Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
By: Claire Tomalin. Publisher: Knopf, 448 pages, $30. Review: This compelling biography expands on the life of a famous 17th-century diarist and argues that he represents the first modern man.
Reviewed by John E. McIntyre
No one agrees on when the modern era began. The 17th century, when Francis Bacon heralded the rise of science? The rise of a literate middle class in the 18th century? Author Claire Tomalin thinks the modern era began Jan. 1, 1660, when Samuel Pepys began writing literature's most celebrated diary. That diary, she says, shows Pepys to be the first modern man -- an argument central to her compelling new biography, "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self."
Unlike the Puritan diarists who preceded him, Pepys does not appear much interested in the examination of conscience. Rather, Tomalin says, he "looked at himself with as much curiosity as he looked at the exterior world," an observer who writes with a scientific detachment about the self who acts.
He observes everything. He marks the events of the wider world -- the Restoration, the plague in London and the Great Fire of 1666. In public life, he is the man of business administering the Royal Navy (Tomalin sees another aspect of his modernity in his discovery that "work is one of the major pleasures of life") and buying barrels of oysters. In the private world, we see the worries about health and money, discord with his wife and his persistent but frequently fruitless pursuit of other women.
All is recorded with a matter-of-factness that fascinates. He knows how to construct literary narrative, how to show himself in a comic as well as a serious light. But it is in his candor that Tomalin finds the source of his appeal: "His self-portrait, warts and all, is compelling enough to draw us in and makes us live uncritically inside his skin. Moving fast through the events of each day and the crowds of people with whom he had dealings, his energy burns off blame, making it surprisingly hard to disapprove of him."
Pepys discontinued the diary in 1669. The text, written in a private shorthand, survived untranslated until two editions, neither entirely satisfactory, were produced in the 19th century.
Tomalin moves beyond the diary to track Pepys through the last 34 years of his life, making use of public records, his surviving letters and a later, more perfunctory diary.
Although nothing quite matches the diary itself, Tomalin's biography captures the fascination of Pepys' personality. Her efforts to locate him in the context of his time and place succeed admirably, as does her effort to identify him as "a hero of an altogether new kind," an explorer who made "discoveries of the complex relations between the inner and outer worlds of a man."