on 8 December 2003
Blurbs on the back of the book are there to sell the product. Often they are exaggerated. With Tomalin, readers will find a rare and welcome exception: they are accurate. The book is divided into three parts: pre-Diary, Diary and post-diary periods of Pepys’s life. In the first and the third parts, the narrative is more or less chronological, tracing the life of the great Diarist. The second is more thematic, necessarily so given the (daunting) wealth of information through Pepys’s own words and amount of different things (drinking and dining, chasing women, reforming the Navy, the Great Fire, the plague). What emerges is not a staid chronological sequence of his life, but his whole personality that is so full of life. Tomalin’s great achievement is to combine the irresistible character of Pepys with portraits of other people – family, friends and foes – whose presence enriches the book enormously. By reading this book, readers enjoy not only an excellent biography of Samuel Pepys but a great panoramic view of politics – from the Commonwealth period through the Restoration to the Glorious Revolution – and how Londoners lived in the second half of the seventeenth century. It is a thoroughly informative book and moreover enormously fun to read.
This book is beautifully written, an excellent example of biographical history, and with quite a character as the subject! I could almost feel myself following Pepys through the London of the late 17th century, as the frankness and detached nature of his diary, beautifully intertwined with the happenings of the time by Clare Tomalin, made the timespan between his period and ours appear far shorter than 300-plus years.
The combined effect of Pepys' musings and (wheeler-)dealings, and Tomalin's seamless contextualisation, brings Pepys' life and times alive. I cringed with pain as his bladder stone was removed in a barbaric operation, I could almost feel his avarice as he began to rake in kickbacks from the naval contracts he was authorised to approve, and I'm sure anyone would understand his near-euphorical egotism as plague spared him while all around old friends dropped like flies.
Aside from the gripping story of his life, Tomalin also makes valid and interesting arguments to explain the extraordinary events of the period in which Pepys lived (specifically the decline of the Republic and the restoration of the monarchy), and describes how the uniqueness of the diary allows us to identify with Pepys in a way that we could never have identified with anyone before him; firstly because his writing style was revolutionary, giving us a window onto his life with detachment and honesty, and secondly because during the period in which he lived, changes came into being which sowed the seeds for modern Britain and modern society as a whole.
I thoroughly recommend the book, which would also make an excellent gift.
on 12 June 2003
Having read Pepys' diaries several years ago, without prior knowledge about the man or the context of his life, I found the going quite hard, but still intriguing. I wish I had had this biography to hand at that time as it fills in that context superbly. A majority of the book is given over to the diary years, as one would expect given the wealth of information from Pepys, but it also fills in the blanks for rest of his life, allowing a better understanding of the man, his humble roots, and the influence he came to have on the shaping the modern British Navy, advising and rubbing shoulders with Kings and their noblemen at an interesting time politically in the British Isles. There's much in here that I didn't know, with many historical references, but still reads extremely well. Claire Tomalin also has much empathy with the women in Pepys' life, of whom he himself wrote little, and seems to have researched these characters extensively, and their stories are illuminating about women of that time and status.
One doesn't need to have read the diaries to enjoy this biography, and indeed I would recommend reading this before tackling Pepys himself. A book that's both entertaining and educating. Worthy of the accolades and awards that it has attracted. Having read this, I'll be reading the diaries once again with much more knowledge and understanding.
on 11 February 2003
Any biographer attempting to chronicle Pepys' life is instantly forced to deal with the tumultuous decade of the 1660s which Pepys described so wonderfully in his own diary. We feel we know Pepys - his interests, his passions, his vices - and the biographer must work around that framework. And yet the diary covers only a small part of a long, active life - the Pepys of 1669 is a long way from the Pepys of 1703; his greatest days still lay ahead, and his past is something he only alluded to occasionally.
Tomalin has managed to expand the Pepys we think we know - she makes the many facets of this complex man shine. Administrator, schemer, lover, hypochondriac, aesthete, musician, scholar, man-about-town. The often contradictory aspects of his character are brilliantly explained; the gap between the public face and private passions and beliefs.
This is essentially the story of one of the first "self made men" in the modern world - Pepys rises from relatively humble country stock to the fringes of power during and after the Restoration. Tomalin makes the political and historical background clear, explains Pepys' involvement with the key players and brings a lot of new light onto his brief imprisonment in the Tower and his return to public eminence. This is a readable, witty and compassionate biography of a complex and driven man - a wonderfully entertaining and insightful book.
Everyone who has ever enjoyed reading Pepys' diary should read this.
We are accustomed to Claire Tomalin's astute and civilised mixture of involvement with her subject and detached awareness of his/her failings. So it is with Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. Pepys' intellectual curiosity, energy, personal courage and frankness about his own actions make him a more than appealing central character, but his career-minded defection from Commonwealth to Monarchy and venal pursuit of bribes and debts are among many failings to escape the whitewash brush. The sub-title betrays Tomalin's fascination with her subject which she conveys admirably to the reader. Pepys was engrossed with himself, more out of curiosity than arrogance, and as such his diary is far more than a record of events (though such set-pieces as the Fire are given full value in this biography). By putting self rather than events at the centre, Claire Tomalin is able to give coherence to what could be an unbalanced book. A good half of it is devoted to 10 years of Pepys' life, the 10 years of the Diary, about which we know almost everything, as distinct from the 20-odd years before and 30-odd years after where documentation is much sparser. Fortunately Pepys was close to the centre of power for much of his life (whether in person or by proxy) and the political and military events are skilfully used to give substance to some of the lean years in terms of biographical information. Wisely Tomalin divides the 'Diary' section by theme, although preserving an approximate chronological sequence, and the whole, potentially complicated account is a model of clarity.
Writing the biography of a man who life is already so well documented in his diaries is a tall order. Claire Tomalin scores a resounding victory with 'The Unequalled Self'. Pepys comes to life in these pages, as do the streets he inhabits. Even if you are not interested in the man himself, this book is a wonderful evocation of 17th century London. Thoroughly recommended.
on 3 January 2003
A good biographer must tread a fine line. She must enable us to get beneath the skin of her subject. We have to be made to feel that we truly understand what makes the subject tick. On the other hand (if you don't mind me mixing my metaphors) she must maintain a critical perspective. The biography should not degenerate into "hero worship". In "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self" the biographer, Claire Tomalin, has managed to achieve this balance. Admittedly, as far as getting beneath her subject's skin, Ms. Tomalin has been helped by one of the most famous diaries of all time- the one kept by Pepys from his late 20's until his late 30's. But, I have seen other biographies of Pepys that relied too much on the diary- where the diary became a crutch that enabled the biographer merely to amuse us with its sometimes slapstick sexual content, rather than to thoughtfully present us with a well-rounded, flesh-and-blood human being. So, besides reporting on Pepys's crude and predatory amorous adventures, much of the book is devoted to Pepys's hard work over many years as a naval administrator. He devoted himself to modernizing the Navy by both the introduction of proper record keeping and by using the resultant statistical data to develop a more efficient procurement process. He also never stopped trying to get adequate funding so that more ships could be built. Pepys, who as a teenager witnessed the execution of Charles I and who was an admirer of Cromwell, was a great believer in meritocracy. However, Ms. Tomalin also shows us a Pepys who didn't fail to enrich himself by taking advantage of his position- he accepted numerous "gifts" from people who wanted government jobs or contracts. (The "gifts" weren't always in the form of money. One particularly ambitious ships' carpenter "loaned out" his wife to Pepys.) Pepys also used his position to help out friends and family members. Of course, the author points out that this was common practice at the time. Still, we have to smirk a bit when Pepys puffs himself up and states he would never take a bribe! (He convinced himself that he wasn't being "bought" since he claimed that the decision making process was never influenced by the money or payment-in-kind that he received.) Ms. Tomalin is never heavy-handed in her presentation. She never fails to put Pepys's behavior in its proper context- we are always reminded of how people behaved in both their public and private lives back in the 17th century. Where some previous biographers have tended to zero in on either Pepys the diarist or Pepys the naval administrator, Ms. Tomalin gives us the whole man. We learn that Pepys was an intensely social person- he loved going out to the coffee-houses, to the theater, to concerts, etc. Although not a scientist, he was a very curious man who wanted to know as much as he could about the way the world worked. He belonged to the Royal Society for many years and was delighted to attend the meetings and to learn about new theories and to hear of the latest experiments. He knew Newton, Boyle, Hooke and Wren. Ms. Tomalin also informs us of Pepys's lifelong passion for music. He grew up in a musical household and throughout his life he loved both to play music and to listen to music performed by others. He was a hearty eater, being especially fond of oysters (considering his proclivities, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised), and he was also an avid reader. He built up an impressive library, which he left to Cambridge University. The beauty of this biography is in the nuances- in showing us all the facets of this remarkable man.
I am not a big reader of books about history - I have a terrible memory and quickly forget dates and the names of Kings. Also, whilst I had heard of Samuel Pepys, I had no real idea of who he was nor any great desire to learn more about him. However, after reading Jim Naughtie's "The Rivals", a very good biography about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I had decided that I should read more political biographies. And I chose Claire Tomalin's book on the back of a good review.
Well, I was very fortunate to have chanced upon the book. Ms Tomalin not only described Samuel Pepys, an extraordinary man from an extraordinary time, but brought him and his world to life.
Pepys was an upwardly mobile civil servant at the time of the English Civil War and the Restoration. He was corrupt, using his position as a Naval Administrator to make his fortune. He was also a serial womaniser, sometimes pressuring wives of trademen that required his favour to enter affairs with him. However, in spite of his obvious faults, he also was one of this country' best diarists, who illuminated a time crucial to the development of much of Western liberal democracy. He also reformed the Royal Navy, creating a professional body based on merit and not patronage.
Ms Tomalin wonderfully explains Pepys life. Never glossing over his darker side, she obviously loves the character, repeatedly calling him Sam. The book, arranged in themes and not chronologically, not only uses Pepys own Diary, but also other historical research, to lay out Pepy's whole life and time. And even with all this research, with copious notes for the more academically minded, the book reads easily - even for novices such as me. If my history lessons were this interesting, I may have remembered more.
on 30 November 2011
This biography is shiny and new, but it is sour and grudging in its approach to a very great man. It is written by a professional biographer with only a passing, pecuniary interest in Pepys himself. I recommend you pass it by, and instead buy the three volumes of Arthur Bryant's earlier, much better, much more detailed, much more authoritative, and vastly more entertaining version. He reveals the real Sam Pepys, in a surprisingly readable and entertaining way. You can buy them here, in hardback, for very little more than the cost of postage.
Pepys' diary is so revealing, so entertaining, and so insightful that only the very best biographers can cope with the huge task of getting the man down on paper. Tomalin doesn't. But Bryants biography, plus the Latham and Matthews edition of the Diary (which Tomalin also sneers at) equals a lifetime of enjoyment..
on 5 July 2003
This is a truly delightful book to read. Claire Tomalin is one of the new breed of historians, those that have the ability to write a really good narative that sits on top of sund history.
For me this book made Pepys come alive in a way that nothing has quite managed before, not least because - as Tomalin tells us - most copies ofthe Diaries were heavliy edited to keep out the naughty, scandalous bits!
Pepys discontinued his diaries as he felt his eysight was failing. However, he was a prodigious letter writer and, of course, his work with the admiralty is well archived. Tomalin takes on the story, post diary, to descirbe a man and a career that continued to be as fascinating as the person we know from the diaries.
Read this book.