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Book Forum: Biographies   |    
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:2342-2342. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2342
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New York, N.Y.

By Claire Tomalin. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, 470 pp., $30.00; $16.95 (paper).

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Mention the name Samuel Pepys, and immediately one thinks, "the diarist." Perhaps, if one is well informed, one might add, "Isn’t he the one who fiddled sexually with the servants?" Pepys did indeed write a diary (and fiddle with the ladies): he recorded the events of his life daily for 9 years and 5 months, stopping when he believed (incorrectly) that he was going blind. Pepys’ Diary is a major historical source for the events of the 1660s in England, a decade marked by the restoration of the monarchy, the Dutch wars, terrible years of plague, and the great fire that destroyed most of the City of London.

Pepys’ Diary is not great literature, although a wonderful read. It is an important historical and social record of its era. Pepys was on the ship that brought Charles Stuart back from Europe; he notes new flags, the renaming of vessels, the response of the fleet, and Charles’s spaniel defecating in the launch taking him to shore. Present at the Coronation, Pepys got sick drunk afterwards, awakening, the Diary tells us, in his own vomit. Pepys pays attention to the details: the pigeons in the fire that waited too long, flying from the flames with their wings afire and then plummeting. He helps us understand the ordinary context of life in London—its pleasure gardens, taverns, and restaurants, what food people were fond of, the "clubs," churches, playhouses, plays, actors, and, above all, the music of London. Reading Pepys’ Diary, we peek into the scandals of court and into the ways of Parliament; we shop for portraits, for a first carriage, a new suit.

Even if we read the Diary, however, we miss the complete Pepys. Claire Tomalin’s biography gives us almost all we could hope for. As Pepys puts London in context, Tomalin puts Pepys into the context of London and England. He was a member and clerk of the Navy Board. Not formally taught in mathematics, he learned to use a slide rule and to measure the timber with which to build the ships and masts. He also learned how to order and audit the provisioning of the Navy, determining what was needed to prepare for a season at sea. He introduced mathematics instruction for midshipmen as well as examinations for the rank of lieutenant. He further professionalized the service by replacing "gentlemen captains" with professional seamen. He created the modern English Navy, preparing the way for Nelson and for English control of the seas. He was the first of the great tradition of professional civil servants.

Pepys was introduced to the Royal Society during the Diary years, became active later, and was elected President. With his typical administrative zeal, he ordered that members in arrears of their dues be struck from the list, prepared orders for the society’s clerks, regularized their pay, and ordered them to keep minutes and to index the books. Most famously, he ordered the printing of Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

Pepys was a collector of books, portraits, and musical and scientific instruments. He left his library to Trinity College, Cambridge, carefully bound, thoughtfully indexed, and well housed. He was the very model of a gentleman during the 17th-century Enlightenment. Tomalin presents all of this vividly. What is missing, presumably because it is missing from Pepys himself, is a sense of the inner man. He was a backsliding obsessional, drinking too much and then forswearing it, attending the theater too much and resolving to limit his attendance, fighting with his wife and then recognizing and recording his unreasonableness. He resolves to get to the office and to do his work before play, to master his craft, and he does. But he neither examines his inner life nor provides us with the material to do so. Nonetheless, he deserves this brilliant biography, which brings to life an important historical figure. This may be a disappointment to the analysts among us, but the book will delight the inner historian.




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