Saturday, October 31, 2020

Quote of the Day (Virginia Woolf, on Fellow Diarist John Evelyn)

“The diary, for whose sake we are remembering the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Evelyn, is a case in point.  It is sometimes composed like a memoir, sometimes jotted down like a calendar; but he never used its pages to reveal the secrets of his heart, and all that he wrote might have been read aloud in the evening with a calm conscience to his children….

“Ignorant, yet justly confident that with his own hands he might advance not merely his private knowledge but the knowledge of mankind, Evelyn dabbled in all the arts and sciences, ran about the Continent for ten years, gazed with unflagging gusto upon hairy women and rational dogs, and drew inferences and framed speculations which are now only to be matched by listening to the talk of old women round the village pump.  The moon, they say, is so much larger than usual this autumn that no mushrooms will grow, and the carpenter's wife will be brought to bed of twins.  So Evelyn, Fellow of the Royal Society, a gentleman of the highest culture and intelligence, carefully noted all comets and portents, and thought it a sinister omen when a whale came up the Thames….Nature, it seems, was determined to stimulate the devotion of her seventeenth-century admirers by displays of violence and eccentricity from which she now refrains.  There were storms, floods, and droughts; the Thames frozen hard; comets flaring in the sky. If a cat so much as kittened in Evelyn's bed the kitten was inevitably gifted with eight legs, six ears, two bodies, and two tails.”—English novelist, essayist, and diarist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), “Rambling Round Evelyn” (1920), reprinted in The Common Reader: First Series, edited by Andrew McNeillie (1925)

John Evelyn was born 400 years ago today in Surrey, to a family made wealthy by gunpowder production. Virginia Woolf captures his unflagging activity in the passage above. But it may be even more shocking to contemporary society, revolving around intellectual specialists, to see all his activities listed: writer, gardener, urbanologist, architect, connoisseur, and bibliophile.

Though I had heard of Evelyn previously, Woolf’s incisive essay made me want to seek out more information on him, even as I pondered her unique vantage point in assessing his literary achievement.

In her fiction, Woolf was concerned with illuminating the interior consciousness of characters. At the time she wrote about Evelyn, she was five years into keeping her own diary—a record she would continue to maintain until weeks before her suicide in 1941. Into what she called her “dialogue of the soul with the soul,” she poured reflections on her work, thoughts of other writers, and her wrestling with the depression that dogged her life—all of which made her more appreciative of the diaries of Evelyn’s contemporary and friend Samuel Pepys.

As Woolf implied, Evelyn was the soul of discretion compared with Pepys. If you want to know what it felt like to be a top government bureaucrat wrestling with financing the Royal Navy by day before getting randy with the family maid by night, then Pepys is your man. If you want to know how an entire society experienced the sights and sounds of a certain day, then you’ll want to read Evelyn, as in this passage recording what happened the day that exiled King Charles II returned to power in 1660:

“This day came in his Majestie Charles the 2d to London after a sad, and long Exile, and Calamitous Suffering both of the King and Church: being 17 yeares: This was also his Birthday, and with a Triumph of above 20000 horse & foote, brandishing their swords and shouting with unexpressable joy: The wayes straw’d with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with Tapissry, fountaines running with wine: The Major, Aldermen, all the Companies in their liver[ie]s, Chaines of Gold, banners; Lords & nobles, Cloth of Silver, gold and vellvet every body clad in, the windos and balconies all set with Ladys, Trumpets, Musick, and [myriads] of people flocking the streetes and was as far as Rochester, so as they were 7 houres in passing the Citty, even from 2 in the afternoon 'til nine at night: I stood in the strand, and beheld it, & blessed God: And all this without one drop of bloud, and by that very army, which rebell'd against him: but it was the Lords doing, et mirabile in oculis nostris: for such a Restauration was never seene in the mention of any history, antient or modern, since the returne of the Babylonian Captivity, nor so joyfull a day, and so bright, ever seene in this nation: this hapning when to expect or effect it, was past all humane policy.”

Ultimately, though not as confessional, Evelyn may prove more suited to the needs of historians and biographies than Pepys.  The latter gave up penning his thoughts in 1669, but Evelyn maintained his habit of diary-keeping from his college days in 1641 to his retirement period in 1704. It’s a prime source for understanding life in 17th-century England.

(For a fascinating discussion on Sayes Court, Evelyn's home in Deptford, and how the author's prized garden there fell victim to the visiting Peter the Great and the Russian Tsar's drunken friends, see Caroline Derry's guest post on the "London Historians' Blog.")

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