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"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Aug 16, 2017

Book Review: The Curious World of Samuel Pepys & John Evelyn

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn
by Margaret Willes
Yale University Press, 2017

In this exceptional study of the two most notable 17th century diarists, Margaret Willes admirably presents their fascinating friendship, its origins and depth, their mutual interests, many encounters, and most importantly, their shared curiosity. Chapter by chapter she explores with illustrative detail their many connections, not only with one another but also the greatest minds and talents and powers of their era. These two men regularly encountered King Charles II and his successors, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke—whose passion for scientific inquiry, we learn, led him to smoke cannabis imported from Mauritius. Through their commentary on political events, filtered through personal experience, Pepys and Evelyn have documented a remarkable era populated with agents as well as the victims of change.


John Evelyn
The men’s diaries are illuminated in a way that clearly delineates the authors' contrasting natures, proclivities, and pursuits. The book’s first section delves into their pre-diary histories and the formative years of scholarship. Evelyn, the product of a landed and wealthy family, attended Oxford’s Bailliol and spent the Civil War years in Europe, finding his future wife Mary in an English household in Paris. Pepys, a London tailor’s son, was educated at St. Paul’s School in London and matriculated at Magdalene, Cambridge, and afterwards assumed a clerkship from which he rose to a great height. Unlike Evelyn’s bride, Pepys’s brought no money to the marriage. Samuel and Elizabeth did not enjoy the same match of minds enjoyed by John and Mary.


With the Restoration, both Evelyn and Pepys commence their diaries in earnest. Pepys’s record continued for the next nine years, through plague, fire, and wars, and his various roles in the Navy Office and the Admiralty, reviving it in more succinct form later in life. Evelyn’s diary extended to 1706, concluding only shortly before his death.

Samuel Pepys

That the two men respected one another and enjoyed each other’s company is evident. That their tastes and personalities different is equally clear. Pepys had a passion for music, ‘the thing in the world that I love most,' playing several instruments, and chased women, especially actresses. Evelyn was no musician, and his admiration of females was more cerebral or spiritual. He was a gardener, a garden writer and designer. Pepys was not, although he commented upon ones he visited with, as Willes points out, more objectivity than the practitioner Evelyn, a more subjective critic. Both were active members of the Royal Society. Despite never presenting a paper, Pepys served as its president, putting his famed managerial skills to good use. Evelyn declined the offer when presented, but continued his close involvement.

Their habits were the usual ones common to prominent men of their day—coffee drinking, dining, shopping, collecting, and reading. Their love of books was another strong tie binding them, and Pepys in particular names the London booksellers and printers from whom he acquired his many volumes, now residing at his alma mater. Both demonstrated an improving spirit with regard to the women in their lives. Pepys provided musical instruction for his wife Elizabeth, and Evelyn ensured that his daughters Elizabeth, Mary (a clever writer) and Susana (an artist) were well educated, teaching them Greek and Latin himself.

At his death in 1703, Pepys left behind—inadvertently, it seems—an unedited diary, brimming with immediate and lively and highly revealing (i.e. sexually incriminating) incidents. In contrast, the self-aware and cautious Evelyn edited his own diary, which he carefully preserved to inform future generations. We are fortunate to have both, and in her enlightening and informative history, Margaret Willes adds colour and context to this surprising friendship between two men who together experienced crucial decades in England’s history. A must-read for those attracted by any and all aspects of the vibrant 17th century.


The Great Fire of London