Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

Samuel Pepys by Claire Tomalin
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Jan 27, 10

bookshelves: biography
Read in January, 2010

There are these books that are referred to all the time in the web community; The Cluetrain Manifesto, The Tipping Point, The Wisdom of Crowds etc. I've read very few of them, but because they're name-checked so often in blog posts and presentations, I feel like I've sucked up their key points through a process of literary osmosis.


Samuel Pepys was like this too. Of course I knew who Pepys was. Only I didn't know he was such an important figure in the administration of the Navy. Or a not-very-devout Anglican, whose formative years were spent in the welter of reforms under Cromwell. Or that he had two (maybe?) wives, and a wandering hand (amongst other things). Or all sorts of other stuff. I thought I knew Pepys through cultural osmosis, but I was wrong.


About half of Tomalin's book is devoted to the rich years from 1660-1669 when Pepys was writing his diary (Tomalin does a particularly good job of explaining why the diary is such a unique document, although she seems to avoid quoting too copiously - I would have liked to see more of Pepys' own words). The opening and closing quarters are based on either less established material (extrapolations of what Pepy's early life may have been like, based on documents from the period) or the drier documents he left later in life, and the accounts of other Court and Parliament figures.


Tomalin doesn't stick tightly to chronology, instead shaping chapters based on themes, and handles the 'we'll return to this later' and 'as we noted earlier' segues well. It's a gripping, elegantly written read.


'Samuel Pepys' totally fuelled my growing obsession with 17th century England. Next up: Lisa Jardine's bio of scientist Robert Hooke.


Observer review


Guardian review

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