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.

Pepys’s genius lies in his ability to write as though he isn’t thinking at all about what he is writing, but in a way that makes his prose do his thinking for him. So on 6 November 1660 he argued with his wife before bed over his decision to make her dog sleep in the cellar because it kept ‘fouling the house’: ‘And so we went to bed and lay all night in a Quarrell. This night I was troubled all night with a dream that my wife was dead, which made me that I slept ill all night.’ It’s hard to imagine a more vivid piece of writing about marital discord: lying ‘in a Quarrell’ is not the same as a good all-out row. It means tossing and turning with silently expressive grumpiness. And the dream of his wife’s death seems partly to come from and to express Pepys’s anger, but it also has the force of an external intrusion (‘which made me that I slept ill’) that punishes him for that anger. The passage is also written with a magnificent slackness that allows Pepys to repeat ‘all night’ three times within three dozen or so words. He had painstakingly learned how to use the figures of rhetoric to shape sentences when he was a scholar at St Paul’s and later at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The diary allows him to loosen the hold of formal rhetorical structure on his prose (many of his official letters display the pomposity which can come of lamplight and rhetorical effort) while allowing him to remember that repetition can be the most forceful trick of all. It was a long night spent tossing and turning: ‘all night . . . all night . . . all night’.

There are moments when the diarist is clearly on his best behaviour, when his writing becomes more artful and disciplined. Describing the plague which at its peak in 1665 killed six thousand Londoners a week, he writes with the care of a man who knows that he may be close to writing his own last words:

to hear that poor Payne my water [man] hath buried a child and is dying himself – to hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams to know how they did there is dead of the plague . . . to hear that Mr Lewes hath another daughter sick – and lastly, that both my servants W. Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St Sepulcher’s Parish, of the plague, this week doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy and with good reason.

‘Great apprehensions of melancholy’: you can only applaud that point in the sentence – he is sorry for his boatman (the Restoration equivalent of a cabby) and for Mr Lewes, both of whom have lost the children Pepys himself never had; but he knows that their misery means that the plague is marching into his parish and up his street, and that the bells of St Sepulcher’s might soon be tolling for him.

The other great set-piece in the diary is the description of the Fire of London in September 1666. Here Pepys seems to be thinking of himself as a recorder of events for posterity. As he describes the acquisitive panic of the citizens of London when they feared that all their personal property would go up in smoke, his eye for detail enables him to write in a vein that is almost allegorical: ‘And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.’ His own removal from his house was carefully planned with no risk of singeing his wings: his own ‘good goods’, as he calls them, including his precious books and £2350 in gold, were packed up and sent in several directions to ensure that some of them at least would survive.

The diary contains careful tottings up of Pepys’s wealth at the end of each year, and it keeps something like a moral account-book, too, as he solemnly records his repeated vows to give up chasing women and going to plays, and then registers his many failures to honour those vows. He notes benefits given and received (‘I took Mr Townsend and Isackson to the next door, a tavern, and did spend 5s on them’), and is sensitive to imbalances between the two. Affairs of the heart are not isolated from the reciprocal rhythms of receipt and payment: the day after Diana Crisp ‘denied him nothing’ he buys his wife a necklace for £4 10s to settle the account. He is keen to time his walks using his latest gadget, ‘a minute watch’, which enables him to record exactly how long his stroll through the fields to Greenwich takes him. It is tempting to see him as a straightforward embodiment of possessive individualism, shuffling gain to himself, and eagerly recording his own inner life as so much moral profit and loss. It is tempting, too, to attribute the rise of the diary as a semi-public literary form to the collision between Puritan practices of inner self-scrutiny and a rising interest in careful scientific observation. There may be some truth in some of these views (and certainly the more formal diary of Pepys’s friend and contemporary John Evelyn is consciously scientific in its interests), but it is painfully reductive to see Pepys’s diary as a piece of double-entry book-keeping of the soul, or as a spiritual equivalent to the microscope Robert Hooke was using in the 1660s to count the hairs on a flea’s leg. What makes Pepys matter as a writer is the fact that he is a man totting up his sins before God, and a man out to take sexual favours and greedily sum them up, and a man who works honestly, and a man who manoeuvres for bribes, and a man who can feel for a pigeon, and a man who knows that all of this does not quite add up to the total of what he is.

One low-key moment shows how Pepys simultaneously invokes many ways of explaining his own conduct:

Spend the evening with my poor wife – consulting about her closet, clothes, and other things. At night to supper . . . in great pain; and which troubles me most, my right eare is almost deaf. It is a cold, which God Almighty in justice did give me while I sat lewdly sporting with Mrs Lane the other day with the broken window in my neck. I went to bed with a posset, being very melancholy in consideration of the loss of my hearing.

The scene offers many possible ways of looking at and explaining Pepys’ conduct. He is the good husband who listens to his wife talk about her things, perhaps because he likes discussing her clothes, or perhaps as guilty penance for his night out with his mistress Betty Lane. He is also a sinner taking stock of his punishment by God. And then by the end of the extract you wonder quite how self-deceiving Pepys’s presentation of himself as a repentant sinner might be: perhaps he is just letting his wife bang on in the background because he can’t actually hear what she is saying – he is deaf in one ear, after all. And perhaps he is deaf just because he sat next to a draughty window rather than because God is out to punish him for lechery. The rapid overlayering of explanations for his conduct is the chief reason Pepys is both a symptom of a specific moment in English culture and so much more than that: his deafness is both a moral settling of his account with God, and a phenomenon he can explain quasi-scientifically. He presents human life as having many simultaneous explanations, which do not add up to a single final reckoning. And behind all these explanations is the elusive charm of Samuel Pepys, which is so closely related to the limits on his sensitivity: he is both being repentantly good to his wife and (literally) deaf to her needs. And perhaps he knows it.

Pepys was helped in creating this many-layered identity by some deep-seated features of the language of his period. Despite Thomas Spratt’s insistence in his History of the Royal Society that each word should have a single signification, the final years of the 17th century saw frequent and remarkable overlaps between the language of ethics, finance and politics. It was often unclear which of these areas was dominant, and speakers could often think they were operating within one realm when in fact they were operating within another. So, when Pepys took over from Thomas Povey as Treasurer for the Tangier Committee, he made a deal to give Povey a proportion of the presents and sweeteners which would come to him as a result of the post. Poor Povey received nothing, and wrote to complain that ‘you cannot but have received some benefit at least, from the gratitude of such as you have had opportunities to oblige, seeing I found the same persons civil.’ At best, ‘civil’ means ‘willing to give rich presents in order to seal a deal’, and at worse, ‘quick to stump up bribes’, but Povey uses the word to suggest ‘munificent, willing to enable the open exchanges between men of equal standing which keep society functioning’. Both he and Pepys know that they are talking about money, but both of them would rather imagine that they were talking about politeness and generosity, and their language allows them to do so. Pepys operated within a society which allowed him to blend together different vocabularies, and provided him with a great many ways of describing and explaining his own actions. He helped his language along, of course: his diary famously hybridises his native tongue with Eurospracht, which he reserves for the naughty bits. As he tries to console Deb Willet he records that ‘I did give her good advice and beso la, ella weeping still; and yo did take her, the first time in my life, sobra mi genu and poner mi mano sub her jupes.’ When Pepys is a lover he becomes a Spaniard: ‘yo’ is a different sort of person from the ‘I’ (Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts, reliable Englishman) who gives sage advice to a girl before he fondles her.

Late in life Pepys attempted a brief return to the diary form, but could not recreate the multiplicity of his earlier self. He travelled to Tangier with his great friend and assistant Will Hewer in 1683 to oversee the demolition of the naval base which had been planned and lavishly equipped by the Earl of Sandwich. He kept a journal of his travels. It shows, if little else, that men who have arrived think about themselves much less interestingly than those who are getting there. In his notes from this period there is a rare moment when Pepys sees himself from the outside: ‘I know nothing that can give a better notion of infinity and eternity than the being upon the sea in a little vessel without anything in sight but yourself and the whole hemisphere.’ There is nothing here of that clash between the randy ‘yo’ and the sage ‘I’ of the earlier diary, none of its layerings of different aspects of Pepys. By this stage in his life he is a solid thing: the most successful Naval administrator of his age, perhaps of any age, a source of contented speculation for himself (‘without anything in sight but yourself’), but no longer mobile and of interest in the same way or to the same degree to his readers as he had been fifteen years before.

Claire Tomalin’s biography is a splendid work. She likes Pepys, and she shares her subject’s fascination with detail. Her description of the operation to remove the ‘stone’ in his urinary tract which had plagued him throughout his early years is so vivid that it brings tears to the eye. She has walked over his habitual walks, and describes the area around Hinchingbrooke and Huntingdon in which he spent much of his youth – some of the most original passages in the biography show the personal, familial and political importance of his links with an area so close to the influence of Oliver Cromwell. She also just about pulls off the hardest task for a biographer of Pepys, which is to make him still interesting after he abandoned his diary, when he was persecuted by the Earl of Shaftesbury and finally ejected as a nonjuror from his beloved Admiralty. Tomalin’s Pepys is a more domestic man than the coarse careerist of Stephen Coote’s recent biography, or the sensitive but work-obsessed administrator who figures in Richard Ollard’s excellent but now rather elderly Life. Tomalin cannot compete with Ollard’s lovingly detailed understanding of Pepys’s work as a Naval administrator, and Ollard remains the best guide to the professional Pepys (his biography is still available, although in an edition scandalously full of misprints). But where Tomalin triumphs is in the care and sensitivity with which she describes Pepys’s vital and various relations with women. For her the grit in the oyster-shell that made Pepys produce the diary was his rash marriage to his penniless French wife, Elizabeth. His amicable intimacy with Lady Sandwich is also described delicately and tactfully, as is the comfortable expediency of his erotic relations with the loose-living Betty Lane and her sister Doll. Tomalin conveys too, as no previous biographer has done, the resilience and the spirit of the maids (and less than maids) with whom Pepys had dealings, while not obscuring how often they were fondled, bullied and molested. The book also offers the fullest and most humanely inquisitive account of why Pepys did not remarry after Elizabeth’s death (she died suddenly and young only a year after the end of the diary), and of how he lived with his mistress of the last thirty years of his life, Mary Skinner.

Tomalin divides up the years covered by the diary into separate chapters on ‘Families’, ‘Work’ and ‘Jealousy’. This enables readers to follow the narrative thrust of particular episodes in a way that is hard to do when they are encountered in their original form. This strength can become a weakness, however: Pepys was a multi-threaded man, whose diary tangles together his work in the office, his life in the coffee house, and his loves in the home and outside. As Ollard rightly observed, a frantic period at the office is likely to be accompanied by more than usually frequent visits to Mrs Lane or his latest woman of choice. Tomalin’s Pepys is a compartmentaliser of life, who tidily separates love from patronage, work from play-going, and sometimes seems a simpler being than the man one meets in the diary, for whom catastrophic fires, domestic squabbles, pigeons, gold, urine, gossip, dreams that his penis had turned into a turd, the price of rope and the return of monarchs are all the suitable stuff of record. She tends to write less vividly when different aspects of Pepys combine or clash than she does when she is able to separate them out. It is probably right to say that ‘one of the principal themes of the diary is the classic conflict between his practical, sensible self and his romantic and erotic impulses,’ but it is probably wrong to polarise his impulses so completely: he was most of the time very practical in the ways he conducted his amours. Her anatomy of Pepys is so skilful, however, and her depiction of him as a domestic being so engaging, that this is throughout its considerable length a warm and enjoyable book.