From the scaffold to Mr Pooter
SAMUEL PEPYS: THE UNEQUALLED SELF by Claire Tomalin Penguin Viking, £20, pp. 512, ISBN 00670885 It is a famous passage, but it needs to be quoted in full, for reasons I shall come back to:
To my Lord's in the morning, where I met with Captain CuttanceBut my Lord not being up, I went out to Charing-cross to see Major-Generall Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered — which was done there — he looking as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down and his head and his heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now have judged him. And that his wife doth expect his coming again.
Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White-hall and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing-cross. From thence to my Lord's and took Captain Cuttance and Mr. Sheply to the Sun taverne and did give them some oysters. After that I went by water home. where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine Baskett which I bought her in Holland and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.
Within all the afternoon, setting up shelfes in my study. At night to bed.
From the scaffold to Mr !looter in a day. Within a single Diary entry, Pepys moves with glorious unconcern from high and bloody events to the domestic soap. No one has ever done it like he did, and he only managed it for nine years before his fear for his eyesight made him abandon the Diary (or possibly his grief for his wife's death robbed him of the zest to carry on). And almost always, as he darts from high to low and back again, you notice a sceptical turn. He distances himself from the old
credulities here the belief of the FifthMonarchy Men that the Major-General was due to pop up at the Saviour's right hand on the Last Day. He is impatient with the religious quarrels that tore his country apart throughout his life. He is interested in household improvements, gadgets, new medical techniques, the traffic problems in the City. We cannot help thinking that he is one of us.
Certainly Claire Tomalin in her delightfully readable new life of Pepys (who could write a life of him that didn't bowl along?) wants to claim him: he was 'mapping a recognisably modern world'; his account of the revolt of the City apprentices against the Parliamentary army is 'the first eyewitness account of an urban riot' — 'one we have seen on our television screens so that every point is familiar':
From Pepys's scattered descriptions we get the first account ever written of how young men with meagre jobs, sharp wits and an appetite for experience live and work in a modern city.
There have been other marvellous lives of Pepys, Sir Arthur Bryant's three volumes in the 1930s and Richard Ollard in 1974, but none has so exactly caught Pepys's enthusiastic yet uncertain embrace of the new world, which was itself such an unstable amalgam of fading superstition and rational enquiry. She confects, for example, a luscious account of how Pepys was cut for the stone. The patient is larded with egg white and rose vinegar and given a cold syrup of lemon juice, radishes and marshmallow, after a thin silver instrument, the itinerarium, has been inserted up the penis into the bladder to help position the stone, before the three-inch insertion is made just behind the scrotum. No anaesthetic, of course, and the patient is fainting with pain, but within its limitations the treatment of letting the wound drain and leaving it to heal is medically sound, and, though the stone was as big as a tennis ball, according to Pepys's friend Evelyn who saw it later, Pepys recovers and declares his intention of celebrating the anniversary of the operation with a dinner every year for the rest of his life, He is grateful like country people today who cross themselves when the aircraft takes off and clap when it lands safely. We are indeed on the watershed here.
And in the same way Pepys's whole life was spent on the political watershed too, between arbitrary God-given rule and the beginnings of modern parliamentary government. What gives the Diary so much of its edge is that Pepys was, as Tomalin says, 'trapped on the wrong side', most of his career serving two kings, Charles II and James II, who wanted to build up their personal power and castrate Parliament. She is less inclined than her predecessors to accept Pepys's career as a given, and she brings out the constant embarrassment and alarm occasioned by his republican past and his contempt for his Stuart masters. He was, after all, remembered as 'a great roundhead at school', who had cheered the execution of Charles I, He certainly worked with enthusiasm for the Commonwealth and always considered 'Oliver' a superior master to Charles II, with his mistresses and his racehorses and his hatred of 'the very sight and thought of business', Pepys himself being one of history's great workaholics. 'My business is a delight to me,' he wrote, and it 'has taken me off from all my former delights' — something of an exaggeration, but then that too is not unmodern, seeing how many tycoons today boast of working 100-hour weeks and then turn out to have several mistresses and a yacht or two.
By the end of his life he was talking of 'we Tories', and he refused to serve under William III, but even in the early days of the Restoration he belonged to a republican club, the Rota. And he was decidedly shocked by the disgusting behaviour of other turncoats like Sir George Downing (of Downing Street fame) who, after having helped the Dutch drive Charles out of Holland, now rounded up old Parliamentarian comrades who had fled abroad and
had them shipped back to London and the scaffold. Pepys's own patron and kinsman, Sandwich, simply lay low in Huntingdonshire during the transition, putting it about that he was 'confined to my chamber
by a distemper' behaviour reminiscent of another Huntingdonshire eminence, John Major, who happened to be having his wisdom teeth out during the fall of Margaret Thatcher.
Claire Tomalin is also more clear-eyed than Pepys's male biographers about his conduct both in the office and at home. The little man, after all, had a large helping of all the seven deadly sins except sloth. When he was appointed to the Navy Board, he simply knocked on the door of the house in Seething Lane that he fancied, spent a couple of nights as the guest of the inoffensive Major Willoughby and then told Willoughby to get out — behaviour more characteristic of Robert Mugabe than Sir Robert Armstrong. When he heard that Matthew Wren had been wounded in the Battle of Sole Bay, he instantly wrote to his patron Sir William Coventry asking for Wren's job. When Coventry himself was on the skids, Pepys refused to be seen walking with him in St James's Park.
Nor indeed were his famous dalliances all so innocent. He forced Mrs Bagwell to have sex with him by promising to arrange promotion for her husband, a ship's carpenter. In fact. when Bagwell is at sea fighting the Dutch, Pepys's first instinct is to pop down for a session with Mrs Bagwell. But when she is past 40, he writes to her husband telling him to keep her away from the Navy Office. He fondles Pegg Penn's breasts and thighs, though he finds her unattractive and suspects she has the pox, in order to get his own back on her father, Sir William Penn. And he is notoriously bad-tempered as well as congenitally unfaithful to his wife Elizabeth, whom I am fonder of than Mrs Tomalin seems to be.
For, though she is anything but blind to her subject's weaknesses, in the last resort, like most biographers, she finds it easy to forgive them: His energy burns off blame. For a woman, it is the nearest to experiencing what it is like to be a man; it is surprisingly hard to disapprove of him.' My own reactions, I must confess, are often more like those of Randolph Churchill reading the Old Testament for the first time, as observed by Evelyn Waugh: 'God, isn't God a shit?'
If Pepys is indeed the prototype of modern man, that is not an entirely comforting thought. Mrs Tomalin thinks other Diaries of the period dull by comparison, and so to the modern reader they are. Yet in reading, say, the Diary of the Revd Ralph Josselin, an Essex clergyman to whom nothing much happened except the usual ills of life, I feel the presence of a human, well, I am sorry to use the word, but soul is really the only one that will do. For all his love of music and women. Pepys does have something about him of the automata that so much fascinated him: his Tiggerish energy, his equal readiness to lie and to confess, his voracious acquisition of high-placed friends, his boasting of his fine works of art, his readiness to pounce on any woman in any circumstances. Why, who does this remind us of? I am afraid it is Jeffrey Archer. True, Pepys is a better writer and went to prison three times as against Lord Archer's once to date, but there is a notthereness that they share.
Why do I feel this so much more strongly after reading Tomalin than her predecessors? I think it is precisely because her approach is so markedly different in several respects. First, the male biographers are interested primarily in Pepys as the saviour of the Navy' (to use the title of Arthur Bryant's third volume) and in the Diary as an unmatched historical record, while she is interested in Pepys's vie inferieure and in the Diary's unique pioneering record of a self at work and play. Her previous fulllength biographies have rescued women from the margins of oblivion — Dickens's mistress Ellen Ternan being actually characterised as 'the Invisible Woman'. And here too she beautifully resurrects lesser characters like Pepys's old maids, Jane and the luckless Deb whose being surprised by Elizabeth in flagrante with Pepys triggered the biggest almighty row husband and wife ever had, which is saying something.
This biography's golden asset is that it brings alive all the other characters in the Diary and explains their relationship to Pepys and to each other in a richness of detail that even the wonderful Index and Companion to the II-volume Latham and Matthews edition do not quite achieve. Tomalin thus provides the perfect preparation for reading the Diary itself.
But Pepys himself never was invisible. He lives not only through his extraordinary contributions towards a modern navy that was properly trained, supplied and officered but also through his addictive unputdownable writings.
And here, by what is clearly a conscious decision. Tomalin denies us our fix. While telling us over and over what a masterpiece the Diary is, she doesn't actually quote from it all that much, and seldom at length. She paraphrases, she chops up, she reorders, but she doesn't give us Pepys's own words and so loses the entrancing effect of the way he runs on.
For example, she records almost every fact in the passage I quoted at the head of this review, but all except ten words — 'as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition' — are Tamalin's, not Pepys's. Somehow this technique drains Pepys of some of his magic and leaves his conduct, when so plainly recounted by another hand, more open to our censure. And now and then the lack of direct quotation leads to omission of the most brilliant detail in the middle of a passage — for example, when the Dutch come up the Medway and Pepys in a total panic sends Elizabeth off to the country with his gold, Bryant and 01lard both mention that Pepys can't think what to do with his much bulkier store of silver and thinks in a wild moment of hiding it down the privy, but Tomalin does not.
Again Bryant and 01lard both describe exactly how the King saves Pepys's bacon when he is accused of trafficking in sea
men's wage tickets. In Pepys's own words:
The Kin a with a smile and shake of his head told the Commissioners that he thought it a vain thing to believe that one having so great trust ... should descend to so poor a thing as the doing anything that was unfit for him in a matter of 0.10s.
There is none of this in Tomalin.
But she really comes into her own in describing Pepys's last years, not covered by Bryant. It is a touching picture she paints of his retirement in Clapham under the wing of his sometime protégé Will Hewer and his favourite nephew John Jackson and his not quite second wife Mary Skinner, out of the great world but still in touch with his old friends like Evelyn, to whom he wrote, 'Pray remember what o'clock it is with you and me' and Evelyn replied that
an easy comfortable passage is that which remains for us to beg of God, and for the rest to sit loose to things below.
Even in his latter years, Pepys had not lost his boyish enthusiasm, nor forgotten how to write. On his voyage to Tangier he goes out rowing by himself and records in his notes:
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 within the whole hemisphere.
No, not quite Jeffrey Archer after all.