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.
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) is the most famous diarist in English letters. From 1660 to 1669, he penned an unforgettable day-by-day description of Restoration London, with its disasters (the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666), its tumultuous politics and its amazing cultural fervor. Pepys's diary also describes his eager womanizing, as he makes passes, often clumsily, at barmaids and shop girls and the wives of his associates. It is Pepys's intermingling of the public and the private that makes his diary so remarkable. Tomalin (Jane Austin: A Life, etc.) really knows her man, following him closely through some of the great events of English history. As a young government clerk, Pepys allied himself with his cousin Edward Montagu, who turned away from Cromwell to help Charles II become king in 1660, and the Restoration made Pepys's career. Highly organized, intelligent and a savvy political infighter, as Tomalin portrays him, he became a leading navy official and helped build the British navy into a world power. Tomalin also brings us inside Pepys's personal life: his tempestuous marriage, his romantic liaisons, his private, quite negative feelings about King Charles II. Tomalin writes brilliant chapters on all aspects of Pepys's life, relying not only on the diary but also on impressive scholarship. Tomalin clearly admires her subject, whose energy she constantly praises. For those who have already enjoyed the diary, Tomalin's learned and entertaining work admirably fills in the gaps. 16 pages of photos. (Nov. 14) Forecast: Tomalin has a fine reputation as a literary biographer, and this will be widely and well reviewed. It's hard to imagine, though, very large demand being generated beyond devoted literary and English-historical readers. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 10, 2003
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Excerpt from Samuel Pepys by Claire Tomalin
The Elected Son
He was born in London, above the shop, just off Fleet Street, in Salisbury Court, where his father John Pepys ran a tailoring business, one of many serving the lawyers living in the area. The house backed on to the parish church of St. Bride's, where all the babies of the family were christened and two were already buried in the churchyard; when he was a man, Pepys still kept the thought in his mind of "my young brothers and sisters" laid in the ground outside the house of his youth. Salisbury Court was an open space surrounded by a mixture of small houses like John Pepys's and large ones, once the abodes of bishops and ambassadors, with gardens; it was entered through narrow lanes, one from Fleet Street opposite Shoe Lane, another in the south-west corner leading into Water Lane and so down to the Thames and river steps fifty yards below. The south-facing slope above the river was a good place to live; people had been settled here since Roman times, and when Pepys was born in 1633 a Christian church had stood on the spot for at least five hundred years. A block to the east was the Fleet River, with the pink brick crenellated walls of Bridewell rising beside it; it had been built as a palace by King Henry VIII and deteriorated into a prison for vagrants, homeless children and street women, known to the locals as "Bridewell Birds." A footbridge spanned the Fleet between Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill, and from St. Bride's you could look across its deep valley-much deeper then than it is today-with houses crammed up both sides in a maze of courts and alleys, to old St. Paul's rising on its hill above the City.
This was the western edge of the City, and Pepys's first playground. The City was proud of being the most populous in the world; it had something like 130,000 inhabitants, and in the whole country there were only about five million. If you went west from Salisbury Court along Fleet Street, you came to the gardens of the Temple lawyers, with their groves of trees, formal beds and walks, and further west along the Strand you were out of the City, on the way to Whitehall and Westminster. To the east was the only bridge-London Bridge, almost as old as St. Bride's Church, with its nineteen arches and its spikes on which traitors' heads were stuck-and then the Tower. The river, without embankments, was very wide, with a sloping shore at low tide, a place for children to explore; and the great houses of the aristocracy were strung along the riverside, each with its own watergate. The best way to get about fast in London was by boat.
The Pepys house centred round the shop and cutting room, with their shelves, stools and drawers, cutting board and looking-glass. At the back the kitchen opened into a yard, and in the cellar were the washing tubs and coal hole, with a lock-up into which troublesome children or maids might be put for punishment. The stairs to the living quarters went up at the back. Timber-framed, tall and narrow, with a jetty sticking out over the street at the front, set tight against its neighbours, with a garret under the steeply pitched roof: this was the pattern of ordinary London houses. On the first floor the parlour doubled as dining room. Above there were two bedrooms, each with a small closet or study opening off it, and high beds with red or purple curtains. In one of these Pepys was born and spent his first weeks. Older children, maids and apprentices slept on the third floor-Pepys mentions "the little chamber, three storeys high"-or in the garret, or in trundle beds, kept in most of the rooms, including the shop and the parlour; sometimes they bedded down in the kitchen for warmth.