Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the breathtakingly wonderful Diary of Samuel Pepys, a reading experience that left me feeling that I had encountered the mind of a cheerful, original, and impossibly open human being in touch with every aspect of his 17th-century world: music, politics, marriage, books, food, travel, scandal. I was so intrigued by Pepys’s writing that I went on to read his biography by Claire Tomalin, The Unequalled Self, and although I would recommend the Diary over the biography for winsomeness and charm, the biography was both riveting and extremely helpful in understanding Pepys himself and the world he lived in.

Tomalin is a superb writer. I find that biographies are often difficult beasts: either the biographer bends over backward to excuse bad behavior in her subject, or goes out of her way to find the dishy bits of gossip without acknowledging greatness. Like Pepys himself, however, Tomalin is straightforward about flaws without ever losing sight of the essential interest of the individual. She creates the rich world of London in the 1600s: its sights and sounds and smells; the dreadful dangers of surgery (Pepys was operated on for a stone in his bladder); the complications of life at court during one of the most politically tumultuous times England ever knew. She places Pepys in his context, and never either diminishes his importance or exaggerates it. She points it out when he has misrepresented or magnified facts, and makes it clear when his behavior was less than heroic, but it is obvious that she is always engaged and fascinated by this engaging and fascinating person.

One of the things I really loved about this biography is that Tomalin takes the trouble to include the women in Pepys’s life, right down to the (essential) housemaids. It is so common in biographies to read, “So-and-so’s mother had twelve children, four of whom survived to adulthood,” and then that’s the end of the information. Tomalin takes a welcome moment to say that such a mother must have been tired (twelve children!) and grieving, perhaps with little attention to spare for her surviving brood. She explains the work maids did, and the wages they received. She gives a marvelous portrait of Pepys’s French wife, Elizabeth, and gives her a voice where Pepys kept her silent. It’s a part of the biography that comes alive: half the world that usually stands mute and in waiting.

The scholarship of this biography is also impeccable. The end notes are plentiful and worth reading. I knew very little about the political parts of Pepys’s life, his career in the Navy and his troubles at court, but by the end of the biography they were (relatively) clear to me. She talks about the history of the Diary’s publication (it’s been extensively bowdlerized — I discovered that the abridged version I read, edited by Richard Le Gallienne, was done in the early 20th century and had all the naughtiest bits cut out!) Throughout, she is unfailingly lucid, and even luminous at times.

The best thing about the biography, though, is that it leads you back to the Diary itself. As Tomalin says,

The most unlikely thing at the heart of his long, complex and worldly life is the secret masterpiece. Nobody knew, and nobody could have imagined, that a young man in his twenties and thirties, building his career and pursuing his pleasures with unbounded appetite, should have found the energy and commitment to create a new literary form, and that it should become a work of genius. The Diary carries him to the highest point, alongside Milton, Bunyan, Chaucer, Dickens and Proust… The achievement is astounding, but there is no show or pretension; and when you turn over the last page of the Diary you know you have been in the company of both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet.

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16 Responses to Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

  1. Eva says:

    I’ve been eyeing Tomalin’s bio of Austen, but maybe I’ll jump into Pepys instead! Do you think the diary, then bio order is better? Or bio, then diary? Or both at once?

    • Jenny says:

      If you can manage both at once, I would do that. Some parts of the Diary (politics, names) are confusing without the bio, though personally I just let that wash over me. But the bio without the diary is like a nut without a kernel. One word of warning: be sure you get the most recent transcription of the Diary, even if it’s abridged: I think it’s by Latham. That means you won’t get a bowdlerized version!

  2. Deb says:

    My unsolicited advice is to read Tomalin’s biography first and then start on the diaries (if possible, keeping Tomalin’s book close to hand for a quick refresher on what was going on at the time he wrote a particular entry). If possible, try to read the diaries in order (our local library only had one complete set, so I ended up reading a couple of the volumes out of order).

    One of the best things about Tomalin’s biography is that it makes you want to run right out and read Pepys diary. She truly makes the era come alive. Her biographies of Dorothea Jordan (William IV’s long-time mistress and mother of ten of his children) and the woman who was Charles Dickens’s secret mistress (I’m sorry, I can’t remember her name–Ellen Ternan?–right now) are also extremely interesting and shed light on vibrant women who are mostly forgotten today.

    • Jenny says:

      Now that I’ve read this one, I am eager to read more of her biographies, particularly of Mary Wollstonecraft. I haven’t read anything this good since Nancy Milford’s biographies of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Zelda Fitzgerald. Wonderfully done.

  3. Aarti says:

    Ooh, this sounds great! I love detailed biographies, even if they take some time to get through. I’m glad you rate this one so highly!

  4. Dorothy W. says:

    I loved Tomalin’s biography as well. I’ve read short bits of the diary, but I need to go back and read more — I’m sure I would enjoy it.

    • Jenny says:

      The Diary is better than the bio (imho) but the bio helps, especially with the politics. I’m sure you’d enjoy it, too!

  5. Mel u says:

    I loved her biography also-it is such a loss to history that Pepys stopped keeping a diary when he had many years of interesting life still left-to me one of the best things in the diary is the portrait of his marriage that emerges-I have also read and enjoyed the biography of Dickens’ Mistress (if that was what she quite was-Tomalin does come to some unsupported conclusions in this work)-you are very right the best thing that comes from her biography of Pepys is the motivation to read the full diary

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for the recommendation, Mel — I had been eyeing the Austen and Wollstonecraft biographies, but am honestly willing to read almost anything else she’s written.

  6. litlove says:

    Tomalin is fantastic. I’m not sure about this one, but I do want to read her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. I should bump it up the tbr after this!

  7. rebeccareid says:

    I definitely have to read the diary! Sounds like a fascinating person.

  8. Christopher Lord says:

    I strongly recommend two of Tomalin’s other books: Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, and her biography of Thomas Hardy.

    The Nelly Ternan book, written in the ’80s, is considered a seminal work in uncovering the life of the woman Charles Dickens spent much time with during the last years of his life, and whose existence was only begrudgingly acknowledged until Tomalin brought her front and center. And the book is exceptionally well done. A must-read for any fan of Dickens (and if you’ve read any of my other comments on this site, you know where I stand there!)

    Her Hardy biography is also excellent, bringing out the details of a man I suspect was not as easy to admire as a person as he is as a novelist and/or poet (and since a lot of people hate his novels that could lead to a rough read).

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for the recommendations, Christopher. I will certainly take them to heart. And since I just fell in love with Hardy this year (much to Teresa’s relief, since he is her favorite 19th-century author), I may start there.

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