Tomalin, Claire: “Samuel Pepys, The Unequalled Self”. Discussed 25/6/09

Introducing the book, the proposer – like Pepys an adminstrator of substance –  said that he had first chosen it to read because he had undertaken  a very interesting conducted tour in London. The excellent guide had made several references to the Tomalin book in the course of the tour, and he had therefore chosen to read it.

He had been pleased with his choice, as he thought the book was absolutely remarkable, and very difficult to put down. It painted a fascinating picture of Pepys, of the historical times and politics, and of London. It was an impressive piece of research to fill in the gaps and put the diaries in context. It was written in an appropriate language to convey the impression of Pepys the man. She conveyed remarkable insights into Pepys’ colourful life, his strengths and weaknesses, and his energy and ability.

It was difficult at first to believe that someone could rise from such humble beginnings to go to Cambridge and then into a position of great power. But the more you read, the more credible it became. (And, pointed out one, Pepys had made the most of family connections to advance himself). The book was laced with humour, particularly in the descriptions of his “personal” life. Given how compelling the book was, it was perhaps surprising that a number of people had been critical of elements of her interpretation of the diaries.

Trying initially to relate the text to the maps of London was not easy, but the book was written in a fashion that encouraged you to make these connections and read on. The latter part of the book, dealing with the post-diary part of Pepys’ life, was less convincing, but, taken as a whole, it was one of the best reads he had had.

So did you identify with Pepys as an administrator, or indeed in other ways, was the less than innocent query of another member? Well, not really – Pepys had more the qualities of a politician than an administrator – and, no, he did not identify with his penchant for peccadilloes! Pepys did have the administrator’s eye for detail, but he was also marked out by extraordinary energy (not all of which went into his work), by great oratory, and skill in wheeling and dealing, qualities more commonly associated with politicians. (And he was too polite to suggest that –at the current time of a Daily Telegraph witch-hunt over MPs’ expenses – Pepys’ taste for lining his pockets with bribes might also be perceived as a political trait).

So what did others make of it? All had found the book a compelling read, with lots of juicy material culled from the diaries, an engrossing account of remarkable historical times, and an intriguing character study. “Enjoyed enormously” was a representative verdict. But all felt inhibited in assessing the book (a rare event), because no-one had read the original diaries in full.

One had found his edition of the diaries boring on a number of failed attempts to get through them, but now realised that his 1825 edition had omitted all the racy and interesting material (the diaries were only published in full in 1970). Another – noting that Claire Tomalin was a journalist by trade, and associating that profession with not letting the facts get in the way of a good story– had wanted to check some of her assertions against the original text of the diaries. But time had defeated him.

One who had enjoyed the book entered the reservation that Tomalin’s tone was rather censorious, and that she tended to judge people against the standards of the twenty first century, particularly in relation to how males treated females. Pepys was portrayed as a manipulative, bullying, groping pest, but was he simply a man of his times? This was only a question of tone – she tended to wag her finger at Pepys.

On the other hand, another felt that as a female author she was inevitably more sensitive to the feelings of his wife and the other female characters, and to get the female perspective was part of the value of the book. She normally wrote biographies about women rather than men, and could have made more of his treatment of his wife, but tried to be even-handed.  Indeed she could be congratulated for resisting the temptation to be judgemental on many occasions.

However, another who had read two other biographies by Claire Tomalin (those of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy) had detected the same judgemental tone in those other books, and it had become more marked in her later work. In this book, which was easily the best of the three he had read, she often “let the facts speak for themselves”, but selected them in such a way as to suggest the judgement. More broadly, there were common elements in all three books: very well written; easy to read, with a maximum length of 400 pages; no original research but self-confidently asserted interpretation of character and motive; no acknowledgment in the text (as opposed to the bibliography) of the existence of the work of other biographers, who might have different views; and an Olympian tone as she rubbed the acts of her characters through her moral sieve and scrutinised their shortcomings.

Reading this book with little knowledge of Pepys it had seemed totally convincing, but reading her book on Hardy with knowledge of the other biographies it had seemed relatively second rate. It was therefore no real surprise to hear that some Pepys’ experts were less than happy with some of her interpretations.

One with a detailed knowledge of the history of the period wondered whether people had found the fragmentary comments on the background history adequate. Would it not have been better to have had a more detailed and serious commentary? The book – and no doubt Pepys’ diaries themselves – also exaggerated the importance of Pepys’ role in a historical context.

Well, it all depended what sort of biography you wanted, a question which was a bit like how you liked your tea. If you wanted original research, a discussion of the views of others and the full historical background, you were looking at the 800+ pages type of biography (or more – the Berlioz biography discussed March 2007 had clocked in at over 700 pages for only the first volume of a 3 volume biography). And such texts normally read much less fluently. There was a role for popular, accessible biography such as this alongside more scholarly works.

Many felt that the historical context had really come alive in their imaginations because of the way Pepys had interacted with the main players – how he could describe, for example, a conversation with the king – in a way that previous history education had failed to come to life. And they would have found a more detailed exposition boring. But others, who liked their tea strong, would have preferred a more substantial and serious account of the history.

But what then of her conclusion that the diary carries Pepys as a writer “to the highest point, alongside Bunyan, Milton, Chaucer, Dickens and Proust”? Was that not, based on what she quoted of the diaries, absurd? Was she not confusing the uniqueness of his diaries with their literary quality? His attempts to write more serious work later in his life revealed his limitations as a writer. And if the purpose of the book was to promote the diaries, why did she not quote more extensively from them, instead of paraphrasing them all the time (except when they discussed sex)?

Well, yes, you did toca her jupes there, but was she not simply getting carried away as she sought a rousing finale to her book? What she did bring out particularly clearly was how Pepys stood back from himself and ruthlessly scrutinised his own actions and motivations in his diaries. She certainly succeeded in making one wish to read the diaries.

And how to compare fiction and biography? A main purpose of reading was to get outside our own view of the world. In fiction you were only getting the view of the novelist, but in biography – particularly one based on such detailed and compelling diaries – you were entering the world of a real person. So in that sense it was more authentic, and could be very powerful. In that context one member put in a strong recommendation for reading Nella Last’s Second World War Diaries.

There was general agreement that the last section of Tomalin’s book, written without the benefit of the diaries, was perhaps inevitably weaker. And she seemed to accept without debate Pepys’ explanation of failing eyesight for giving up the diaries, when in fact his eyesight did not fail in the end, and there might have been many other factors at work in his decision to quit the diaries.

Also relatively undiscussed was the fact that Pepys stayed a “nonjuror” loyal to King James after the arrival of William and Mary, at very considerable cost to himself and his career. How did this square with Tomalin’s picture earlier in the book of the venal, self-serving, turncoat Pepys?

It did not match up at all. Perhaps if any of us wrote a detailed diary of our youth that confessed to all our worst behaviour and worst thoughts, all dishonesty and all peccadilloes, it would be difficult to square it with any subsequent acts of goodness. And taking “commissions” was probably pretty standard behaviour at the time, not the sign of hopeless moral turpitude that we judged it by 21st century standards. Oh dear, the picture of Pepys was beginning to blur at the edges….

So what, in conclusion, was the purpose of the book? For one the importance of the book was how it portrayed Pepys as a very early example of a man treating himself as an object of scientific analysis, warts and all, at a time of rising interest in scientific discovery.

For another her achievement was to make the diaries accessible to a large public, and to make Pepys and his family very engrossing people. She had shown them to be timeless.

And for another she had brought the whole historical period to life.

Which is more or less where we came in.

Naturally the high moral tone of this discussion could not be sustained, and at this point (not being Pepys) your correspondent closed his book, studiously ignoring the conversation…. which rolled round such issues as the quality of wine in the seventeenth century… the import of golf clubs… the quality of Pepys’ philandering… whether they washed or not in the seventeenth century (yes they must have, because his wife refused to wash in revenge for his dalliance with Deb)…

Just as I nodded off I thought I heard someone say that he had stayed overnight in a room in Magdalene College in Cambridge, and been told to find his breakfast in the old hymn chest in the corner of the room. He duly fished out his cornflakes and milk in the morning, to find that the chest bore the name of Samuel Pepys. Perhaps this was the closest we were to get to Pepys….