One of my vital tools as a scribbler of blogs on books is a little pack of those things – I don’t even know what they are called – which you can stick on to a page to mark a particular passage/anecdote/image that you want to return to. They are obviously offspring of the Post-It note: is it true that when somebody came up with the peel-off glue that makes it possible, nobody could think what to do with a sticky but removable note, and so the invention had no future?
Anyway, I have little packs, and (because I reuse them until the glue gives up) a multicoloured strip of stickies down the side of my desk at work, and another on my side table at home. (Other vital tools of the craft are coffee and (at home only) a third elbow to poke Max the cat when he tries to help with the typing.)
But over the last few days, I have been in danger of running out of supplies, because the three-volume diary of John Evelyn – who died on 27 February 1706 – edited by Austin Dobson and published in 1906, requires two or three stickies per page – there is just so much startling, fascinating or amusing information in it.
(Moreover, to show the universality of the appeal, Him Indoors followed me round the kitchen on Sunday as I performed the Wifely Duty of Lunch, reading out bits of Evelyn’s sojourn in Venice: the taking of a harpsichord on board a gondola to serenade one’s mistress particularly appealed.)
Evelyn’s diaries were first published in 1818 in an edition by the lawyer and antiquarian William Bray (1735–1832), who was a protégé of the John Evelyn of the period, through whom he obtained a post as a Clerk of the Green Cloth (that is, the green baize tablecloth at which the functionaries sat). This had been a role organising royal progresses, but by the eighteenth century was responsible for the accounts of the Royal Household. Not too onerous, apparently, as Bray could run a successful legal practice at the same time, and the perks of the job included royal leftovers from which money could be made. (It sounds like the replacing of candles every time they were lit – one of the domestic extravagances at Buckingham Palace which later drove Prince Albert first to despair and then to reform.)
It was presumably the Evelyn connection which enabled Bray to work on the diaries. However, his edition is described in his ODNB entry as ‘flawed by his errors in transcription as well as the alterations he made to the manuscript to improve the story and to omit subjects he considered indelicate’. He did however make Evelyn and his diaries better known in the world, and further editions followed.
The three-volume version of 1906 which we have reissued was edited by Austin Dobson (1840–1921), the author and poet who also wrote the volume on Henry Fielding in the ‘English Men of Letters‘ series, among many other literary biographies. In an extensive preface, Dobson explains his reasons for revisiting a work which had already received much editorial attention, and his introduction gives a short biography of its author, which is followed by Evelyn’s own memoir of his early life: regular entries commence in 1637, when he was a student at Oxford, and end with notes made a few weeks before his death in 1706.
Evelyn’s family owed its wealth and hence its entrée to grand circles to the patent for the manufacture of gunpowder which his family had acquired under the Tudors. He visited the Low Countries in 1641, and – a Royalist, but no soldier – spent the years 1642–7 in an extensive tour of France and Italy. (It has been pointed out that he could not have seen everything he claims to, but must have extracted some information from guidebooks.)
Returning to England, he spent the Interregnum in literary studies and in cultivating his garden(s), both the family estate at Wotton and his own creation of Sayes Court in Deptford, his wife’s family home. (He later rented Sayes Court to Admiral Benbow – not the inn in Treasure Island but its eponym – who in turn rented it to Peter the Great of Russia, who wrecked it.) Evelyn was a founder member of the Royal Society, and knew everyone who was anyone in the intellectual life of Restoration London and Oxford, including Boyle, Wren and Pepys.
What to quote, to give a flavour of this remarkable work?
30 September 1644: ‘Here [at Vienne] we supped and lay, having amongst other dainties, a dish of truffles, which is a certain earth-nut, found out by a hog trained to it, and for which those animals are sold at a great price. It is in truth an incomparable meat.’
June 1652: ‘… within three miles of Bromley, at a place called the Procession Oak, two cut-throats started out, and striking with long staves at the horse, and taking hold of the reins, threw me down, took my sword, and haled me into a deep thicket …’
31 March 1661: ‘This night, his Majesty promised to make my wife Lady of the Jewels (a very honourable charge) to the future Queen (but which he never performed.’
4 February 1685: ‘He [the dying Charles II] entreated the Queen to pardon him (not without cause); … He spake to the Duke [of York, about to become James II] to be kind to the Duchess of Cleveland, and especially Portsmouth, and that Nelly might not starve.’
10 August 1688: Dr Tenison [then vicar of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, later archbishop of Canterbury] now told me there would suddenly be some great thing discovered. This was the Prince of Orange intending to come over.’
30 June 1696: ‘I went with a select Committee of the Commissioners for Greenwich Hospital, and with Sir Christopher Wren, where with him I laid the first stone of the intended foundation, precisely at five o’clock in the evening, after we had dined together. Mr Flamsteed, the King’s Astronomical Professor, observing the punctual time by instruments.’
31 October 1705: ‘I am this day arrived to the 85th year of my age. Lord teach me so to number my days to come, that I may apply them to wisdom!’