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.