalin’s 1991 study of the novelist’s affair with Ternan. Now, after two subsequent biographies, one of the eighteenth-century actress Dorothy Jordan and the other of Jane Austen, Tomalin has turned to Samuel Pepys, who sprang to Dickens’s mind, as he still springs to ours, whenever diaries come up. Pepys reinvented the genre, and has never ceased to be its most famous practitioner, at least in the English language. The million or so words he wrote between 1660 and 1669 revel, sometimes consciously and more often not, in the kinds of contradiction that Dickens sought to suppress. We experience Pepys as an alternating electric current: cuddling his wife before groping the housemaid; serving the king after serving the regicide; thanking God for the end of a plague year that has brought him more merriment and riches than any year before it.
Three centuries after his death, we sometimes kid ourselves with the weary, Zen-like vogue phrase “It’s all good.” To Pepys, it actually was, and all he wanted to do with his diary—a form previously used mostly in the pursuit of self-correction and spiritual growth—was hoard it, save up his life the way he buried his wine and his Parmesan cheese during the Great Fire of London, or had a special case constructed for the preservation and display of his surgically removed kidney stone. We’ve always thought of him as lucky, escaping venereal disease and the political gibbet, surviving his wife’s wrath along with his operation, the plague, and the fire. We forget that his luck sometimes failed him. His own house burned down; he served a stint in the Tower; he became suddenly, and young, a widower. But all those things happened in the three decades after he gave up the diary. The Pepys we know lived for only nine years and five months. In “Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self” (Knopf; $30), Tomalin gives us the rest of the man, and also a startling new way to read him.
Born in 1633 in London above his father’s tailor shop, Pepys grew up in a smoky, still medieval city of about a hundred and thirty thousand souls. As a schoolboy at St. Paul’s, he became accustomed to Puritan street preachers and political melees. In 1649, he was part of the approving crowd that saw Charles I lose his head. Always adept at finding patrons, he went off to Magdalene College, in republican Cambridge, with the help of “some powerful Cromwellians,” as Tomalin tells us. She does an exceptionally good job with the era’s manic politics and general funkiness, reminding us, for instance, how John Evelyn, another, if much tamer, diarist of the period, toyed with the idea of an “annual hair wash” in 1653.
During Cromwell’s rule, Pepys went out “clubbing”—a word he used with the same meaning it has now—in the company of his fellow government clerks, a surprisingly high-spirited bunch of low churchmen. He kept his brand-new wagon hitched to the star of Edward Montagu, later the Earl of Sandwich, who raised a regiment for Cromwell and was amply rewarded for it, but who, at the end of the sixteen-fifties, with the Lord Protector dead and a royalist tide running, switched sides with the alacrity of an Afghan warlord. As England went about resurrecting its Maypoles and Cromwell’s corpse (in order to put the head on a pike), Sandwich delivered the country’s fleet to Charles II. Pepys was in turn named to the restored Crown’s Navy Board. A house went along with the job. As Tomalin puts it, “The world had turned over, and he had come out on top.”
Late in 1659, while waiting for the political situation to settle down, he walked into John Cade’s Cornhill stationery shop and bought a two-hundred-and-eighty-two-page notebook. Before New Year’s, according to Tomalin, “he ruled neat margins in red ink down the left-hand side and across the top of each plain white page: seven inches down, five inches across.” These were the only boundaries he would set himself. He wrote his diary—always referred to by Tomalin with a capital “D”—in a shorthand he had learned at Cambridge, and he kept the enterprise a secret, especially from his wife, Elizabeth. The project was clearly important to him, but it betrays no deliberate seeking of literary achievement. When he wrote, four years into it, about “how the world makes nothing of the memory of a man, an houre after he is dead!,” he had no idea how thoroughly he was solving that problem for himself.
Tomalin is nicely aware that Pepys’s unconscious genius, as a writer and personality, is his egoism. If it’s all good, it’s also, always, all about him. He decides that some successful matchmaking he has done is really just one of those things “ordered by God Almighty to make me contented.” Tomalin finds his energy “more godlike than human,” but it’s more accurate to see him as humanity supersized. We are always aware of Pepys as being different in degree, not in kind. He believed that his body temperature was higher than other people’s, and we have no trouble believing it, too.
He rises early for work (“Up betimes and to my office”), where he is an excellent administrator, trying to get the lazy King’s attention when he needs it. (While the Dutch are burning the British fleet at Medway, Charles II and his mistress Lady Castlemaine are “all mad in hunting of a poor moth” that’s disturbing their supper party.) He takes no more in kickbacks from naval contractors than anyone of his time would expect, though he does do some double-bookkeeping during the Second Dutch War, starting a second journal to record his share of the plunder. His excitement during a tour of one captured ship’s hold makes it into the main diary: “The greatest wealth lie in confusion that a man can see in the world. Pepper scattered through every chink, you trod upon it; and in cloves and nutmegs I walked above the knees, whole rooms full. And silks in bales, and boxes of copper-plate . . .” In this instance, he’s able to continue with his visual inventory; a year earlier, while he was looking at all the paintings inside the King’s closet at Whitehall, his receptors locked from sensory overload: “I was properly confounded and enjoyed no pleasure in the sight of them; which is the only time in my life that ever I was so at a loss for pleasure, in the greatest plenty of objects to give it to me.” (Actually, five months earlier, when Sir William Warren presented Elizabeth with a pair of gloves and forty pieces of gold, Pepys “could eat no victuals almost for dinner for joy to think how God do bless us every day more and more.”)
With so many avidities and interests—optics, book collecting, interior decoration—his failure to father a child seems not to have bothered him overmuch. The craving also may have been lessened by the way he stood in a sort of father-son relationship to himself. “But, Lord!” he writes, the day after he has had his watch repaired, “to see how much of my old folly and childishnesse hangs upon me still that I cannot forbear carrying my watch in my hand in the coach all this afternoon, and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times.”
The diarist, according to his biographer, “responded to everything that was picturesque.” Indeed, a favorite word of approbation, for anything that composes itself into a visual study, is “pretty.” As the Great Fire of September, 1666, recedes, it’s even “pretty to see how hard the women did work in the cannells, sweeping of water.” The fire is the diary’s central public event, and Pepys remains an important, much anthologized source for historians of it. Yet his account is surprisingly thin; the psychology and techniques that make renderings of his own experience so juicy and vivid are not well suited to the big calamitous picture. Pepys maps the fire’s early destruction by using some of the women in his life as co?rdinates: the flames have reached the place where “poor little Michell” resides by the bridge, and wrecked “the poor steeple by which pretty Mrs. — lives.” His single, handheld camera doesn’t do justice to the magnitude of the catastrophe, and his disinclination toward the gruesome (he famously fled his brother’s deathbed to take a walk) causes him to hurry through what is a kind of nuclear winter. A few months after it’s over, he finds London “less and less likely to be built again” but notes that he himself has “come to abound in good plate,” having two and a half dozen silver dishes for the entertainments he likes to give.
For a staggering wide-angle inventory of the blaze’s destruction, readers can turn to Neil Hanson’s “The Great Fire of London in That Apocalyptic Year, 1666” (Wiley; $27.95). By its second night, residents no longer needed the three-quarter moon in order to see; two days later, at noon, they could stare, for as long as they wished, straight into the smoke-covered sun. When the flames found St. Paul’s, they were “as high as the cathedral itself. Some [people inside] found gaps in the wall of fire and fled through them, their clothes igniting from the heat as they ran.” As one reads of scorched paper travelling for miles, and of the dead “cremated where they fell,” and of the conspiracy theories, government investigations, and reformed building codes that followed the fire, Pepys’s contemporaries may, for a moment, feel like one’s own.
When Tomalin argues that Pepys “allowed himself not a shred of dignity” in the diary, she is talking mostly about the presentation of his marriage and the near-daily pursuit of other erotic opportunities, under his own roof and throughout the city. When the diary begins, he is twenty-six and Elizabeth only nineteen. He admires her looks and cleverness, and takes pleasure in her attempts at self-improvement. If they quarrel and brawl—”I did strike her over her left eye such a blow as the poor wretch did cry out and was in great pain, but yet her spirit was such as to endeavour to bite and scratch me”—they usually make up before retiring, ready to chat in bed the next morning. Elizabeth, says Tomalin, “had a lot to put up with in being married to Pepys, but on balance more to enjoy than not.”
Their one true crisis comes in 1668, when Elizabeth catches Pepys with the servant girl Deb Willet and seems to intuit the much stronger than usual hold that this girl has over her husband. Only after some terrible scenes and his wife’s descent into depression (Elizabeth gives up washing herself) does Pepys make a serious effort to forsake Deb and restore domestic contentment.
His less serious flirtations were often celebrated in a lunatic fractured French that served more to broadcast than hide the exploit: his wigmaker’s servant, Jane Welsh, “would not laisser me faire l’autre thing, though I did what I pouvais to have got her ? me laisser.” Tomalin tries to be a good sport about this, noting the peculiar immortality that Pepys conferred upon young women like Betty Michell and Mrs. Bagwell (a regular), who still walk around as third-person characters in this vast first-person novel that happens to be true. Even so, one senses Tomalin’s strain in dealing with her subject’s “sexual rampages.” She argues, mostly to herself, that Pepys’s “energy burns off blame,” and she experiences relief from his “low success rate” during bouts of tomcatting. But Tomalin can never get herself completely clear, or her subject quite under control, on this score. Pepys is forever rushing up and grabbing his biographer from behind, pulling at her blue stockings, and, for a sentence or two at a time, turning her into Margaret Dumont. Tomalin finds “no comedy” whatsoever in the Deb debacle. Not even in Pepys’s chagrined agreement to go out of the house only when chaperoned by his clerk, Will Hewer? Not even in what she describes as the “greatly increased sexual activity and pleasure with his wife” during the worst of the crisis? Amid all the fire and plague and fanaticism of this world she reconstructs so handsomely, one wishes that Tomalin would, in this matter, simply relax. She displays in many spots a fine sense of humor, but she underestimates the component of sheer silliness in the diary, and might, from a feminist perspective, award Pepys a few points for constructing a literary genre in which women’s success would soon far surpass men’s.
Why, every reader of the diary comes to ask, did Pepys record all the embarrassing amatory episodes he did? Tomalin’s answer is multifaceted but still, I think, incomplete:
No doubt it was partly to prolong the enjoyment, where there was enjoyment, and to give himself the chance to revisit it, with an extra gloss added by the exotic language. But also, and perhaps chiefly, for the reason that he was more interested in observing and recording his own actions than in presenting an immaculate or even favourable image of himself. . . . He was not confessing his sins here but setting down the facts of his experience as a man living in a complex environment.
He was also just playing with his toes, wiggling them in the pure, unself-conscious delight of the crib. Some of his best male successors in the genre, from Boswell to W. N. P. Barbellion, have had the same winning infantilism.
Tomalin has organized her book mostly by chronology, with occasional breaks for the consideration of a theme or a set of characters. She has a nice way with foreshadowing, something a diary can never employ except inadvertently, but whenever she forsakes chronology for more than a dozen or so pages one realizes how lucky Pepys is to be constrained by it, to be hustled along by a form that makes life a narrative experience—or, as it would be memorably defined, one damned thing after another.
Pepys gave up the diary in the middle of 1669, when he was thirty-six. He made failing eyesight his excuse, but Tomalin feels let down and baffled by this the way readers always have. (The sole exception remains J. R. Tanner, an early-twentieth-century historian of Pepys’s naval career, who saw the diary as a gigantic youthful folly.) Pepys’s eyes, while troublesome, never worsened to the point where he couldn’t read or write, and he admitted in the diary itself that quitting the book was “almost as much as to see myself go into my grave.” In her previous biography, Tomalin attributed Jane Austen’s decade-long writing silence, between 1800 and 1809, to a deep depression, something pretty much unthinkable in Pepys’s case. The mystery remains.
Once Tomalin is without the diary, a conditional haze begins to descend upon her biography. Where before she was certain of Pepys’s actions, she must now reckon that he “would have” or “may have” or “could have” done something. But through zealous research she dispels this mist to a remarkable extent; when she reasons that Pepys “no doubt” did something, a reader has no doubt that he did. Early in the book’s final section, she turns her own new burden into both a tribute to her subject and a brilliant historiographical insight: “No one else took up the chronicle of public events, and the 1670s seem a less lively time than the 1660s as a consequence.”
From such records as do exist, Tomalin teases out Pepys’s remaining career at the Admiralty and in Parliament, where the youthful Cromwellian was now a committed Jacobite, even charged with papist leanings by enemies such as Lord Shaftesbury. In his last thirty years, he had near-constant trouble with his sinuses, joints, and bowels, but throughout the same period he had the companionship of Mary Skinner, a merchant’s daughter. Elizabeth died abruptly, just five months after the diary did. How strange it is having to rely on John Evelyn’s journal, not Pepys’s, for a description of her funeral; indeed, it feels odd to hear about Pepys’s own burial, in 1703, from anybody but himself.
Literary biography generally presents itself in subservience to the written work of its subjects. It comes not so much to bury, or even resurrect, as to gloss. In fact, it seems doubtful that many readers of lives of the Brownings or Truman Capote or Edna St. Vincent Millay ever make it far back into the subjects’ own texts. Yet readers of Tomalin’s book must not deny themselves the experience of going back to Pepys’s diary almost immediately, before their experience of reading the biography has cooled down. The effects of the new book upon the old are transformative. One has always been required, for any full sense of the diary, to interrupt the reading of nearly every entry for clarification from the footnotes. But Tomalin makes the whole dramatis personae and political carnival so clear that one can now reread the diary, or at least its one-volume distillations, almost straight through. The jerkiness of silent film gives way to something like a sixty-frame-a-second stream, and the journal’s narrative energy, always prodigious, becomes almost indecent. In this functional respect, “Samuel Pepys” must be judged one of the most successful literary biographies of all time.
It is inconceivable, for all his lack of literary preening, that Pepys did not intend readers to have the eventual pleasure of his company and life. He made too careful provision for the survival of all his books, including the diary, for it to be otherwise. Discovered inside the Magdalene College library in 1728 by a student of shorthand, the six volumes of the diary waited another century for their laborious deciphering by a young man named John Smith. (Tomalin notes that he “carried out the entire task without knowing that the key to the shorthand was in the library.”) Published at last in 1825, they astonished and annoyed the Georgian literary world. Sir Walter Scott declared a preference for Evelyn (he would), and bowdlerized editions kept the work under a cold shower for another hundred and fifty years. Even so, English literature and history came to a gradual appreciation of what they had on their hands. Robert Louis Stevenson, whose essay on Pepys still serves as the introduction to the Modern Library’s edition, understood not only the diarist’s “liberal genius” and casual artistry but his essential childishness as well: “He must always be doing something agreeable, and, by preference, two agreeable things at once.” It was carpe diem, carpe Deb, and carpe the Dutch fleet’s booty.
God blessed him for so long that He must have seemed just another patron, a higher Earl of Sandwich who might be persuaded to keep on giving forever. One morning in 1665, after dreaming that he had the King’s mistress in his arms, Pepys was struck by the thought of “what a happy thing it would be if when we are in our graves (as Shakespeere resembles it) we could dream, and dream but such dreams as this.” Later in the day, walking through an alley near the ferry landing, he came upon the body of a plague victim. Not disturbing its dreams, he stepped around the corpse, headed home, and so to bed.