Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

As you may have noticed, I don’t often read non-fiction (a big clue can be found in my blog name) but this is something I’d like to change. I have heard a lot of praise for Claire Tomalin’s biographies, so I had high hopes for this one.

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self is a long and comprehensive biography of an important historical figure, most famous for the diaries he kept during the 17th century. I haven’t actually read the diaries of Samuel Pepys yet but would certainly like to read them at some point in the future. I wasn’t sure whether not having read the diaries would cause problems with my understanding of the biography, but luckily it didn’t seem to matter – in fact, it might actually be best to read the biography first as it helps to put the diaries in context.

The first few chapters deal with Pepys’ childhood and early life (pre-diary) and understandably we don’t have a lot of information regarding this period of his life – we can only speculate about what Pepys may or may not have done. I found these chapters quite boring in comparison to the rest of the book, although I did enjoy learning about a typical day in a 17th century school – and I was fascinated by the description of the operation Pepys had to remove a stone from his bladder. I’ve always had an interest in the history of medicine and it never ceases to amaze me how anybody ever survived at all!

Tomalin explains that what makes Pepys’ diary so interesting and noteworthy is that he records a mixture of both public events and personal experiences. Pepys lived through a fascinating and eventful period of English history and his famous diary covers such events as the Restoration of Charles II, the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. I was slightly disappointed that more attention wasn’t given to the plague as it’s a topic I find fascinating to read about (I hope that doesn’t sound too morbid!) but as Tomalin explains it was something that didn’t affect Pepys personally and so he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about it.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were the descriptions of daily life. While I confess to struggling to get through some of the chapters about Pepys’ political and business activities, I found the more personal sections completely gripping. I thought Tomalin stayed very objective throughout the biography, drawing attention to both the good and the bad aspects of Pepys’ character (and to be honest, he didn’t seem to be the most pleasant of people). But I can tell that even though Tomalin doesn’t shy away from discussing his negative points, she has a lot of enthusiasm and liking for her subject. She also fleshes out the characters of other important people in Pepys’ life including his wife Elizabeth, with whom he had a very complex and volatile relationship. He could be very cruel to her and both physically and verbally abusive, but they did appear to have some genuine affection for each other and Tomalin describes some of the happy times they had together as well as the bad.

For someone like myself who doesn’t often read this type of literary biography, this was quite a challenging book but worth the effort. If I had tried to read this book straight through from beginning to end I probably wouldn’t have managed to finish it, but reading it over the course of a month, a few chapters at a time between reading my usual fiction books, worked perfectly for me.

Have you read any of Claire Tomalin’s biographies? Which ones would you recommend?

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8 thoughts on “Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

  1. Charlie says:

    I’ve been interested in finding out about Pepys for a while now but haven’t got round to it yet. For some reason I had him down as a good guy so I’m glad you’ve provided that information here. I’m currently reading a book that sounds as though it’s the same style to this, and you’re right, a month is a good period of time.

    • Helen says:

      I really liked the way Tomalin looked at both the positive and negative sides of his character – I think it’s important for a biographer to stay objective and give us a true picture of what the person was like.

  2. FleurFisher says:

    I have this one tucked away, but I’m not quite brave enough to pick it up yet. I have Claire Tomalin’s Hardy biography waiting too and i have read and enjoyed her (shorter) biographies of Dora Jordan and Ellen Tiernan.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve heard good things about the Hardy biography and would like to read that one, but as I still haven’t read all of Hardy’s books yet I think the biography will have to wait for a while.

  3. Mel u says:

    I read The full Diary a few years ago-I found it to be a fascinating read-I think once I got to Know Pepys the best parts of the Diary were those dealing with Pepys and his wife-he loves his wife very much but cannot resist other women-it really gives you a very good understanding of 17th century life-there is political drama, the great fire of London and all sorts of great intimate details of daily life-I still have the Diary-beautiful set of books and I get a feeling from looking at them and being reminded how great they are I will never get from a Kindle-

    I read her biography also-I enjoyed it and it might be a good idea to read it first though not at all required-I have read her works on Katherine Mansfield which I liked a lot and the one on Ellen Tiernan that I liked less and thought too speculative in its reconstruction of the mental life of Tiernan-but still worth reading-

    I enjoyed your excellent post a lot.

    • Helen says:

      I’m definitely interested in reading the Diary now that I’ve read the biography. I thought the relationship between Pepys and Elizabeth was fascinating.

      Thanks for recommending the Katherine Mansfield biography. The Ellen Tiernan one does sound interesting too.

  4. Lyn says:

    I think Tomalin is an excellent biographer. I’ve read all her books & I’d particularly recommend the Invisible Woman (Nelly Ternan) & Hardy. I read the Pepys biog when it was first published but only read the diary (the Shorter Diary although still over 1000pp) a couple of years ago. I loved it. Once I worked out who everyone was (lots of men called William, I seem to remember) I just loved spending my lunchtimes & evenings with Sam. I would love to read the complete diary one day.

    • Helen says:

      I’m looking forward to reading the diary, so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. I feel more confident about reading it now that I’ve read this biography. I’ll definitely look for some more of Tomalin’s books too.

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