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Review: The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn by Margaret Willes.

the-curious-world-of-samuel-pepys-and-john-evelynLondoner Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) is the most famous proper diarist in the English language. Those who appreciate a little of London history will know too his fellow practitioner and great friend John Evelyn (1620 – 1706).

Pepys kept his diary for just 10 years until 1669 when he felt it was affecting his eyesight. Evelyn was far more prodigious, noting down his daily thoughts from 1660 until his death in 1706. We find that others – notably Robert Hooke – also enjoyed the pastime, a genre embraced with much enthusiasm from the mid 17th century onwards. Unlike Pepys, Evelyn retrospectively updated and adjusted his diaries over time, which may seem to us now to be a bit cheaty. Pepys, perhaps, didn’t see his daily jottings as a legacy issue. How ironic.

The two men had much in common. They were both active members and supporters of the new Royal Society; they were keen collectors of books; they had friends and acquaintances in common such as Hooke, Boyle, Wren and others of that golden generation. In short they belonged to group of men whom we might describe as curious gentlemen of affairs. That’s how they would have seen themselves and how others saw them too, and not always approvingly.

But at the same time, they were very different. Pepys became a widower and had no children; Evelyn had a successful and long marriage with many offspring (although most did not survive childhood). Their attitude to women generally was entirely different. Pepys, though well-connected, was not as wealthy as Evelyn and had to make his fortune through successful public service. Most importantly, though, Pepys’s character was as earthy as Evelyn’s was high-minded. The former was addicted to theatre, music and entertainment generally whereas his friend’s obsession was primarily horticulture. Pepys experienced prison; Evelyn not. Evelyn’s world view was shaped by his continental travels as a young man; Pepys lacked this benefit. And so on.

Looking through the prism of  the interests and experiences of these two men, we can build a detailed and fascinating picture what life was like for the educated elite in Restoration London. That is idea underpinning this book. It is not really about Pepys and Evelyn so much as about their curious world and hence the title.

The early chapters talk about the political and social environment inhabited by our protagonists. We are introduced to their friends, their family and others who shaped their lives. It’s good to be reminded of the origin of the word cabal and the genesis of Whigs and Tories.

As later chapters examine in further detail, this was a remarkable period of firsts. Formalised scientific enquiry through the Royal Society; the introduction of tea, coffee and chocolate; the rise of the coffee houses (it was interesting find out that coffee had taken hold in Oxford some good ten years before London); the craze for imported foreign manufactures – furniture, linen, crockery, etc; shopping malls!

These are wonderfully developed, but for me there are two stand-out chapters. The first – Chapter 6, Pleasure in All Things, is mainly about Pepys. It addresses the Restoration theatre of Kelligrew and Davenant with appearances, of course, by Margaret Hughes (another first) and Nell Gwynn. Pepys’s love of music introduces us to how that was written, performed, consumed and distributed at the time.

The other is the book’s final chapter – The Affection Which We Have to Books – which brings us full circle for both men: their love of books. This is one of the author’s specialities and it shines. Pepys’s library (now at Magdalene College, Cambridge) numbered some 3,000 titles while Evelyn’s was even larger at around 4,000 – both enormous by the standards of the day. Respectively, as you would expect, they tell us much about their owners who assembled them, housed them and catalogued them in distinctly different ways, also reflecting their personalities. The contemporary London book trade – agents, vendors, booksellers, stationers, auctioneers – an enormous topic, here wonderfully described. For me, this was one of the most fascinating sections of the book. One among many.

I can’t remember a history book as richly illustrated as this. There are fully 48 pages of colour plates in three sections. Virtually every topic covered in the text has an image to match – portraits, maps, engravings, landscapes, fabrics, toys, panoramas, landscapes, furniture and on and on. All generously captioned.

This is a wonderful introduction to the Restoration London scene through the lives of two if its most significant players. Thoroughly researched, organised and presented, I loved every page and recommend it unreservedly.


The Curious World or Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (282pp) by Margaret Willes is published by Yale with a cover price of £20.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A guest post by LH Member Jill Browne, who runs the blog, London Heritage Hotspots.

imagesBook Review: Indigenous London, Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, by Coll Thrush. (Yale University Press, 2016)

Indigenous London is a readable scholarly examination of a two-way street that for centuries has been treated as one-way only.

The book is based on the stories of individuals who were taken to London from their homelands over the past 500 years or so. Typically what we read in history books is, “Mr. Great Explorer brought three Natives back with him and he went on to do great and wonderful things.” Nothing more about the three.

Coll Thrush, associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, takes us with the three (actually, more like 50), instead of with Mr. Great Explorer.

His operating definition of “Indigenous” and the finite number of people Thrush has been able to feature limit what would otherwise be an unmanageable scope of work. The book deals with people from Canada, the United States, Hawaii (before becoming part of the USA), Australia, and New Zealand.

This book has three parts.

The main text is academic, examining the cross-pollination of cultures, one person at a time. Indigenous people travel to London. They observe and are observed. While they are being studied, they learn. Their preconceptions of how English people live are wiped away and they try to understand what’s really going on. They may be the cream of London society, or be ignored and sidelined. Finally, if they’re lucky enough to survive, they might get to go home and tell their stories, just like Marco Polo told his.

In the meantime, bit by bit, the Londoners form an impression of what Hawaiians are like, or Inuit, or any visitors. It’s an imperfect impression, based on close study of a few individuals, but it’s more enlightening than a second- or third-hand account.

Eventually, the Indigenous people and the English might come to a common understanding of each other’s culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a happy outcome for everybody.

The English want to take over and sooner or later the Indigenous people recognize the threat and want to stop it.

Some of the Indigenous travelers are diplomats. Thrush makes the point that often, historically and today, Indigenous people want to deal directly with the person with whom they have a treaty: the Queen. They do not want irrelevant colonial offices and provincial administrations set up to subordinate them.

The book has been praised for taking a new approach to Indigenous history, and it probably has already inspired more scholars to carry on with close examinations of individual lives. Where will it lead? Are we about to see new angles on old legends about the Old World meeting the New?

The two non-academic parts to the book are shorter and quite different from each other.

Between the academic chapters, Thrush includes interludes of free-form poems, which I quite enjoyed. My brain had to work hard in the academic parts (and by no means am I equipped to fully understand them). Then, the author flipped things around and let his and my creativity have a turn. It was an interesting technique and the more I think about it, the more I think it adds to the overall reading experience.

Finally, the third part, which is by far the shortest, may be the only part some readers will want to look at. This is the Appendix of self-guided walking tours of parts of London relevant to the stories and examples used in the academic text. It would be interesting to start there and use the index to pull out as much information as you might want about one of the tours. It’s definitely worth a look for people who like London history.

Bottom line: This book has earned accolades from academics. As a general reader I fear that much of the author’s argument was lost on me but I was able to appreciate the facts and evidence he has compiled and indexed. The creative interludes were a nice sizzle on the steak. For the non-specialist like I am, I would say, don’t ignore this book. Start with the walking tours and from there, use the index to choose excerpts that attract you. The book is rich in information that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.


Indigenous London, Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire, 310pp, by Coll Thrush is published by Yale University Press. Available for £22.50.


A signed copy of this book is London Historians member book prize for March 2017. 

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