Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Diary of John Evelyn

John Evelyn (1651)

I have spent the last few weeks reading The Diary of John Evelyn, which I added to my list after reading Virginia Woolf's comments on it in The Common Reader.  I also included this book in my list for the fifty classics project.

John Evelyn (1620-1706) lived through some very exciting times in British history.  His diary begins at the beginning:

I was born at Wotten, in the county of Surrey, about twenty minutes past two in the morning being on Tuesday the 31st and last day of October, 1620.

He then passes quickly over his childhood and jumps to the 1640s, when, upon completing his education, he traveled extensively in France and Italy.  I particularly liked his accounts of Rome--he was there during Bernini's lifetime, which is quite exciting.  He described some of the places that we both have visited, such as Chiesa del Gesu and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontante and it was astonishing to realize that they have hardly changed during all this time.  Evelyn's view of St. Cecilia's is exactly as I remember it.  He also mentions a street of "cheeze" shops that had a disagreeable smell, and I was taken back to the little street of cheese shops in Trastevere that did truly smell awful, though the cheese was nice.

He made his leisurely way back to England, stopping to see every curiosity and site worthy of note along the way.  Before arriving home, he married twelve-year old Mary Browne. After the wedding, he left her with her parents to mature for four more years before embarking on married life.

Once settled, Evelyn never left England again.  He and his wife had eight children, of whom only three reached adulthood.  After the restoration of Charles II to the throne, he was given numerous responsibilities by the court and lived an active life until the age of 85, when he died after what seems to have been a relatively brief "indisposition."

When you've read over 1,000 pages of someone's diary, you feel like you know him.  By the time I finished these volumes, I'd grown to like John Evelyn.  He was a true Renaissance man: brimming with intellectual curiosity and with interests ranging from medicine to gardening to art and architecture.  He was one of the founders of the Royal Society, published several books, and was acquainted with many of the worthies of his era, such as Sir Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys.  He also lived through and commented on some of the more dramatic incidents in English history: the execution of King Charles I, the restoration of King Charles II, the troublesome reign of King James II, and the Glorious Revolution, in which he was overthrown by William and Mary.  He made it clear that he was disgusted with Cromwell, but otherwise was reserved when expressing opinions.  In once instance, when it was said that the Earl of Essex committed suicide in the tower of London, Evelyn notes that the so-called self-inflicted razor wound to the neck sliced through the Earl's vertebrae, and that the Earl's fingertips had razor cuts and states that these observances prompted "reflections."

Evelyn appears to have been an affectionate father.  He doesn't mention his children very much in his diary, except when they died, at which times he was clearly devastated.  He took pains about his children's education, including his daughters'.  It's hard to get a sense of what his marriage was like. Evelyn was nearly twenty years older than his wife and hardly mentions her, except to say that he took her here or there.  The diary gives the impression that they lived separate lives, but that might be totally inaccurate.  He was disgusted with the animal cruelty that passed as entertainment, and in general seems to have been morally upright, but not rigidly intolerant, although also somewhat humorless.

John Evelyn in his sixties

Although the diary is lengthy (three 500-page volumes) it's relatively quick and easy to read.  In my opinion, the English language was at its finest in the 1600's.  It has a simplicity and elegance of expression without the pretension that crept into it in the 1700's.  The diary would be of interest to anyone who is interested in the 1600's in England.


  1. How cool to read an account of places you visited years later to find they've stayed somewhat similar over hundreds of years!
    I just got notice (in my inbox just this morning!) that the library's sole copy of Pioneer Girl is waiting for me, so that's what I'm about to crack open. I'll pick it up this morning!

  2. I agree--amazing for you to read an account of places you've visited and learn they haven't changed in centuries. Diaries are so interesting, this one sounds pretty fascinating.