- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

By Claire Tomalin
Knopf, $30, 466 pages, illus.

At the age of 28, already at work on what would become his surpassing "Diary" and well along the way in his career as a naval administrator, Samuel Pepys decided to try dancing. Claire Tomalin highlights this event in her masterful biography "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self," giving it context and dash:
"Pepys came to dancing late. He was invited to a dinner at the Dolphin by a sail-maker who wanted to soften him up in order to win contracts with the Navy Board … The party included the Penns and the Battens with their servants. They were given such a good time they all stayed on into the evening …[Pepys} was persuaded to sing and play his fiddle with a group of musicians who turned up …Then the dancing began, and to his own surprise he found himself joining in. It was the first time he had ever attempted to dance.
"Dancing was not something a scholarly boy of his generation was brought up to do; during the interregnum it was associated with the court, with masques and also with semi-pagan country celebrations, and mostly disapproved of as a form of self-display and sexual provocation. With the return of the king things changed. Charles was a dancer and had brought over French dances with him."
After this introduction, Pepys applied himself to the jolly pastime with energy and imagination. He bought books on country dancing and arranged for instructors Mary Ashwell and a Mr. Pembleton to come to his home so that he and his wife Elizabeth might improve their skills.
This plan, however, proved to be a disaster. Elizabeth became jealous of his teacher and vice versa. Accusations were hurled, physical blows were exchanged between the women and a series of collateral events were spawned that, like other events in Pepys' life, spiraled to more rage, chaos, scandal, confrontation, until at last a peace was brokered. "At the end of May [Pepys] expressed relief in the Diary that there was no more dancing his Coranto was forgotten and that he could fall 'to quiet of mind and business again.'"
This episode, one of many similar ones in this engaging book, offers a glimpse of what the biographer had to tackle, this being a distant, sometimes alien world more like the universe of "Love's Labour's Lost" than our own. The biographer, known for her authoritative works on Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, among others, handles her material splendidly, more so for the fact that for centuries Pepys has reigned as his own best biographer.
Ms. Tomalin tames the diverse sources for her work Pepys' "Diary," acquaintances' letters, historical archives, accounts of other contemporary authors such as John Milton with rigor and careful organization.
The book is divided into three parts, the first devoted to providing background on the education of the tailor's son who, through his wits and with the luck of family connections, was sent to the best schools and propelled toward a distinguished career. Readers see him celebrating with his neighbors at the execution of Charles I, then making the bold, and seemingly sudden transformation into a royalist. In the second part of the book Ms. Tomalin takes up the 10 volatile years during which the "Diary" was written, offering what is arguably the most vivid section of the book and the one that anchors it.
In this section, Ms. Tomalin uses and reworks the diarist's observations about the big events of the time, and they were very big events indeed: the London Fire of 1666, the plague, marital discord of volcanic proportions, Charles II's coronation, and many, many lascivious contretemps.
That Pepys was a naughty man, to put it mildly, there can be no doubt. He treated his sister Pall cruelly when he had her come and live in his house as a "servant," and his vindicative dalliances with adversaries' daughters (William Penn's daughter Pegg, for one) do not call virtue to mind. Ms. Tomalin does not judge her subject and neither are readers inspired to do so, but in case there should be any doubt she writes, "Had he not supplied the information himself, it would be hard to believe; but there it is, set down in his own words, with the same admirable exactitude he would have used in describing the process of rope-making."
And later she adds, "His self-portrait, warts and all , is compelling enough to draw us in and makes us live uncritically inside his skin. Moving so fast through the events of each day and the crowds of people with whom he had dealings, his energy burns off flame making it hard to disapprove of him."
In the third part of the book Ms. Tomalin traces Pepys' life in the years after the "Diary" was completed, and he is in retirement, a widower with other challenges to face. Nevertheless, even though Ms. Tomalin clearly tilts her observations of her subject's life towards the diary years and away from his bureaucratic accomplishments they are identified and made compelling in their own right. She does a fine job of depicting his commitment to the navy, and the fastidiousness with which he approached all his duties on that front. She sums it up this way:
"The romance of the navy came to him not through wind, water and tides but through papers, contracts and ledgers, rows of figures and dockyard visits, but it cast its spell over him as strongly as over any of the fighting officers who sailed the oceans. It is one of the reasons he is revered by naval historians."
A family tree is included in the book, and a glossary of major players, maps and lavish photographs complete the full enterprise, but invariably, it is the years in which Pepys wrote the "Diary" to which Ms. Tomalin returns. For all her speculation about the ways his life and times are not so different from our own, and she is on thinnest of ice on those occasions when she does so, she knows that it is the "Diary" which has captivated generations, and she concludes, "The achievement is astounding, but there is no show or pretension; and when you turn over the last page of the Diary you know you have been in the company of both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever know."
Robert Louis Stevenson had it right when he noted that Samuel Pepys was consumed with himself, centered on "that entrancing ego of whom alone he cared to write." In this fine book Claire Tomalin has embraced that ego, and let it breathe and dance. We are all the better for her orchestration.

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