Grit in the Oyster-Shell

Colin Burrow

  • Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin
    Viking, 499 pp, £20.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 670 88568 1

Samuel Pepys was the son of a London tailor and a president of the Royal Society. He was a philanderer who could feed a wench lobster before having his way with her under a chair in a tavern (twice, on a good day), and a sage moralist who wrote solemnly to rebuke his chief patron, the Earl of Sandwich, for an extra-marital affair which threatened his career. He kept pictures of Oliver Cromwell among his collection of images of the kings and queens of England, and yet late in life was accused of Popery and Jacobitism. He radically reformed the administration of the Navy by labouring (often) from four in the morning until the middle of the night, and yet he was quite capable of making a shabby deal to share kick-backs from the illegal sale of goods from prize ships. In his lifetime he saw the English state transformed from monarchy to Commonwealth and back again, and the English Church sway from extreme Puritanism to near Catholicism. He seemed always to be in the right place at the right time: he was there for the execution of Charles I, and on the ship that brought Charles II back from exile. He watched London burn in September 1666 from the window of his house, and felt ‘a shower of Firedrops’ on his face. He experienced the terror of the Dutch fleet advancing up the Medway in June 1667, was accused of ‘Piracy, Popery, and Treachery’ in the hysteria surrounding the Popish Plot in 1679 and, after returning to office in 1684, had to resign his post as Secretary to the Admiralty after the ejection of his patron (and former Lord High Admiral) James II. When Pepys died in May 1703, aged 70, the autopsy confirmed that he had lived hard: his lungs were full of black spots, his kidneys full of stones and his gut was discoloured and septic.

And of course he wrote a diary, nine large volumes of it, which he began on 1 January 1660 and continued to write more or less daily until fears that he was losing his sight led him to abandon it on 31 May 1669. The diary is the product of a unique set of circumstances. At its beginning England was in the process of remaking itself after the collapse of the Commonwealth, and Pepys was in the process of transforming himself from a humble factotum to Edward Montagu (the future Earl of Sandwich) into a Clerk of the Acts for the Navy Board – a job which could command informal payments and benefits that vastly exceeded its nominal salary of £350 a year. The diary is the product of a man who felt that both he and his nation were pliant to circumstance. Diaries tend to be written either by comically self-important Mr Toads or by Pooters – those who need to record their daily successes and triumphs over their rivals in order to be sure that they have actually got to where they hope they have got to. Pepys has traces of both Toad and Pooter, but he also writes in a way that suggests a level of self-consciousness beyond either. When he felt established in the world he invited a group of friends to dinner, and records his delight at the lavishness of the display he has put on: ‘but Lord, to see with what envy they looked upon all my fine plate was pleasant, for I made the best show I could, to let them understand me and my condition, to take down the pride of Mrs Clerke, who thinks herself very great.’ ‘Lord’: the oath seems to register that the passage reflects as much on the pride and vanity of the author as on that of the guests at his feast. At other points, when he persuades or forces or cajoles some unfortunate girl into doing things with what he euphemistically calls his chose, he can crow as loudly as Alan Clark. When his unfortunate wife, Elizabeth, finally discovers him with his hand up the skirt of her companion Deborah Willet, he is duly remorseful about being caught, but is rather pleased with himself for being able with perfect truthfulness to deny that he had kissed her.

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