cover image The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn

Margaret Willes. Yale Univ., $27.50 (304p) ISBN 978-0-300-22139-8

Drawing deeply on the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn, as well as on archival research, Willes (Reading Matters) skillfully probes the diarists’ wide-ranging reflections on and often strong opinions about Restoration England. Although Pepys’s earthy reports on two notable London catastrophes, the Great Plague of 1665 and 1666 and the Great Fire of 1666, have long been anthologized, Evelyn’s less colorful accounts of the same events are comparatively obscure. Willes corrects this oversight in her thoughtful readings of both men’s diaries while also tracing the deep friendship that grew between them in spite of their many differences. For example, Pepys loved music and theater and became proficient in the former; Evelyn appreciated but had no ability to play music and detested what he saw as the theater’s vulgarity. Both men, on the other hand, enjoyed the “exotic extravagances” newly available through overseas trade, with Evelyn especially intrigued by the importation of tropical plants. He wrote prolifically on gardening, publishing a short but significant book, Fumifugium, on the threat posed to plant life by coal pollution. Although Willes adds little regarding Pepys not to be found in Claire Tomalin’s energetic 2002 biography, Samuel Pepys, her splendid book has performed the yeoman’s work of recovering Evelyn and his diary for us. (Sept.)