Life beyond the diary
How can you write a biography of Samuel Pepys? Claire Tomalin lets the world’s most famous diarist speak for himself
The Observer, Sun 29 Sep 2002 15.42
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
by Claire Tomalin
Viking £20, pp499
With the exception of Shakespeare, it’s difficult to image a terrain more treacherous for the biographer than Samuel Pepys, who has achieved a status as the Ur-practitioner of diary-writing, a man for all occasions. The Pepys of the diaries needs no further drawing out – part Blackadder cameo, all high-octane innuendo; part Everyman – the ordinary put back into history. Writing in 1909, shortly after the birth of Pepysiana as we know it, Percy Lubbock suggested that ‘his name expresses in our day, rightly or wrongly, as marked a conjunction of qualities as the name of Falstaff or Juan’.
At the other end of the century, a later biographer, Richard Ollard, recorded much the same popular impression of Pepys: ‘The randy bewigged figure whose name, as a symbol of a slightly risque conviviality, has been appropriated by this wine-shipper or that restaurant. An irresistible air of bedroom farce clings to him.’
The energy of Pepys’s diary adds to the sense of high-speed costume drama, starring a man rarely bored, who dashes from his work as an administrator for the Navy to the theatre, or to dancing lessons, or to the pub, where he drinks ‘a great Quantity of Sack’, and falls into a ditch on the way home.
He is a man of emphatic opinions, calling A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’ and Twelfth Night ‘silly’. His daily life unravels in a succession of quickfire sketches: ‘She was a very drudging, working wench; only, she would be drunk’; ‘I up with Mrs Pierce to Knipp, who was in bed; and we waked her and there I handled her breasts and did baiser la and sing a song.’
The major dilemma for his biographer lies in the seductive candour of the Pepys we find in the diary, combined with the comparative lack of information about Pepys from other sources. Pepys’s glorious set pieces – the Great Fire of London, or the return of Charles II to England in 1660 – can be corroborated and contrasted; his versions of events in his own life cannot be.
Pepys, apart from the diary, is a shadowy figure, as relatively unknowable on either side of the nine-year period covered by the diaries as any other seventeenth-century official. As well, the iconic Pepys, synecdochal representative of all that is self-revelation, has been fashioned by a unique process. It was only in 1825, with the deciphering of his diary from shorthand, that Pepys the diarist was born. His is an unusual case, a man who passed from relative obscurity to hyper-visibility, acquiring a posthumous status as a lead actor in a period of history that knew him as an incidental character.
While the biographer’s trade is in revealing the inner self of a public figure, with Pepys we already have Pepys’s ‘own unequalled self; still that entrancing ego of whom alone he cared to write’, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. Claire Tomalin takes the subtitle to her fascinating biography from Stevenson, and it is less a rhetorical flourish than a statement of her strategy. She proposes that the ‘self’ of the diary is the best ‘self’ on offer: ‘The diary carries him to the highest point as a hero of an altogether new kind.’ Tomalin, importantly, is inclined to believe Pepys’s account of himself: ‘He allowed himself not a shred of dignity,’ she suggests. Accepting the diary as a confession, Tomalin’s main enterprise becomes one of explaining and assessing this ‘inner Pepys’ and displaying him in vivid historical context.
She follows the favoured protocol of past biographers, of thematising Pepys’s diary under chapter headings: ‘Families’, ‘Work’, ‘Jealousy,’ ‘Death and Plague’. ‘Marriage’. She moves serenely through the eclectic frenzy of the diary, supplying an exemplary exercise in mania-management. Everything adds to the sense of order, gently imposed: maps are supplied, a list of principal figures, a family tree. And Tomalin fills in the gaps, starting with the humble origins, the early schooling at St Paul’s, the scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge.
This places the Pepys of the beginning of the diary in an interesting light, a young man of 26, with a stall-seat at the Restoration, gained through a lucky family connection to Edward Montagu, later the Earl of Sandwich. ‘A great Roundhead when I was a boy’, he is now an enthusiast for ‘the king… loved of all’. In this volte face, he follows many former Cromwellians, Montagu among them. Yet, as Tomalin writes: ‘None of this meant he set aside his sceptical intelligence.’ By 1666-7, Pepys is scribbling privately about the ‘king who minds his pleasures so much’ and his ‘sad, vicious, negligent Court’.
Tomalin argues that Pepys’s ‘gift for comedy makes it easy for us to collude with him’; her reading of the diary is as a sort of saturnalia, ‘turning the rigid oughts and ought nots of life upside down’. But her collusion is never blindly accepting and there are Pepysian poses she deflates. She is dismissive of Pepys’s attempts at Restoration decadence: ‘Pepys’s own adventures, so frankly recorded, have given him a great reputation with posterity, but the truth is he had not much sexual confidence,’ she writes.
Pepys’s indiscretions pale into insignificance when compared with the libertine excesses of the Restoration court, where young blades ‘out-swilled Bacchus’, and ‘swived more whores more ways than Sodom’s walls/ E’er knew’, as Rochester probably wrote. In comparison, Pepys looks like a latent Puritan struggling to chase the pack, furtively reading smutty French novels, and hunting out his own belles filles with mixed emotions, of ‘fear, sweaty panic and relief’.
When Pepys moves offstage with his decision to stop writing the diary in 1669, Tomalin’s account becomes less vivid, despite her scrupulous research. She moves cogently through the diary-less years, towards a useful history of the first deciphering of the diary. But the diary is the lifeblood of the book; by accepting this from the start, Tomalin dismisses the complexities that dogged earlier biographers. At times, her annotated renarration of the diaries leaves the reader missing the ebullient prose of the original. Tomalin might have allowed Pepys’s voice to appear, unmediated, more often, without losing her authority as guide.
But hers is one solution to the difficulties of writing a life of Pepys and she develops it persuasively. It produces a biography which is notable for its generosity to the Pepysian fan. Her conclusion returns the focus to the Pepys of popular lore: ‘Both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet.’