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Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

You’d think a biography would pale in comparison to a flesh-and-blood diary with first-hand descriptions of The Great Fire of 1666 and The Great Plague of 1665. Not in this case! Far from being a dry mirror to the diaries, Claire Tomalin’s biography reads almost like a novel, her prose as lively and absorbing as Pepys’ own.

Samuel Pepys is searingly honest and self-aware in his diaries. He impressively avoids the temptation of presenting himself in a favourable light, instead preferring to state events how they happened – even if he ends up coming across badly.

The chapters in this biography are split thematically rather than chronologically, allowing Tomalin to dive deep into Pepys’ mind and experiences without disruption. This structure ensures depth, but doesn’t stop the book from feeling exciting and fast-paced. Tomalin’s analysis seeps into the gaps of Pepys’ diaries and fleshes them out beyond their limited time frame.

Reading this biography was so transporting it often made me feel like a rather voyeuristic fly on Pepys’ wall – although I wasn’t sorry to return to the 21st century after reading of the anaesthetic-less surgery he endured to remove a bladder stone the size of a tennis ball!

I didn’t know much about Pepys before reading this book, and assumed it might be a slow read. Instead, I raced through it like a beach read – it’s utterly gripping and you won’t regret adding it to your bookshelf one bit.