It’s been months since I tackled one of the monthly questions posed by the Classics Club. I look at the question at the start of each month, decide it will take some thought – and then spend the rest of the month cogitating but never coming to any conclusions. Procrastination is definitely not helpful in this case.
I’ve only just seen this month’s question so let’s see if I can do better if I just answer it right away.
Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?
I don’t read many biographies but one that stands out for me is The Unequaled Self, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys. I already knew something of Pepys’s life by reading some extracts from his diaries as part of my history studies at school, mainly the sections in which he wrote about the Great Fire of London and the plague. Being adolescents of course we went searching for some the more bawdy entries.
What I hadn’t realised until reading Tomalin’s book was just how powerful a figure he was in the seventeenth century, becoming Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under both King Charles II and subsequently his brother King James II. It was Pepys apparently who laid the foundations of professional standards in the Royal Navy. Not bad for a tailor’s son who at various times was accused of bribery and of secretly following the Catholic faith.
As you would expect, Tomalin includes many extracts from the diaries to illustrate some of her themes. Some of them deal with his time at the Navy, others with the many women with him he has liaisons. But what Tomalin shows, and what interested me most, was the side of Pepys as a cultivated man, an avid theatre- goer who could compose music and play several instruments and wo enjoyed a few glasses of wine (well rather more than a few it seems). Oh, and this was the clincher for me; he was an avid collector of books. He’s someone I want to get to know better. We may have a few things in common…
See my review of The Unequalled Self