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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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