Samuel Pepys is famous because of his frank and intimate diary written over a period of nine years from 1660-69. The biographer's task is to take the diary, interpret it and, using it, build a picture of an entire life. Claire Tomalin, the author of several literary biographies, had no detail from Pepys himself to build a picture of either his early life or his life after 1669, However, she manages to bring to life in vivid word pictures the man Pepys and the world in which he functioned in this well-researched and entertaining work.
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Pepys was born in 1633 into a middle class family, attended Cambridge on a scholarship and later became a clerk in Oliver Cromwell's government. His employers managed a seamless switch to the royalist side to support Charles II allowing Pepys himself to rise in importance and power. Eventually he became a naval administrator before falling from grace in his later life.
He lived through the 1665 plague, the 1666 great fire of London, and the 1667 Dutch attack on the Medway. All these were duly reported in his diary, not published in his lifetime. But he recorded more than life in 17th century London. As a well known figure he shares much in the way of historical importance, but it is the minute and candid details of his own personal life that fill up much of his diary and contribute to its notoriety.
The "unequalled self" of the subtitle is a quote by Robert Louis Stevenson commending the sincerity of self-disclosure in Pepys's diary. It aptly describes the man Pepys as he wrote in his diary on the topics of his career and domestic life, sex, the theatre and financial affairs.
Why he stopped writing the diary at the end of 1669 is not known. The diary, written in shorthand, was not unraveled until the early 1900s and not published in its entirety until 1970.
Tomalin's job, as a biographer, was to add to what we already know about Pepys from the diary and from historical accounts written by others about the times in which he lived without repeating either Pepys or other biographers. She has succeeded.
Tomalin writes her biography by organizing the diary information into themed headings presenting the reader with a chronicle of the times. At the same time she keeps the man and his diary firmly in the centre of the picture. Tomalin believes it is the author's candour about his most intimate moments that makes the diary fascinating, and she is adept at sharing this with the reader.
She looks at Pepys's diary with an admiring eye. Tomalin says, "The greatest thing about Pepys, after the composition of the Diary, was his decision to preserve it." Her intention is to entice us into reading the diary ourselves. She calls it a "secret masterpiece" and "a work of genius".
Tomalin ends her highly readable book, "When you turn over the last page of the Diary you know you have been in the company of both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet". When we finish Tomalin's book, we know we have been in the company of a biographer whose consummate skill has brought Pepys the man, his diary and its historical context to life.
Illustrations, a list of principal figures, a family tree and end notes are included.
Samuel Pepys: the Unequalled Self
Viking (Published by the Penguin Group)
ISBN: 0-670-88568-1 (hardcover)