Introduction & Preface from Diary of John Evelyn with an Introduction and Notes by Austin Dobson 1906

Note:  The 5 parts of the introduction are published on separate pages; I have added asterisms ⁂ where I feel they are appropriate. —GS

In 1676, when our second volume closes, Evelyn had entered his fifty-seventh year. Henceforth his record, though by no means deficient in general interest, grows gradually briefer in style, and less fruitful in personal details. At this date four only of his eight children were alive, three daughters and a son. The son, already referred to as visiting Paris with the Berkeleys, was married in February, 1680, to Miss Martha Spencer.i Three years afterwards died Evelyn’s father-in-law, Sir Richard Browne, who had apparently resided at Sayes Court since his arrival from Paris in 1660.iiIn 1685, when Charles II. disappeared from the scene, death was again busy in the Evelyn family. Two of the daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, died of small-pox.iii Elizabeth, the younger of the two, had been married but a short time previously to a nephew of one of the Commissioners of the Navy, Sir John Tippett. Mary, who was unmarried, and to whose memory her father devotes a mournful entry, seems to have been entirely of the Mrs. Godolphin type, without the court experience ; and also to have possessed that precocity of gift which distinguished her brother Richard. Something of her literary ability is revealed in the tract entitled Mundus Muliebris,iv which her father published five years later, with notes of his own and probably a “Preface,”v and which exhibits not only a creditable proficiency in pre-Swiftian octosyllabics, but a faculty for stocktaking in chiffons that would have done credit to the late George Augustus Sala. Mary Evelyn’s death left her father but one daughter, Susanna, afterwards married to John Draper of Addiscombe in She was soon to be the only surviving child, for her brother John died in 1699, leaving a son — another John — to become Evelyn’s heir.

With the accession of the Duke of York as James the Second, came to Evelyn what was perhaps his crowning distinction. In December, 1685, during the absence of the second Earl of Clarendon as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the office of Privy Seal was put into commission, and Evelyn was appointed one of the three Commissioners,vii two being a quorum. This was an honour not without its drawbacks, as the new King was anxious to do a good many things which Evelyn could by no means regard as compatible either with the fitness of things or the welfare of his beloved Church of England. He could not, for instance, have been enthusiastic about making Catherine Sedley Countess of Dorchester ;viii and he was not ill pleased that his colleagues proceeded without him. Once — he does not say upon what matter — he deliberately absented himself;ix and on another occasion, when it was a question of allowing the printing of Missals, Offices, Lives of Saints, and so forth, he refused to agree, and the licence was laid by.x He took the same course, with Sancroft’s concurrence, in the case of an application by the apostate Obadiah Walker as to the publication of Popish books. On the whole, important as the office was, he must have felt relieved when, at Clarendon’s return, his duties came to an end, though the King transferred the seal to a zealous Roman Catholic, Lord Arundel of Wardour.xi But if his Commissionership had been a source of anxiety to him, he was certainly indebted to King James for the solution of another difficulty, which, under that monarch’s predecessor, he had vainly endeavoured to set right. “For many years” he had “been persecuted for” sums overdrawn by his father-in-law during his residence in France. By the good offices of Godolphin, now a Commissioner of the Treasury, an expensive Chancery suit, of which these had become the subject, was determined ; and, in June, 1687, he was granted a Seal for £6000 in discharge of the debt.xii This was apparently rather less than half his deserts as Browne’s executor ; but half in those days was much, especially when it included the winding-up of legal proceedings. He was still, however, in the following year, petitioning for overdue allowances in connection with his care of the Sick and Wounded in the Dutch War.xiii

In 1691 George Evelyn, the proprietor of Wotton, lost his only remaining son ; and after the marriage of Susanna Evelyn above related, he invited his brother John, now heir to the estate, to occupy apartments in the Surrey home. To Wotton accordingly, in May, 1694, after forty years’ residence at Deptford, Evelyn retired to spend the close of his life. A letter to Dr. Bohun, two years later, gives a pleasant picture of that quiet eventide. He has “so little conversation with the learned,” he writes, “that without books and the best Wife and Bro. in the world” he were to be pitied ; “but [he goes on] with these subsidiaries, and the revising some of my old impertinences, to which I am adding a Discourse I made on Medals (lying by me long before Obadiah Walker’s Treatise appeared),xiv I pass some of my Attic nights, if I may be so vain as to name them with the author of those Criticisms. For the rest, I am planting an ever-green grove here to an old house ready to drop, the economy and hospitality of which my good old Brother will not depart from, but more veterumxv kept a Christmas [1696] in which we had not fewer than three hundred bumpkins every holy-day. We have here a very convenient apartment of five rooms together, besides a pretty closet, which we have furnished with the spoils of Sayes Court, and is the raree-show of the whole neighborhood, and in truth we live easy as to all domestic cares. Wednesday and Saturday nights we call Lecture Nights, when my Wife and myself take our turns to read the packets of all the news sent constantly from London, which serves us for discourse till fresh news comes ; and so you have the history of an old man and his no young companion, whose society I have enjoyed more to my satisfaction these three years here, than in almost fifty before, but am now every day trussing up to be gone, I hope to a better place.”xvi

Sayes Court, which seems at first to have been intended as a summer residence for Susanna Evelyn and her husband, was eventually let to another Deptford resident. Admiral (then Captain) John Benbow. “I have let my house to Capt. Benbow,” says the letter just quoted, “and have the mortification of seeing every day much of my former labours and expense there impairing for want of a more polite tenant.” But this was not all. When King William’s favourite,xvii Peter the Great, came to Deptford to learn shipbuilding, Benbow sublet Sayes Court to him, with disastrous results. “There is a house full of people,” wrote one of Evelyn’s servants to Wotton, “and right nasty. The Czar lies next your library, and dines in the parlour next your study. He dines at 10 o’clock and 6 at night, is very seldom at home a whole day, very often in the King’s Yard, or by water, dressed in several dresses. The King is expected here this day, the best parlour is pretty clean for him to be entertained in. The King pays for all he has.”xviii Not content with wantonly damaging the grass-work and fruit-trees, and beating the bowling-green into holes, one of Czar Peter’s favourite morning exercises was to cause himself to be trundled on a wheelbarrow through Evelyn’s famous five-foot holly hedge, long the crowning glory of the Deptford grounds. When later Sir Christopher Wren, and London, the King’s gardener, at the request of the Treasury, proceeded to report upon the exploits of this barbaric humorist, they found that Evelyn had suffered to the extent of £162 : 7s., and Benbow, £158 : 2 : 6. Unhappily, much that had been done could never be undone ; and Evelyn later speaks sadly in Sylva ” of my now ruined garden, thanks to the Czar of Muscovy.xix

Little more remains to be related of Evelyn’s life. In October, 1699, his “good old Brother” died, and he became the possessor of Wotton, together with its library and family pictures. In May of the following year he transferred to it the remainder of his Sayes Court belongings.xx Besides the books already specified, he had published a translation of the Compleat Gardener of La Quintinye, 1693, and Numismata, 1697, being the “Discourse on Medals” mentioned in his letter to Dr. Bohun.xxi Two years later came his final work, Acetaria, a chapter “of sallets” from the Elysium Britannicum.xxii During his last years one of his chief interests was the transformation of Charles the Second’s unfinished palace at Greenwich into a hospital for worn-out seamen, a long -projected enterprise upon which William the Third embarked definitely after Queen Mary’s death. In February, 1695,xxiii Godolphin offered Evelyn the Treasurership ; and in June, 1696, he laid the foundation in that capacity of Wren’s additions.xxiv He lived to see the Hospital opened in January, 1705. In 1702 he had been elected a member of the then lately incorporated Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.xxv On the 27th February, 1706, being in his eighty -sixth year, and having outlived many of his most valued friends, he died, after a short illness, and was buried in the dormitory of Wotton Church. Upon his tombstone, in addition to the words quoted in the opening lines of this “Introduction,” was recorded, by his own desire, his conviction “That all is vanity which is not honest, and that there is no solid wisdom but in real Piety.”

On the 9th of February, 1709, Mary Evelyn died, and was buried near her husband. She does not figure very frequently in his Diary, but for nearly fifty-nine years she was his devoted helpmate. Considerably younger than Evelyn, she remained to the last “his grateful and docile pupil.” From the outset she had been carefully educated. She was an accomplished amateur artist ; she spoke French exactly, and understood Italian ; she wrote letters in excellent English ; and although — “as one having the care of cakes and stilling, and sweetmeats and such useful things” — she only professed to “judge unrefinedly,” she had no little critical power, and was an acute and even caustic student of character.xxvi Warmly attached to her friends, and extremely hospitable, her real inclinations were, nevertheless, for quiet and seclusion. Of the duties and province of her sex she took what would now be regarded as a needlessly modest estimate. “Women,” she wrote, “were not born to read authors, and censure the learned, to compare lives and judge of virtues, to give rules of morality, and sacrifice to the Muses. We are willing to acknowledge all the time borrowed from family duties is misspent ; the care of children’s education, observing a husband’s commands, assisting the sick, relieving the poor, and being serviceable to our friends, are of sufficient weight to employ the most improved capacities among us.” Such a deliverance would have delighted Dr. Primrose of Wakefield! It delighted Dr. Bohun, her friend and her son’s tutor, from a letter to whom it is extracted.xxvii in 1690 he composed a lengthy “Character ” of her, in which he dwells admiringly upon her good sense and her accomplishments, and her merits as a wife and mother.xxviii The one abiding grief of her ordered and placid life was the loss of so many of her children.xxix

For Evelyn himself, his leading traits have already been outlined at the beginning of this “Introduction” ; and they have also been illustrated during its progress. On one or two points, however, it may be useful to linger for a moment. Lord Beaconsfield’s Cardinal in Lothair,xxx laying stress upon the fact that Evelyn’s character ” in every respect approached perfection,” adds — apparently as an afterthought — “He was also a most religious man.” A most religious man in the best sense he unquestionably was, without the testimony of his tombstone, or the certificate of Cardinal Grandison. It is written plainly in every page of his Diary, in its gravity, its reticence, its silences even ; — in its absence, during a profane and scandalous age, of all scandal and profanity ; — in its regard for public worship and its reverence for the holy communion. Especially is it manifest when the writer’s habitual reserve breaks down under the influence of grief or bereavement, or in the expression of thankfulness to God for the preservation of his life or health, or the life or health of those dear to him. And he gave practical proof of the sincerity of his convictions by the tenacity with which, during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, he clung to the ritual and traditions of a Church, which, as he truly says, seemed “breathing her last.” He was only — if you will — a “passive resister,” but he was a consistent passive resister. And this brings us to another matter. It is often the misfortune of caution to be mistaken for timidity ; and it is not perhaps always easy to repress a lurking regret that a man so uniformly estimable should not sometimes have been a little more demonstrative and a little less prudent. But this is surely to mistake the quality of real bravery. To be flamberge au vent on the slightest provocation, like Sir John Reresby, or to have “killed his man,” like Sir Kenelm Digby, would have been impossible to one like Evelyn, whose principles were wholly averse from duelling, and whose creed was “defence, not defiance.” With all seventeenth-century gentlemen he had learned the use of arms (he could fence like Milton, or ride the “managed” horse like His Grace of Newcastle), and no doubt would have borne himself manfully, if need be, at Edgehill or Brentford ; but, as may be seen in his comments upon Albemarle and Sandwich,xxxi he deprecated that headlong and dare-devil gallantry of his day which knew neither forethought nor reason. As for moral courage, he had no lack of it ; witness his unabated exertions for the sick and wounded during all the terrible time of the Plague and Fire ; and his steady determination, as a Commissioner of the Privy Seal, to follow, not the illegal ruling of His Majesty King James, but the dictates of his own conscience.

It is generally said that he was a bookish recluse and man of peace, seeking above all things to “possess his soul in quiet,” and this was certainly what he professed to be. But even this, in the light of his biography, needs some qualification. As a matter of fact, his mind was too active, his interest in contemporary politics too keen, his devotion to his friends too great,xxxii to allow him to adhere strictly to his programme ;xxxiii and it is even conceivable that, in different conditions, and an environment more favourable to his theory of life, he might have been a distinguished man of affairs. In ability he was fully equal to the Cliffords and Arlingtons who rose so rapidly around him. But intrigue and self-seeking were foreign to his nature ; and he was obliged to do the best he could in a bad time. He could not prevent the Dutch War or the Treaty of Dover, but he could help to carry on the growing Royal Society and lay the foundation of Greenwich Hospital. And it is unanswerable evidence to the respect felt for his unfailing honesty and unselfish rectitude, that though his position must often have been one of tacit rebuke to those about him, there is apparently no indication that he ever provoked that ridicule which is usually the tribute of the ribald to the right-minded. He had been in the company of both Buckingham and Rochester, yet — as far as we know — he was neither libelled by the one nor mimicked by the other. Indeed, it is quite possible that Charles himself (who had some good instincts) would not have permitted any one to make fun of his “old acquaintance,” Mr. Evelyn. As Southey says, he ” had no enemy ” ; and this in a time “torn by civil and religious factions.” For his friends, if judgment is to go by their verdict, few men could empanel such a jury of prelates and politicians, philosophers and poets. Sancroft and Tillotson and Tenison, Browne and Jeremy Taylor, Ormonde and Ossory and Godolphin, Boyle and Bentley, Cowley and Waller — these are some of the most eminent names in an age not undistinguished in its notables. And they would all no doubt have agreed unanimously that Mr. Evelyn of Deptford was not only a man of marked accomplishment and conspicuous integrity, but a model husband and father, and an exemplary citizen, friend, and neighbour.

Of Evelyn’s writings it is more difficult to speak ; and it would be impracticable to discuss them adequately in this “Introduction.” “His books,” says Sir Leslie Stephen roundly, “are for the most part occasional, and of little permanent value.” “Occasional” is not an indulgent adjective, though it might be applied to a good deal that is of permanent value, — for instance, the Hydriotaphia of Sir Thomas Browne. Yet it is hard to traverse the verdict as a general proposition. Perhaps the fairest thing would be to follow De Quincey’s classification, and say that the bulk of Evelyn’s printed legacy belongs to the literature of knowledge rather than the literature of power. And the literature of knowledge has a knack of growing obsolete unless it be preserved by the saving element of style. Evelyn’s style — it has been said — is not attractive ; and this is especially true of his more ambitious published efforts. This is not to say that it is impossible to select from them passages which are both flexible and vivaciousxxxiv or passages which are vigorous, or passages where earnestness burns into eloquence. But, as a rule, he is encumbered by the intricacies of his method and the trappings of his erudition. He is over fond of strings of names and the array of authorities ; and he is not sufficiently on his guard against that temptation to say everything which is the secret of tediousness. Learned and sincere as he is undoubtedly, it must also be confessed that he is sometimes wearisome to read.

Among what he classes as his “original works,” — and his translations require no further notice than they have already received, — his Sylva is the most important, and also the best known. As already stated, it was thoroughly successful in its object, and in its author’s lifetime was extremely popular. After his death it received loving and elaborate illustration at the hands of Dr. Hunter ; but to-day, notwithstanding that it contains much excellent “confused feeding,” we should imagine that it is but seldom consulted save by the “retrospective reviewer” or the amateur of Forestry. Like the Kalendarium Hortense, like the Acetaria, it was probably at first no more than a section of that vast Elysium Britannicum, or “Cyclopædia of Horticulture,” which its projector never completed, and probably never would have completed except under the leisurely dispensation of Hilpa and Shalum. Even then it is to be feared that he would have continued complacently to multiply subdivisions of his “fruitful and inexhaustible subject,” and to inlet “apposite and agreeable illustrations,” rather than make any perceptible progress towards “Finis.” In 1679 he had been at work at it for twenty years and it was not yet “fully digested”; in 1699 another twenty years had slipped away, and his collection of material was said to amount to several thousand pages. Yet the MSS. at Wotton, when Bray wrote, revealed no more than parts of two volumes of very dispersed observations, and a Syllabus of Contents.xxxv Of the History of the Dutch War, the loss has already been regretted ; and it would certainly have been interesting to read the account, which we know it contained, of the sea-fight in Sole Bay.xxxvi But that loss, it must be admitted, could only be a serious one upon the assumption that what has disappeared was entirely Evelyn’s own. Had the book ever been published, it would doubtless have represented, not its writer’s patriotic and candid record of a struggle which he deplored, but an ex parte official narrative manipulated to suit the policy of Charles II., and edited to that end by Arlington and Clifford, — which is another-guess matter altogether. As regards the remaining works, the coin-collector will no doubt sometimes consult Numismata, and the print-collector, Sculptura, — both of which are full of adversaria and recondite knowledge. But, on the whole, it is not improbable that the most confessedly “occasional” of Evelyn’s performances will most attract the modern student ; and that because, more by their matter than their manner, they illustrate the past. Tyrannus and Mundus Muliebris throw light upon the vagaries of fashion and costume ; A Character of England, upon social life and the topography of London. The historian will find something in the Apology for the Royal Party or the News from Brussels Unmasked ; and the political economist cannot neglect Navigation and Commerce.

But all these things, to a greater or less extent, are covered by the pages now presented to the reader. Evelyn’s so-called Diary is not, it is true, a psychological document, making intimate revelation, conscious or unconscious, of its writer’s personality. On the contrary, although obviously never intended for publication, it is uniformly measured and restrained, except in those heartfelt outbursts which serve to prove and emphasize its private character. It has, however, claims of a different order. Its long chronicle extends over an unbroken period of more than sixty years, dating from the stormy days which preceded the Commonwealth to the early time of Queen Anne. During all this age — “an age,” as his epitaph puts it, “of extraordinary events and revolutions” — Evelyn was quietly, briefly, and methodically noting what seemed to him worthy of remembrance. His desire for knowledge was insatiable, his sympathies wide, and his tastes catholic. His position gave him access to many remarkable persons, in and out of power ; and his report of such occurrences as came under his notice is scrupulously careful and straightforward. Touching at many points the multiform life of his time, and reflecting its varied characteristics with insight and moderation, his records have a specific value and importance which fairly entitle them to be regarded as unique.