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Pepys and Evelyn

Alec Samuels

We know about Pepys, from his diary 1660-1669 and from excellent biographies, especially Claire Tomalin.  We know about Evelyn, from his diary, and from excellent biographies, especially Gillian Darley.  We know about the Restoration period and the second half of the seventeenth century, the plague, the fire, the science and discovery, the trade, the colonies, the developing constitution, the literature, the theatre and music.  Now we have a biography (The curious world of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, Margaret Willes, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2017, pp 252 plus appendix, notes and index, hardback £25.) of the friendship of the two men together, set in their times, interacting.  What drew them together?  What did they have in common?  What were the differences between them?  What did their friendship contribute?

They met originally when both were involved in the work to support the retired, old, sick and injured sailors from the Dutch wars.  Thereafter they corresponded, and frequently met together, visited each other.  Over many years both did sterling work for the Royal Society.  Both were Oxbridge educated, Pepys from Magdalene Cambridge, Evelyn from Balliol Oxford.  Both were men of affairs, especially Pepys, both were irrepressibly “curious”, that is an enquiring mind, eager to learn, thirsting for knowledge, aware of the significance of the contemporary scientific discoveries of their time.  Both did well in life.  Both loved books and shared a love of books, and formed libraries.  Both travelled, particularly Evelyn during the Civil War and Cromwellian period, and Pepys visited France (his wife was Hugenot French), and Spain in connection with the Tangier expedition.

As with most friends, they were far from clones, and had many contrasting characteristics. Pepys came from modest social circumstances, though in earlier times his family had been related to the Montagues, but by his own abilities and efforts he achieved distinction in public office and made money.  His interests lay in books and theatre and science and music, indeed he had a passion for music.  Following the early death of his wife he cohabited for 30 years.  His attitude to women of no social class could only be described as easy-going.  Pepys was always excellent lively company.

Evelyn came from a higher propertied social class, owning Sayes Court and Wotton, the latter standing to this day.  Silviculture and horticulture were the subject of many of his expert and seminal books, he was a pioneer in the study.  He was warning of pollution, centuries ago.  Happily married for a lifetime Evelyn was an upright man, though somewhat pompous, conceited and dull.

Pepys’ diary lay undiscovered and undeciphered for over a century after his death and it was the discovery of Evelyn’s diary that led to the taking out and deciphering of Pepys’ diary in the early 19th century.

Evelyn visited Pepys a few days before his death.  On hearing of the death Evelyn paid a lovely tribute to Pepys:

“…. a very worthy, industrious and curious person, none in England exceeding him in the knowledge of the Navy, in which he had passed through all the most considerable offices …. all of which he performed with integrity…. was universally beloved, hospitable, generous, learned in many things, skilled in music, a very great cherisher of learned men, of whom he had the conversation…”

This scholarly, interesting and well presented study sheds new light on a significant Restoration friendship.  Evelyn said that a friend, a book and a garden perfectly met his wishes.  Perhaps the depth of the psychology and meaning of the relationship are not fully brought out, but there are limits to what can be achieved in seeking to assess such a deep personal intimacy three centuries or so later.  A real addition to Pepysiana and Evelyenia.