A fabulously substantial and readable work that roots out the most interesting private and public aspects of two of the foremost diarists of the seventeenth century, The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn is a fascinating book about the murky world of the Restoration period, which, at over three centuries in our past shows that some surprisingly modern issues were considered by the period’s men and women of letters: John Evelyn, for instance, was horrified by the noise and pollution in London, and wrote about it in his pamphlet Fumifugium, in which he recommends planting more sweet-smelling trees to overcome the foul stench of the coal smoke.
Willes begins with a background on the two men, combined with a history of the period they were writing in and of. Both Evelyn and Pepys were fully involved, in one way or another, in the world of the seventeenth century, and they had opposing backgrounds and views: Evelyn came from a wealthy family, where Pepys’ father was a ‘tailor to the legal community’ – not a family of abject poverty, but nonetheless one that saw its fair share of financial and social struggles. On the execution of Charles I, the distinction in the views of the two is clear. Of the event, Evelyn writes that the execution, “struck me with such horror that I kept the day of his Martyrdom a fast, & would not be present, at that execrable wickednesse”, whereas after attending the execution, Pepys “returned to school and told his friends that if he had to preach a sermon on the King, it would be ‘The memory of the wicked shall rot’.”
But despite their differences in views and backgrounds, the two men were friends, finding common ground in their love of knowledge and irrepressible curiosity.
The diarists’ observations throw a chilling eyewitness light onto events such as the Great Plague of London: “June 1665 was very hot, and Pepys noted in Drury Lane how he saw ‘two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw'”; while Evelyn “noted ‘all along the Citty & suburbs … a dismal passage & dangerous, to see so many Cofines exposed in the streetes & the streete thin of people, the shops shut up, & all in mournefull silence, as not knowing whose turne might be next'”. Pepys and Evelyn also witnessed the Great Fire of London, in the year following the Great Plague, and both vividly diarise also that event.
No less interesting than accounts of these tragedies of history are the lives of the men themselves – the very personal accounts of men who were born almost four centuries ago. Often, personal histories must be constructed using scraps of evidence that gives an incomplete and unsatisfying picture of people’s lives (though future historians may yet have a field day with the Internet and Social Media), but in the cases of Pepys and Evelyn, we have not just each man’s own personal day-to-day account of his life and thoughts, but that of his close friend, giving a second perspective on the times, and even on the men themselves. Willes puts this to good use in part two of the book, which delves into the private lives of Pepys and Evelyn.
Pepys had difficult in-laws: his wife Elizabeth’s father was, in the words of Balthazar, Elizabeth’s brother, “‘Full of Wheemesis’ – schemes to make money through inventions such as a machine for perpetual motion, and taking out patents for the perennial problem of curing smoky chimneys”. Of Balthazar himself, Pepys’ biographer wrote that if he had not existed “‘only Dickens could have invented him'”, and long after the connector between the two men, Elizabeth Pepys, was dead, Balthazar continued to plague Pepys for money and favours. Both men’s lives were full of curious, colourful characters, from extended family members like Balthazar, to the servants in Pepys’ life whom he befriended and in many instances cared for, even remembering particular favourites in his will.
Domestic intrigue, affairs, crises and grief dogged the marriages of both men, and though she remains exact and scholarly, Willes also writes about the personal lives of Pepys and Evelyn with empathy, noting upon the Evelyns’ loss of three of their children, that “It has been suggested that parents in seventeenth-century England were inured to the sudden death of their children, but the outpouring of grief from both Mary and John give the lie to this.”
The third and final part of the book digs deep into what is probably the very reason for their many years of close friendship – their interests, including a fascination with science and their involvement in the nascent Royal Society. Pepys was a sociable man who seemed to have a knack for discovering the most interesting – and prescient – people, such as William Petty, a self-educated Anatomy Professor and Cromwell’s physician-general, among other things, who counted among his considerations “a prototype National Health Service”, and “proposals of a decimal coinage”.
The two men’s interests took in music – Pepys was a quite accomplished musician, but Evelyn could not find any real talent in this area despite taking lessons and being a keen listener of other people’s musicianship; the theatre; horticulture, an area in which Evelyn excelled, and for which he had a deep love, which took in the consideration, in Acetaria, Evelyn’s book on salads, that “vegetables were a healthy addition to the diet”.
With a chapter on the new beverages in Seventeenth century London of coffee, tea, and chocolate (in order of popularity), and the new coffee houses that began to spring up in the 1650s, and a chapter on the fashion of the time, which was extending to incorporate exotic clothes and, as an aside, even more exotic pets (Pepys mentions that he has a pet monkey in his diary), Willles covers pretty much all the changes in taste and fashions that took place in the lives of Londoners in the seventeenth century, including, of course, the cabinets of curiosities, after which the design of which Willes’ own book is modelled. And Evelyn and Pepys enjoyed them all to the full.
The final chapter is devoted to Evelyn’s and Pepys mutual love of books. Both had large libraries and numbered their books in the thousands. Whilst Evelyn’s collection is now spread across several collections, including the British Library, since it was sold off in the late 1970s, Pepys library is housed intact at Magdalene College, Cambridge University.
Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher, Yale, for providing me with a review copy.