Review of Kate Loveman, Samuel Pepys & His Books: Reading, Newsgathering & Sociability, 1660-1703 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
We are judged, among other things, by what we read.
To naval administrator, Samuel Pepys, this came to be an obsession. Fortunately for us, Pepys’s diaries and collections tell us plenty about the bibliophilia of an aspiring gentleman – from how to rationalise the considerable expense of purchasing books to the essential displays of literary knowledge one needed in domestic and professional affairs.
This detail is packaged into an extraordinary book by Kate Loveman, which achieves much in its 280 pages. Samuel Pepys and His Books: Reading, Newsgathering & Sociability, 1660-1703 is a rich and generous exploration of Pepys’s literary habits. It examines how Pepys built his influence through different reading practices, facilitating his rise to the echelons of Whitehall. Such was his reputation as a bibliophile that in his later career, books from Europe were among the gifts sent to him to procure his favour.
Nine evenly-weighted thematic chapters range from education to reading histories to the cultural politics of the library or closet. Each has its own short conclusion, which is a thoughtful and pleasing addition. It’s pleasantly ironic that a monograph demonstrating why early modern books were designed to be consumed in parts should contain fixtures that enable the same for itself.
Loveman shows how reading became central to Pepys’s self-advancement. His inventive interpretation of conduct literature drove him to learn and to better himself, even when his primary motivation appears to have been one-upmanship over the likes of Sir William Penn. Surprisingly, the most important book of Pepys’s professional life proves to be a relatively humble text on the use of a slide rule, which allowed him to demonstrate competence as a manager of trade and bring himself to the attention of his superiors.
Loveman also reminds us of the importance of reading as an oral medium. Much was memorised for recitation, whether during news exchanges, for conversations between gentleman, or for entertainment during leisure days. Pepys’s manoeuvres eventually made him an influential ‘gatekeeper’ of news. He amassed a number of informants about court scandal (at one point defusing rumours about a royal death) and became a key source for Roger L’Estrange, the author of government newsbooks.
In a more left field move, Loveman turns to modern sociologists and social networks to explain Pepys’s approach to networking. Connections needed a purpose, namely to complete gaps in his acquisition of knowledge – there was no point in needless overlap. As Loveman shows, Pepys moved upwards from taverns to coffee-houses to the Royal Exchange as his influence grew, abandoning these institutions and their patrons once they ceased to be of use.
Indeed, as we might expect (and as this site claims often), the late-seventeenth century is more familiar to us than we think. The fractious development of party politics amid the second and third Anglo-Dutch Wars meant news and opinion was subject to bias. For Pepys and his wife, there was much enjoyment to be gained from unravelling bias or mocking an author’s intentions. In an era of so-called ‘fake news’, we’re reminded that the efforts of highlighting bias in tabloids have intriguing historical precedent. The ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ reception of texts has been overlooked, but deserves more investigation in light of new trends of social mockery and exposure of poor press.
Beyond what we read, we are also defined by what we own and how we display our knowledge from reading. As Loveman reminds us, the art of keeping up appearances could mean Pepys purging books from his collection, and just because a book was owned did not mean it was read. Pepys’s categorisation of his reading forms part of his rationalisation for ownership and the eye-watering sums he spent on books. He also thrived on a good literary faux-pas, ridiculing MP Edward Seymour’s use of a contemporary satire (the 1663 Hudibras) rather than a more venerated work to attack figures within the navy administration.
Pepys was not always a nice man, especially when it came to women. He was thrilled by the derision of the Duchess of Albemarle in Andrew Marvell’s ‘bitter Satyr’ suite of Advice to a Painter poems, even though they spoke less favourably of his patrons. And after giving his wife a black eye on one occasion, Elizabeth got her revenge by tracing a specific passage from Sidney’s Arcadia to warn her husband of what his jealousy would reap. Samuel didn’t realise that she had used an index, Loveman argues, which made him the more neurotic about the message. But ultimately, her use of books got the point across, and they continued to appreciate texts and theatre together.
What’s particularly refreshing about this book is how much fun it is to read. Pepys is never boring. From his opportunistic attempts to outwit rivals to his private musings about pornographic literature, Loveman clearly revels in the insalubrious nature of her subject. Sometimes, you can sense the glee when she reflects upon Pepys’s ‘sexual mischief’ or when she references his comments on a building manual which proved ‘not worth a turd’. Her fascination shines through in this book, which makes it an absorbing and entertaining read.
While broad historiography is kept to a minimum, Loveman regularly parries other studies at important junctures to give broader context to the evidence drawn from the Pepys family (p. 152, for example, on Chartier). The result is a deceptively knowledgeable book that insists on little. It’s not weighed down by what everybody else has done; nor does it assume a great deal of knowledge about Pepys. It’s a great story about a fascinating individual whose array of literary practices opens up a vivid window upon book history and Restoration literary culture.
- Oxford University Press, 2015
- ISBN: 978-0-19-873268-6
- 336pp; Price: £60.00