Frances Wilson

Two enquiring minds

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

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’.

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