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To Wider, Stranger Worlds

John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity

By Gillian Darley
Yale University Press, 2007

 

Any biographer looking to put a fresh shine on the reputation of the great Restoration diarist and botanist John Evelyn will perforce cast a fishy eye on Virginia Woolf’s 1920 essay “Rambling Round Evelyn.” In its spare pages, the high priestess of the Bloomsbury set uses her deep intelligence and gorgeous prose to pick Evelyn up, place him very gently into a box, wrap the box in a very pretty ribbon, and apologetically but firmly push the whole package into the dark recesses of a little-used portmanteau. A finer example of damning someone with faint praise would be hard to imagine.

“Rambling Round Evelyn” is not an excoriation, at least not in the fire-breathing style of Mark Twain’s more famous demolition of James Fenimore Cooper. Woolf’s piece is much gentler and finds good things to say about her subject, but she stops shy of saying anybody should ever read him. Her comments on Evelyn—and on the whole concept of reading other people’s diaries—are incremental and crushing, like a killer snowstorm:

If we wonder, then, why we still trouble to read what we must consider the uninspired work of a good man we have to confess first that diaries are always diaries, books, that is, that we read in convalescence, on horseback, in the grip of death; second, that this reading, about which so many fine things have been said, is for the most part mere dreaming and idling; lying in a chair with a book; watching the butterflies on the dahlias; a profitless occupation which no critic has taken the trouble to investigate, and on whose behalf only the moralist can find a good word to say. For he will allow it to be an innocent employment; and happiness, he will add, though derived from trivial sources, has probably done more to prevent human beings from changing their religions and killing their kings than either philosophy or the pulpit.

The hopeful biographer must surely cringe at that “trivial,” but our critic isn’t quite finished stuffing Evelyn into the box she’s constructed: “He was, we cannot help suspecting, something of a bore, a little censorious, a little patronizing, a little too sure of his own merits, and a little obtuse too those of other people.”

“Rambling Round Evelyn” is a beautifully constructed piece of prose, and a reader might be tempted to think its patient pronouncements constitute the final word on Evelyn. Surely no savior’s hand can move a tombstone so elegantly put in place? But in truth Evelyn’s posthumous reputation has always faced a far graver threat from a far more ironic source, for he was not the only great Restoration diarist—and more importantly, he wasn’t the better of the two. That distinction goes to his colleague and lifelong friend, Samuel Pepys.

  Both diaries are very long and marvelously detailed, filled to over-brimming with names and sights and scenes. Both men were prominent in government affairs and spent time with the great and the mighty, and both lived through some of the most trying and pivotal events in their nation’s history: the execution of Charles I, the protectorate of the monstrous Cromwell, the Restoration, the plague, the Great Fire of London, the Dutch Wars, the so-called Glorious Revolution. Both were family men with households to support (Evelyn came from money; Pepys liked nothing so much as the accumulating of it), and yet both found time to leave a long and priceless record of their comings and goings.

 
But the list of similarities falters on one crucial detail: the writing of the thing. Evelyn’s diary is a task, fit perhaps for convalescence, horseback, or the deathbed—a treasure-trove of period detail, yes, but a soulless place. Pepys’ diary, by contrast, is by turns an utterly fascinating internal dialogue and a wildly successful party to which the reader is invited. We can read forty pages of Evelyn without cracking a smile; we cannot read ten of Pepys without laughing out loud. The Evelyn in his diary is a man we might like as a landlord; we only have to read a little of Pepys to consider him a friend.

Here is Evelyn on the 8th of January, 1668:

Wednesday I saw deepe and prodigious gaming at the Groome-porters, vast heaps of Gold squandered away in a vaine and profuse manner; this I looked on as an horrid vice, and unsuitable to a Christian Court: 9: met at the R: So: [Royal Society] went to see the Revells at the Middle Temple, which was also an old, but riotous Costome, and has relation to neither Virtue nore policy.

And here’s Pepys, after a riotous Twelfth Night celebration which featured much drinking and dancing and music-making:

…and [I] have the happiness to reflect upon it, as I do sometimes on other things, as going to a play or the like, to be the greatest real comforts that I am to expect in the world, and that it is that that we do really labour in the hopes of it; and so I do really enjoy myself, and understand that if I do not do it now, I shall not hereafter, it may be, be able to pay for it or have health to take pleasure in it, and so fool myself with vain expectation of pleasure and go without it.

Earlier in the same entry, Pepys makes mention of the voluptuous Mrs. Bagwell, with whom he would like to ‘haver hazer algo’ (few things are so charming as a sincere but inept code-maker). When, late in life, Evelyn became involved in a passionate friendship with a 21-year-old young woman, they prayed together. Pepys would have gone straight for the hazer algo.

Evelyn’s latest (and overwhelmingly best) biographer, Gillian Darley, having mastered the newly-available resources of the Evelyn archive, is undaunted by the verdict of time and undeterred by the aphorisms of Virginia Woolf. Her passionate contention is twofold: first, that the archive in all its abundance reveals a far more complex and interesting man than the diaries do alone, and second, that this man is well worth knowing:

With his papers, colour begins to bleed into the sepia image, contradictions start to upset assertions, uncertainties to shake convictions. He left many clues, not all of which I can solve. My privilege, working on the archive as it emerged into view, now online and catalogued, has been to see another face of John Evelyn. A more complex and interesting figure than the Victorians found steps forward, a man with astonishing ‘hospitality of mind’, whose hunger for knowledge allowed him to embrace new ideas and distant horizons until the very end of his life.

It was a long and eventful life, though the length of it was accidental in the 17th century (Darley puckishly recalls the Biblical observation regarding the longevity of those who grow things in the earth), and Evelyn strove throughout his life to avoid the worst of the events. As befit the son of a prosperous father, he went to Oxford and was sent to Middle Temple to study law, but Darley points out the irony that such an omnivorously curious person as Evelyn would become should be so middling indifferent a student. He avoided most of the “unhandsome” events of the Civil War by traveling on the Continent (in the company of Tom Henshaw, as good a friend—and as congenial a travel-companion—as anyone could ask for), and he always preferred the quiet of his private gardens (first at Sayes Court, then later at Wotton, when his older brother died and he inherited the family seat) to the tumult of public life.

Public life was nevertheless his lot, since the newly restored King Charles II knew him and trusted him (at least, trusted him as much as he trusted anybody he wasn’t bedding). Evelyn, a founding member of what would become the Royal Society, became in due course a royal councilor and a deputy in charge of foreign plantations (he got all the news from newborn New England). He was appointed Commissioner for Kent and Sussex to help care for the sick and wounded survivors of the Second Dutch War, and he stayed at his post even while the Great Plague ravaged London. He lived through seven reigns, buried all but one of his eight children, and died at age eighty-five with his mind still as sharp as a pocketknife. He wrote a shelf of books on various subjects (the most famous in his lifetime being “Sylva,” his treatise on British trees), and of course there’s his immense diary. His was both a vigorously lived life and a vigorously chronicled one.

Possession of the Evelyn archive would be but cold aid in the telling of such a life if Darley did not also possess the skill to tell the story well. Happily, it’s apparent from the very first paragraph that she has the tool she needs:

In the early 1800s John Evelyn’s last linear descendant was dead and his elderly widow had been befriended by a light-fingered librarian called William Upcott whose address, Autograph Cottage, should have been warning enough.

A book that starts with a smile will seldom fail to reward, and the rewards of this book, published to coincide with the tercentenary of Evelyn’s death (as Woolf’s was to coincide with the tercentenary of his birth—thereby providing a neatly visceral demonstration of just how long eighty-five years is) are many and varied. On the grounds of factual amassment, it seems unlikely this book will ever be surpassed—Darley has read everything, it seems, and in choosing what to include in her book, she does her subject (whose motto was omnia explorate, meliora retinete—investigate everything, keep the best) the singular service of never getting bogged down in dead-ended details.

Likewise she isn’t the type of biographer who justifies her vast labors by canonizing her subject; Evelyn had flaws she’s ready enough to point out. He could be distractingly prudish; he could be intellectually lazy; most of his accounts of his travels were reconstructions using guidebooks. But even so, as in Evelyn’s life so too in his literature: most people who spent any amount of time around him ended up liking him, and our biographer is no exception. This is an affectionate, though fair, appraisal of a man who once turned down a commission in the army with the self-deprecating remark that his military abilities ran more along the lines of “Disciplining a few flowers in my Garden, and ranging the Bookes in my studye.”

His truest strength lay in his unending curiosity, a faculty Darley rightly admires:

This contact with the new territories [America], through such a sympathetic intermediary [friend and America explorer John Walker], provided yet another appetite for Evelyn’s still insatiable appetite for the new, to be fully shared with the Fellows at the Royal Society. Encouraged during his days on the Council of Trade, Evelyn’s eye was continually drawn overseas to wider, stranger worlds—intrigued as much by William Penn’s map of Pennsylvania as by spices from the East Indies or fossils from the Americas.

And far from worrying about the competitive ghost of Pepys hovering over any discussion of Evelyn, Darley gamely steps right into the issue, but not defensively. The single most charming thread running through her book is the portrait she paints of the friendship between these two and Evelyn’s obvious affection:

Here was a man he did not need to impress, and who did not try to blind him with his own superiority, either social or intellectual, and whom he admired unreservedly for his ‘greate Integrity’ in public office and steadfast principles towards the monarchs he had served.

Pepys’ death three years before his own sent Evelyn into “Compleat Mourning,” but it’s a mark of real distinction that these two men—and scores of lesser characters—are so alive in Darley’s book. She cannot quite shape the diaries to her will: they remain a little censorious, a little patronizing, and a bit of a bore. But she succeeds magnificently in liberating the man from the diaries, a service John Evelyn has long needed and never before received. And in the process she tells a very handsome tale, bringing us back in the end to where we started as though it were the most natural thing in the world:

Two generations later, Evelyn’s books remained untouched on the Wotton library shelves, his sheaves of papers mouldering and depleted by their use as drawer-liners and dress patterns. Then, in 1813, came William Upcott. With the arrival of Lady Evelyn’s attentive if light-fingered visitor, John Evelyn’s long journey into historical prominence began—almost as if he had planned it that way.

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Leah Lambrusco is a retired librarian and school teacher living in Sudros Wells, Arizona. This is her first book review in a very, very long time.