Magazine article The Spectator

A Courtier of Relentless Curiosity

Magazine article The Spectator

A Courtier of Relentless Curiosity

Article excerpt

THE DIARY OF JOHN EVELYN based on the edition by E. S. De Beer, selected and introduced by Roy Strong Everyman, £14.99, pp.1013, ISBN 1857152913 . £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

John Evelyn was born in 1620 at his family seat, Wotton. He presents himself in this diary as a gentleman of ample means. No foxhunting country bumpkin like Fielding's Squire Western, he was a highly educated, cultured and widely travelled man, a familiar figure in London society and Charles II's court. Something of a snob, he enjoyed the company of dukes and archbishops, despising jumped up nouveaux riches who had made their money in trade. He rejected a knighthood as beneath his dignity as a gentleman. Yet his family's fortune had been greatly enlarged by his grandfather as an industrialist employing 2,000 men in the filthiest trade of the late 16th century: the manufacture of gunpowder, the raw materials of which included pigeon's droppings and urine. Intended as a public family record, the diary gives no hint of this armaments tycoon.

The reader should be warned that the diary often lapses into the barest of accounts of his daily doings: 'Dined with so and so', even just 'dined with friends'. As Sir Roy Strong writes in his perceptive introduction to this 1,000-page selection made from E. S.

De Beer's monumental six-volume edition of the diary, we so often wish for more. He briefly records a visit to Thomas Hobbes.

What would we give for an account of his conversation with that greatest of political thinkers. A brief entry remarks that he spent an afternoon discussing natural 'philosophy' (i. e. science) with Robert Boyle, the famous chemist. Yet we learn nothing of the content of their talk. We feel short-changed.

Evelyn calls Pepys, a dining companion, his 'particular friend'. Pepys records Evelyn reducing a dinner party to helpless laughter.

The diary does not reveal him as a notable joker. Pepys was lecherous, ebullient and outgoing; Evelyn fastidious, reserved, pious and repressed, his private life blameless. Not surprisingly Pepys gets 24 entries in my dictionary of quotations, Evelyn a mere two.

Evelyn is never reserved in his diary about his political principles and prejudices as a committed monarchist and fervent defender of the Church of England and its Book of Common Prayer. For him Charles I's personal rule and Laud's version of the Church of England were 'Halcyon days';

they ended with the Long Parliament which met in 1640 and the struggle between Charles and parliament which was to end in the Civil War. For Evelyn the 'fatal stroake' was the execution of Strafford, the king's chief minister and the 'wisest head in England', which he witnessed. It was 'that ungrateful beginning of all our sorrows for 20 years'. To 'absent [himself] from this ill face of things at home' he decided to go into exile, embarking in 1641 on what was to be a grand tour of the Low Countries, France, Italy and Switzerland. John Stoye, in his work on English travellers abroad, rates him as the most intelligent and most famous of them all.

The 280 pages devoted to the grand tour contain fascinating stuff, the outcome of his relentless curiosity, but marred by what Strong calls his 'inability to be discursive'.

His account of Italian paintings sinks to the level of an elementary guidebook. Written after the events they describe, they are dependent on his notes, memory and use of guidebooks available at the time. If his information on pictures is brief, there are long and gruesome descriptions of the instruments used and the cuts and incisions made in a Jewish circumcision and the operation for the removal of gallstones. Equally long and detailed are descriptions of rare animals:

the 'flexible elephant', the 'dreadful teeth' of a rhinoceros, the exact length and girth of a rattlesnake, the skin texture of beached whales. (In 1699 'after an extraordinary storme there came up the Thames a whale which was 56 foote long'. …

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