My priority resolution of 2007 is to read more non-fiction. Because, you see, I buy it (…and buy it and buy it some more…) but then never get around to reading it. Hence my shelves are heaving with quality non-fiction books, often tome-like, mostly history but with some politics and philosophy mixed in, that never find their way into my once-eager little hands. I suspect this has often been a consequence of my reading only one book at a time – non-fiction takes a long time to read, perhaps twice as long as fiction, and quickly becomes a heavy chore hung around the neck of a sleepy or unfocused evening. It has a variable pace, now anecdotal, now deeply involved, boggy with footnotes or skimming lightly over detail. It requires a certain clarity of mind, for the purposes of maximum absorption, and I have to feel specifically ‘in the mood’ for it: awake, inquisitive, curious. I’m the first to admit that I don’t feel like this all the time, or even half the time, and so the non-fiction remains shelf-bound.
Recently though, and happily, my reading habits have gone through something of a minor revolution, provoked almost entirely by a year of blogging and of reading other literary blogs. At every turn I’ve met with readers who juggle two, three, four, five, six or even twelve! books at once without discomfort, and who enjoy reading all the more for the variety. In short: I have discovered the benefits of reading more than one book at once, a hitherto unthinkable foray into multi-tasking. It means that I can keep a non-fiction book at hand for those extra-lucid days, moving it to the back-burner in favour of fiction when the mood takes me. A perfectly simple solution. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before... Anyway, I mean to always have a non-fiction in the ‘currently’ pile from now – believe me, I have plenty to be getting on with.
I started with a book that has been hanging around me since at least 2003, Clare Tomalin’s fat and pretty biography of Samuel Pepys. I bought it in all eagerness back then (I like to imagine: one wintery morning, on my way home from a 9am class in St. Andrews, when the warm lure of John Smith’s bookshop was just too great…) popped it on the shelf and looked at its bulk with relish from time to time. When I read Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver in the summer of 2005, in which Pepys and his kidney stone play a pleasant part, I picked it up and carried it around for a few days before abandoning it again. If I'd known it was going to be such a rip-roaring read, punctuated with sex, drink, plague, fire, music and public executions, I'd probably have stuck with it.
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) is best known to history as a diarist, a great observer of the events of his time and an extroadinarily honest recorder of personal minutiae - politics, plague and his wife's periods all found their place in his lively journal making. The multiple volumes of his diary, which he kept for a relatively short period between 1660-69, span some of the most exciting and traumatising events of the 17th century - the Restortion, the Plague, the Great Fire of London - and have been a vital source for social and political historians. But in his lifetime Pepys' literary talents were unknown. He was recognised, if at all, as an able administrator of the Navy Board and as a capable reformer of the Admirality; a member of the Royal Society and a collector of books. Hardly the stuff celebrity is made of. Nevertheless, he had the ear of the King (Charles II), the friendships of Princes (James, Duke of York counted him an ally) and the care of thousands of men - he was well-placed to know the political scene but not so well placed as to suffer from his allegiances or personal indiscretions. He walked a fine line between renown and infamy. In other words, he was a high level civil servant.
Nobody knew he was writing everything down, religiouly producing page after page on a daily basis and censoring (almost) nothing from his account. He wrote in secret - not even his closest friends knew of the diary - and in an idiosyncratic cypher, which was only translated in 1819 (by the mundanely named John Smith, an undergraduate at Magdalene College, Oxford) and not published until 1825. Even then it was heavily edited of all its smut and scandal - his numerous affairs and sexual liasons were too much for late Georgian sensibilities - and didn't appear in its entirety until 1976.
Pepys was born in London in 1633 to a lower middle class family - his father was a tailor; his mother a seamstress - but was blessed with some excellent family connections. His great aunt Paulina had made a great marriage to Sir Sidney Montagu and his first cousin was Edward Montagu, first Earl of Sandwich, while his second cousin, Sir Richard Pepys, was destined to became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland under Cromwell. As a result, and because of his promise as a child, he attended St Paul's School and eventually won a scholarship to Magdelene College, Cambridge in 1651. Following graduation he attached himself to Edward Montagu's rising star as a secretary-cum-errand boy and established himself as an indispensable attache. Montagu had fought for Cromwell during the Civil War and became one of his most trusted advisors during the Protectorate, concerning himself mainly with the development of the Navy (while still finding the time to father twelve children on his wife). Meanwhile Pepys got married himself to Elizabeth de St Michel, the penniless daughter of a Hugenot refugee (whose extended family he would support for the rest of his life) and settled into modest lodgings near Westminster.
His rising influence and position after the Restoration was due in large part to his family connection with Montagu: he was always lucky in his patrons. When the political scene shifted and began to crumble after Cromwell's death in 1658, Montagu immediately opened negotiations with the Stuarts. He had fought against Charles I with a young man's passion but set about restoring Charles II to the throne with a middle-aged expediency - he realised the inevitable return of the monarchy. Such foresight earned him a peerage and raised Pepys to his place on the Navy Board, the institution he would spend the prime years of his life serving and writing about. On the 1st January 1660, the year London would welcome Charles II back with pagaents and feasts, Samuel bought a notebook and began his diary. The rest is a rollicking cornocopia that I couldn't hope to summarise. Enough to say that Pepys - administrator, husband, adulterer, intellectual - was a man of extroadinary energies.
Pepy's tirelessness is what struck me most forcefully while reading Tomalin's equally tireless biography. He often rose at dawn, or even earlier, and worked through until 10 at night, before coming home to dedicate another hour or two to writing his diary or reading a scientific treatise. (He eventually became the President of the Royal Society and was the original patron of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica.) In between he endeavoured to walk by the Thames, attend Society meetings, visit his friends and be visited by them... not to mention finding the time for an inordinate amount of sex, with his wife and with various and changeable mistresses. One has to admire his stamina for multi-tasking.
If political and public affairs form the meat of the diary and the biography, then sex is its spice. Pepys must have had an extremely well-developed libido - so developed that he might have sex with three different women in the same day, every day, for a week. The short periods during which he and Elizabeth didn't make love daily, for whatever reason, are marked in the diary and, when prolonged, receive injured comment; he always made sure he had time for her in his busy schedule. The fact that he never fathered children, either legitimate or otherwise, was clearly not for want of trying. There is a sinister side to all this lust though. Pepys was a serial rapist, in the modern sense at least, and a incorrigible letch, preying on women who were financially and socially dependent on his good will. Take for example, Elizabeth Michell, newly married and under his financial patronage. The diary details how Pepys repeatedly assaulted her in his carriage, forcing her to fondle and pleasure him with her hand; he notes how on each occassion he had to 'use some little violence' to get hold of her hand and that she made repeated endeavours to remove it. When it was over she looked 'a little ill' but Pepys attributed this to the fact that she was eight months pregnant. He made daily mention of women he had fondled, or 'surprised', and made a habit of squeezing his maid's breasts while she combed his hair at night. No wonder the turnover of servants in the Pepys' household was so fraught and erratic.
Tomalin is relatively unconcerned with judging Pepys for this kind behaviour and, like many biographers who have gone before her, strays into justifying her subject:
'Lecher and liar as he knew himself to be, Pepys was a sceptic and a humanist as well; he was not confesssing his sins here but setting down the facts of his experience as a man living in a complex environment. Only when you have takn in the least attractive bits of his behaviour in the Diary can you fully appreciate what a triumph of humanism it represents.'
A sideways defence no doubt, but Tomalin really is wooed by Pepys' charismatic aplomb and I do have to admire his honesty. He tells it like it is, in bald, precise prose, whether he is describing the victualling of war ships or himself masturbating during his ferry ride home from work. Robert Louis Stevenson had it right when he wrote that it was Pepys' own ego 'of whom alone he cared to write.' To read about Pepys is to consider a 17th century in which he, and he alone, had a consciousness - he was a recorder, an observer but he was never an empath and he rarely sympathised with others. He believed in himself with the kind of faith he doesn't appear to have had in God; the diary was his very own gospel. And, against my will, I like this. There is something entirely rigorous about Pepys - he was efficient and devoted as regards both his professional and personal life. He was a vile misogynist no doubt, but he lived cacophonously and liked it. Is it possible to respect such a man?
In the end there is something fitting in the fact that it is the Diary, and not his work as a civil administrator, for which he has become famous and which justifies this biography of him. Its well worth getting to know him. Half of me thinks: long live the lechorous old goat. The other would quite merrily chop off his testicles.