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The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn by Margaret Willes

06 April 2018

Richard Chartres on the world of the diarists Pepys and Evelyn

ENGLAND in 1660, when the monarchy was restored, was a second-rank offshore European power. By the time of John Evelyn’s death in 1706, the country had been transformed politically and economically. After the Anglo-Dutch merger that followed the constitutional convulsion of 1688 and profound cultural changes, England (united with Scotland after 1707) was on her way to Empire and the achievement of global maritime hegemony by the end of the century.

Pepys and his older friend John Evelyn were involved in some of the crucial changes that laid the foundations for the Great Britain that emerged out of the England of their boyhood.

Both men have merited recent biographies. Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The unequalled self was published in 2002, and Gillian Darley’s John Evelyn: Living for ingenuity appeared in 2006. Margaret Willes’s book explores the shared interests of the two friends, and, in doing so, offers a survey of some of the cultural changes that make the latter part of the 17th century such a significant period.

The foundation in November 1660 of the Royal Society, in which both Pepys and Evelyn were enrolled, was a considerable stimulus to scientific research and fresh thinking. The Society’s motto was “Nullius in Verba” (Take nobody’s word for it) and it was the ideal forum for two men united by insatiable curiosity.

As one might expect from an author who has in the past published general histories of gardening, her chapter on “Hortulan Affairs” is especially rewarding. Evelyn defined the garden as “a place of all terrestrial enjoyments the most resembling Heaven and the best representation of our lost felicitie”. Meditating on the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, he reflects that “we all came out of this parsly bed.”

Willes is less sure-footed when describing the religious landscape in which Pepys and Evelyn operated. After the flight of James II and the advent of the new regime under William of Orange, Pepys, faithful to the King whom he had served as Secretary to the Admiralty, refused to take the Oath of Loyalty and so joined the ranks of the non-jurors with contemporaries such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft. Bishop Compton of London, however, contrary to what is stated in the chapter “Prodigious Revolutions”, was not a non-juror. Indeed, he was the only bishop to sign the letter of invitation encouraging William to invade England.

The King’s religion was a serious political issue. Kate Loveman’s 2015 publication Samuel Pepys and His Books has an excellent analysis of the very significant meeting between Pepys and Evelyn in October 1685. Pepys showed his friend the deathbed confession of Charles II that he died a Roman Catholic. Pepys had been allowed to copy the document by King James as a part of a discreet testing of the waters before its publication later in the year.

Minor blemishes apart, Willes’s book is produced by Yale to its usual high standard, sumptuously illustrated, and beautifully printed. Those connoisseurs of book production Pepys and Evelyn would have handled and read it with pleasure and added it to their own collections.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn
Margaret Willes
Yale £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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