Kirkus Reviews QR Code
SAMUEL PEPYS by Claire Tomalin Kirkus Star


The Unequalled Self

by Claire Tomalin

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-41143-7
Publisher: Knopf

A sparkling, wonderfully readable biography of the English official less well known for his contributions to good government than for his salacious, achingly self-doubtful diaries.

Plenty of tidbits from those diaries make their way into this thorough, richly detailed portrait by English writer Tomalin (Jane Austen: A Life, 1997, etc.): on one page we find Pepys (1633–1703) chasing after a servant girl and castigating himself for his success, on another recording a moment of sexual pleasure with which he graced his long-suffering wife—and then worrying whether she might “get a trick of liking it,” as no seemly woman should in those days. Sex was much on Pepys’s mind throughout his adult life, as was the attendant guilt; and there many biographers have left the matter. Tomalin, however, brings us the rest of Pepys’s story, notably his accomplishments as a businessman and naval administrator, one of the chief architects of the royal fleet that would soon after his time extend England’s empire to every corner of the world. Pepys entered the civil service in an era when officials were expected to enrich themselves at the public expense; indeed, Tomalin writes, one of the first bits of advice he received from a sea captain concerned “how to fiddle his expenses by listing five or six non-existent servants when he went on board and claiming pay for them all.” Though Pepys earned a fortune himself while in service, he conducted himself honorably and made noteworthy reforms, insisting that the navy’s accounts be squared and suppliers paid what they were owed (and nothing more). He also managed, more than once, to fall on the wrong side of events, backing King James, for example, in his struggle to keep the crown; forced into retirement, he spent his days with the likes of John Dryden talking about the works of Chaucer, his nights revisiting his remarkable diary—the product, Tomalin writes, “of both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever know.”

A fine work of literary and cultural history.