REVIEW: Samuel Pepys and His World by Geoffrey Trease
Samuel Pepys, with his insatiable curiosity, his sociable disposition, and the ample opportunities provided by his office, was ideally equipped to explore the London in which he lived. It was small by modern standards, and we can see it through his own eyes, as he never intended us to see it.
His diary, written in a shorthand that is almost a secret code, is both a guide to a London that was scarcely more than a big village, and a self-portrait of an outstanding man. He was a first-class administrator, one of the makers of the Royal Navy. He was a sociable man-about-town, a founder-member of the Royal Society, a bibliophile and amateur musician, and a connoisseur of pretty wenches.
Pepys’s life spanned seven of the most eventful decades of English history. As a young man of sixteen he saw Charles I beheaded. Near the end of Pepys life, William of Orange landed in Devon. In the years between he lived through the Restoration of the monarchy, the Plague and the Great Fire of London.
In the pages of his diary we meet characters as varied as King Charles II (‘he runs in debt every day’), Nell Gwyn (‘even prettier than I thought’), his patron and cousin Mountagu (‘my lord’), and above all his young, attractive, exasperating wife Elizabeth.
With many quotations from the best-known and best-loved diary in English literature, Geoffrey Trease brings Pepys the man, and Restoration London, vividly to life.
Since the 17th century is a favorite era of mine for books, this one grabbed my attention when I saw it offered. I mean, here is the man whose secret diary gave us so much information about the tumultuous events which make it so exciting. This is a compact yet informative entrée into Pepys life and times.
At birth, young Samuel Pepys would probably not have struck historians as someone who would be associated so much with this age. He was a middle child of a London tailor who had married down – to the daughter of a butcher. It’s lucky for us that the family did have connections which allowed Samuel an excellent education – he seemed to be a diligent student who loved order and formality – and, better still, opportunities to advance.
His mentor, first cousin Edward Mountagu (as Pepys spelled it), was also an adroit political navigator who managed to keep on the right side of whoever was in power at the time. As such Pepys began his career in London during the waning years of the Protectorate and – after proving himself as an able, intelligent, dedicated but most importantly a loyal employee – eased straight into the power circles of the Restoration. Pepys frantic efforts to secure his new appointment to the Navy Board merely prove that the rat race and “red tape” are nothing new.
But what about the man? Though Pepys adored learning and reading – books were among Pepys’ delights, his charming young and beautiful wife spelt atrociously and preferred French novels. Various physical conditions of the two (possibly) combined so as to leave them childless. Theater going and music delighted him and we see the advent of female actors on the stage and the return of organ music to religion as the restrictions of Puritanical rule were cast off.
Given how perks and inducements – or bribes to call them by another name – were seen as a perfectly acceptable way to augment a paltry government salary, I marvel with others that Pepys was actually a dedicated civil servant determined to do his best to see that his King got good value for the public monies Pepys oversaw. He also did much to set the Royal Navy on the path to “rule the waves.”
But perhaps this bit said of Pepys by a lifelong friend at his funeral says it best. ‘a very worthy, industrious and curious person, none in England exceeding him in knowledge of the navy … universally beloved, hospitable, generous, learned in many things, skilled in music, a very great cherisher of learned men …’ B