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Lead book review

Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn: a meeting of like minds

The two great recorders of Restoration England shared a fascination with the arts and sciences, and were lifelong friends

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn Margaret Willes

Yale, pp.282, £20

Samuel Pepys, wrote John Evelyn, was ‘universally beloved, hospitable, generous, learned in many things’ and ‘skilled in music’. John Evelyn, wrote Pepys, ‘must be allowed … for a little conceitedness; but he may well be so, being a man so much above others’. Pepys’s assessment of Evelyn was made early in their relationship, in 1665, and Evelyn’s assessment of Pepys was made on the day that his fellow diarist died, in 1703. So rest the reputations of our two great recorders of Restoration England: Pepys, the middle-class son of a tailor, was a man of the people; Evelyn, the heir of a country gentleman, was a notch or two above.

The Alan Clark of his day, we think of Pepys as worldly, ambitious and pleasure-seeking (‘O fortunate Mr Pepys!’, wrote Evelyn, ‘who knows, possesses, and Injoyes all that’s worth the seeking after’) and we think of Evelyn — if we think of him at all — as restrained, self-conscious, and, Virginia Woolf suspected, ‘something of a bore’. Pepys declared his greatest pleasures to be women and music; for Evelyn ‘A Friend, a Booke and a Garden shall for the future perfectly circumscribe my utmost designs’.

Pepys was an MP who rose to become chief secretary of the admiralty, and Evelyn was a writer, aesthete and ecologist whose treatise, Sylva: Or a Discourse on Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber is still our most influential text on the managing and conservation of woods. Pepys used his diary, written in shorthand, to reveal his own failings, while Evelyn, whose diary was a gift to posterity, has no apparent failings to reveal. Searching in vain for reflections on the less admirable aspects of Evelyn’s character, Thomas De Quincey concluded that the only reason to read Memoirs Illustrative of the Life and Writings of John Evelyn, as the diary was called when it was first published in 1818, was ‘to fix the date of a particular event’.

What Pepys and Evelyn have in common, says Margaret Willes, is their ‘great curiosity’ — an insatiable hunger for knowledge. The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn is not a joint biography but an exploration of their ‘mutual interests’. Both fellows of the Royal Society — Evelyn was a founding member — they shared a fascination with the arts and sciences, a love of books, of prints, of diary-keeping, beekeeping, print-collecting, astronomy, architecture, alchemy, anatomy, geometry, the English language, music and the making of musical instruments.

Interests aside, historians have long enjoyed contrasting their characters. Take their diary entries for 5 October 1665, eight months into the second Dutch war. Pepys, Clerk of the Acts of the Navy Board, is visiting Sayes Court, the Deptford home of Evelyn, who is serving on the commission for sick and wounded seamen. The purpose of the visit is to discuss the living conditions of the English sailors and the Dutch prisoners of war, but Pepys begins his day by reading, in bed, a book about compiling a library which Evelyn has translated and sent as a present (‘but,’ admits Pepys, ‘the book is above my reach’).

On his way to Deptford, he stops at The Swan to ‘pass some time’ with a certain ‘Sarah’, then further delays his arrival by frolicking with Mrs Bagwell (aka ‘Valentine’), the wife of a naval officer. When Pepys finally arrives at Sayes Court the two men discuss ‘the confounded business of prisoners, and sick and wounded seamen’, after which Evelyn ‘showed me his gardens, which are, for the variety of evergreens and hedge of holly, the finest things I ever saw in my life’. Sharing a coach to Greenwich, they exchange their views on ‘trees and the nature of vegetables’.


Turn to Evelyn’s diary and there is no entry for 5 October 1665. He first mentions Pepys four years later when he takes him to visit ‘my brother Richard, now exceedingly afflicted with the stone’. Pepys, whose own bladder stone had been successfully removed, brings with him the extracted object — ‘big as a tennis ball’ — in order ‘to encourage [Richard’s] resolution to go through with the operation’.

Dividing the book into three parts, Willes focuses her own curiosity on the political world, the personal lives, and the private passions of her subjects. This allows her to dispense with chronology and move back and forth through time. Her structure is modelled on a cabinet of curiosities owned by Evelyn, which is reproduced here in a set of three drawings by the artist Nicola Morrison. But everything in their lives, suggests Willes, was a cabinet of curiosities: this is how Pepys saw his book collection and how Evelyn saw his gardens. Evelyn even ‘regarded mainland Europe’, where he had travelled as a young man, ‘as a terrestrial cabinet’.

Part one, which opens with an image of the exterior of the cabinet, places the two in their historical context. Evelyn was born in 1620, Pepys in 1633; both lived through the civil war and the beheading of Charles I in 1649 (being ‘struck’ with ‘such horror’ at the ‘execrable wickedness’, Evelyn stayed away from Whitehall and ‘kept the day of his Martyrdom a fast’).

Pepys was at Dover in 1660 to welcome the return of Charles II on the royal barge, where ‘the Shouting and Joy expressed by all is past imagination’. Both men left invaluable accounts of the plague of 1665, the great fire of 1666, the reign of James II, and the ‘Glorious Revolution’. In 1661 Evelyn had predicted, in a book called Fumifugium, the hazards of a city composed of ‘a Congestion of misshapen and extravagant Houses’ and following the fire he wrote a report for the King entitled London Redivivum, in which he proposed that the city be rebuilt from brick and stone with straight streets and wide pavements, with St Paul’s Churchyard as the hub. Two days earlier, Christopher Wren had presented a similar plan.

In part two the outer doors of the cabinet open to reveal a number of discreet drawers and here Willes introduces their families and friends. We perhaps know more about the domestic life of Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys than of any other historical couple, and so discretion here is not required: he’s jealous, she’s jealous; he storms out and she sulks in bed; he breaks her favourite china and she threatens to turn Catholic. On one occasion she finds her maid combing Pepys’s hair, while his ‘maine’ is ‘in her cunny’. The couple’s failure to produce a child was the cause of endless grief: in the first entry of Pepys’s diary, 1 January 1660, he records with disappointment the arrival of his wife’s period.

The ‘great mystery’ of his life, says Willes, is his relationship with Mary Skinner, who, following the death of Elizabeth aged 29 (at which point Pepys stopped writing his diary), became mistress of his household. Pepys and Mary Skinner never married: he was, Willes suggests, tired of matrimony, while she ‘was an independent and resourceful person’, the type who hid her money beneath her skirts when a highwayman held up her carriage.

Evelyn’s wife, Mary, was 13 when they married. While it was not a love match, he found himself ‘affected with a kind of tendernesse, such as I never perceived in my selfe before’. Only two of their eight children survived, and Mary Evelyn spent years howling with grief. In 1658, three weeks after the death of their eldest son, Richard, aged six, Mary is ‘still in teares, and in every corner of this house she heares his voyce & sees the face of her deare Companion, that strangly cherfull & beautifull child’.

In 1669, Evelyn fell in love with a 17-year-old paragon called Margaret Blagge but sublimated his passion into a ‘kind of spiritual betrothal’. Three years after her marriage to Sidney Godolphin, Margaret died in childbirth and Evelyn memorialised her in a biography. Their subtle and complex relationship, wonderfully analysed by Frances Harris in Transformations of Love, is reduced here to two brief pages, thus leaving unsatisfied the reader’s own curiosity.

We finally enter the cabinet’s inner sanctum. Here Willes describes Evelyn’s role in the birth of the Royal Society (which organisation, wrote Pepys, the King ‘mightily laughed at for spending time only in weighing of ayre’); Pepys’s love of the theatre and collection of ballads; Evelyn’s loathing of the theatre and knowledge of trees; their collections of prints and books; the arrival in the city of tea and coffee and chocolate.

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn is not a history of human intimacy so much as an intimate history of the late 17th century, and is best read as a companion to the diaries. There are many curiosities to enjoy here but most curious of all is the discovery that, despite Pepys’s self-revelations, it is Evelyn to whom we feel closer. This is because, as Virginia Woolf conceded, Evelyn ‘used his eyes. The visible world was always close to him’. When we look at events through the eyes of Evelyn we see clearly; when we look through the eyes of Pepys, we see Pepys. ‘The more I know him,’ as Pepys said of his friend, ‘the more I love him.’

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