Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Reading the hyper-active Pepys in his Diary, is to be absorbed in the sheer confusion of reality. The rush of events is recounted in such detail with such relish – by a man rising from secretary/servant to chief administrator of the Navy – that the mind boggles. Here is this shrewd, alert, impulsive, libidinous, music-loving steward, plagued with agonising internal stones, bustling about the world, yielding with enthusiasm to every temptation along the way, recording his triumphs and humiliations with no flourishes and no effort at disguise.

It’s well known that Pepys witnessed a series of great events – the death of the Protectorate, the restoration of the monarchy, the raging plague, the devouring fire of London, the Anglo-Dutch wars – but it is his account of the small and personal encounters which induce the reader to follow his daily log.

As a biographer, what do you do with Pepys’s Diaries? And what do you do when the Diaries stop? Pepys kept his record only for ten years, and after that the material is thin.

Claire Tomalin’s ( and  solution is interesting. She accompanies Pepys on his recorded jaunts and journeys, commenting where necessary, and then treats each aspect of this hectic, unheroic life in separate chapters, such as Changing Sides (from parliamentarian to monarchist), Families, Work, Death and Plague, War, Fire and so on. Where Tomalin’s book differs from other biographies is in her interest in Pepys as writer, and in the phenomenon of a man who records humiliating and uncomfortable experiences as accurately as conversations with the famous. Pepys describes his emotions and actions with a graphic immediacy which places you in the midst of the scene. Tomalin says: ‘In writing, he detaches himself from the self who acted out the scene’.

Anyone who closely attends to his own actions and reactions will come to realise that there is in all of us an inner witness capable of observing the antics of the ego as it struts and frets about the world. This witness can only operate when the ego is struck aside or momentarily bypassed. Tomalin sees that it is by recording events, trying to “get it right” that Pepys allows the witness to work. He is then concerned only with choosing the words to bring reality alive. After discontinuing the Diaries, he becomes as pompous, boring and self-deceptive as the next man.

An autobiographer would not achieve what the diarist achieves. Recollection in tranquillity gives you time to recognise on which side bread is buttered for posterity, and you can modify, adjust, dodge and justify. Pepys is not an autobiographer, he is, literally, a journalist. It is only when he is writing his journal that he allows objectivity to function, and as a result can record his own lack of objectivity in life.

So who is he writing for? He writes the Diaries in shorthand, and shows them to no-one, particularly not to his long-suffering and fiery wife. He saves the Diaries first when fire threatens the house. After ceasing to record events he feels a deep sense of bereavement. So, he is writing for himself, to record himself. He knows that what he writes is worth reading. He wants it to survive. As a result, we know Pepys as well as he knew himself. Reading sections of the Diaries again, and then Tomalin’s biography, one doesn’t acquire a real liking for Pepys as a man, but one gains considerable respect for him as a writer.

Does this matter? It matters as much as a novel matters, as much as literature matters. Would you trust Pepys? No vulnerable or dependent woman would be wise to do so. But if he undertook a job, he would do it with care and attention, and perhaps a little subterranean finance on the side, which he would accomplish with a satisfied sense that everyone else took bigger offerings with less compunction than he did. Claire Tomalin appreciates Pepys for what he was; her biography is both entertaining and full of insight. Let Tomalin be your guide and then read  the Diaries.

544 pages in Penguin paperback edition

ISBN 978-0241963265

Samuel Pepys             Claire Tomalin

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