cover image SAMUEL PEPYS: A Life


Stephen Coote, SAMUEL PEPYS: A LifeStephen C. , $27.95 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-312-23929-9

The author of the greatest diary in the English language is hard to compete with, but since Pepys kept his diary for only 10 years (eye trouble ended it), Coote is otherwise on his own. Although he cannot match the diarist's racy prose, Coote brings off Pepys's turbulent life colorfully and with sympathy. As biographer of Charles I, Coote had consulted the 1660–1669 diaries of Pepys and, for good reason, could not put the volumes down. As Clerk of the Works, Pepys was the efficient bureaucrat who administered the navy and managed, in the process, to be involved in nearly every major event in post-Cromwell Britain and to know everyone who counted, either as ally or enemy. Shrewd and nimble, he was exhaustingly convivial, constantly curious and calculatingly ambitious. As Coote writes, "Public office was indeed a way to private riches." Little of it failed to make his diary. The reader lives through the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, the restoration of the king and the wars for regional supremacy. But Pepys lived on until 1703, 34 years after the diary stopped, battling to keep Charles II in power and clinging to his own perquisites as long as he could. As a boy he had pushed through the crowd to watch the execution of Charles I. Later, as a toppled officeholder "so dangerously able and so loud in the assertion of his own virtues," he nearly lost his own head. Coote informs as he entertains. One even learns such things as what "umble pie" really was. No academic read, Samuel Pepys will appeal to a broad, and broad-minded, audience. 16 pages of illus. not seen by PW. (May)