Thursday, 21 February 2013

The life of an extraordinary, ordinary man in Tomalin's Samuel Pepys

From The Week of February 11, 2013

As much as history is shaped by its giants, those figures of legend who come down to us from countless tales and nearly as many deeds, it is just as influenced by the smallfolk as well. For while many are ready and able to compose flowery paeans in honor of the great men and women who've danced across the stage of our shared past, no one documents the little people who fight in the wars the great generals win; no one is watching the laborers who manufacture the tools and products that allow the great ones to dispense their words; no one memorializes the lives of the slaves and builders who erected our great monuments. They are forgotten, necessary remnants who go without recognition because no one bothers to remember their deeds. At least in the case of one man, however, these anonymizing shadows have been thrust back. For his talent and his words survived the test of time to describe to us a world we might not have otherwise seen. Ms. Tomalin elaborates in her excellent biography.

Born in the dying days of the old monarchy, Samuel Pepys was a man of talent and intelligence whose life straddled the most transformative period in English history. A poor boy in Tudor England, a young, educated man in Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, and an aging parliamentarian during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he survived kings and misfortune, wars and uncertain political winds, to witness not only the repeated plagues that marred mid-century London, but the great fire that all but consumed it in that most apocalyptic year of 1666. He was the son of a tailor who amassed wealth and status in an England obsessed by class distinctions. And yet, he would be but a forgotten footnote in history if his most exceptional diary had not withstood the corrosiveness of time's decay to stand witness to his mind, his pen and the Britain that shaped them both.

Remaining one of the most definitive first-hand accounts of the Great Fire of London, a Hellish storm that devoured large swaths of the city, Pepys'' diary reveals the thoughts of a man on the rise in a time long past. Forsaking the clean narratives that only come with hindsight, Pepys describes his life in detail, from humiliatingly private exchanges with his wife to points of fashion and conduct in the halls of power to which he was eventually admitted. But more than the finer points of his rise and fall, beyond the vagaries of his household, the diary chronicles the appalling anonymity of the everyman, and everywoman, in his London. Not only are there nothing like public services to aid the poor and the unfortunate, there's an abysmal disconnect between the privileged monarchy, who feel entitled to their position, and the wretched outsiders who have no means at all of gaining a voice and putting an end to their powerlessness, a fact that would remain true for decades to come.

A biography of both the man and his enduring document, Ms. Tomalin's Samuel Pepys is a testament to the smallfolk of history all-too-readily neglected by a species obsessed with only the brightest stars. Fixing upon Pepys' glories and his faults, the author wonderfully captures a man's life in 17th-century England. But more than that, she exposes us to his legendary diary which speaks to a rare talent for both detail and self-examination. Pepys, at times, seems like a bundle of faults, a womanizer who has little time for people who are burdensome to him. But we only know of these failings because the man himself wrote of them. He rejected, in part or whole, the urge within all of us to present our best face to the world, to soft-pedal our warts while emphasizing our best features. And in doing so, he gifts to us a trustworthy document about the life of a gentleman in a tumultuous time.

There's no doubt that Ms. Tomalin's biography has its flaws. Its length is bloated at more than 400 pages. Moreover, the author would have done well to better embed Pepys in the world around him, both its trends and its pitfalls. But in every other respect, this is an eminently enjoyable and edifying portrait of a selfish but selflessly honest man through whom we can come to better understand a world we've mostly left behind. Pepys would make for a wonderful inspiration for Pip, the protagonist of Mr. Dickens' famous Great Expectations if Dickens' own story, coming near some two centuries on, wasn't so very much like Pepys' own.

Ms. Tomalin's prose and research more than does justice to a man of history worthy of our attention. (4/5 Stars)

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