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?