Monday books: And so to bed? Not a Pepys

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The Independent Culture
THESE TWO historical novels are set in the same period and draw heavily on the same source: the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Inevitably, they invite comparison. Ferdinand Mount's Jem (and Sam) may use the diaries as its inspiration, but this is a genuine work of fiction that transcends its starting-point. Jem is Jeremiah Mount, the author's six-times-great- grandfather, a rival and colleague to Pepys. He appears in the diaries as a drinking companion and then upper servant to the household of General Monck at the time of the Restoration of Charles II.

In this novel, he is a vivid fictional creation: scheming, competitive, ambitious but endearingly unsuccessful, randy, calculating and yet at the same time touchingly vulnerable. He survives the Plague, and is ruined twice, once in the Great Fire of London and again as an underwriter who fails to join the inner ring at Lloyd's.

These are the bones of a life lived at the centre of history. Mount's skill is to flesh out such a convincing and contradictory character.

Indeed, this process is so satisfactory and rich that the original theme of the novel - the rivalry with Pepys - comes to seem irrelevant.

This is a novel that wears its learning lightly. The extensive research is woven seamlessly into the plot and illuminates the setting. Mount has broken new ground by including footnotes in a work of fiction; but this is an innovation that he may regret. It creates difficulties where none need exist. When one fact is footnoted and another not, the reader is bound to wonder about the relationship between the latter and history.

Is it unsourced history, controversial history, a speculation based on known facts; or is it authorial licence - fiction? This is a can of worms that Mount may regret opening. For those of us who have resisted the temptation to demonstrate our scholarship, either through notes or a bibliography in our novels, it represents a further erosion of the helpful distinction between history and fiction.

Sara George's The Journal of Mrs Pepys is a very different book. It is based heavily on Samuel's diaries and as such poses the question why a reader with the opportunity of reading a contemporary diary of the 17th century should bother to read a reworked version of the same material by a 20th-century author. The mere rewriting of the diary to offer the viewpoint of his wife hardly seems worth the effort.

Thus an entry in Pepys's diary for January 1661 reads: "And so returned to Mr Pierces and there supped with them and Mr Pierce the purser, and his wife and mine where we have a calf's head carbonadoed, but it was [so] raw we could not eat it, and a good hen. But she is such a slut that I do not love her victualls." In the Sara George version, this becomes: "Then we went to Surgeon and Elizabeth Pearse for supper where we had a carbonade of calf's head but so raw we couldn't eat it. I couldn't help pointing out the dark tide mark on her neck to Sam. He said later she was such a slut in her personal habits he couldn't enjoy her food. This comment gave me a quite ridiculous feeling of satisfaction."

There are places where the novel transcends the diary form. George's description of the Great Fire, and her slow and subtle description of the months of the plague, are powerful moments. But the journal form pulls the fiction down. One day follows another in banal order. Samuel is irritable, servants come and go; no inner journey takes place in the consciousness of Mrs Pepys, no understanding or revelation occurs.

Only at the very end, as she nears her death, is there any attempt at an overall view. This reads rather awkwardly, as if the author, faced with an abrupt end to an unhistoric life, were rather desperately trying to make some sense of it. And this is surely the distinction between a journal - which is not a rounded, coherent art form - and a novel, which surely should be.

The characterisation poses problems, too. Samuel Pepys, lover of good living, ambitious, comical, adulterous, is drawn in these pages only a little more faintly than the character we know from his diaries. Mrs Pepys is not as vivid. Her work is interestingly described: the drudgery of washing-day, the loneliness of the housebound woman, the dependency on her husband; but she fails to attract. She is a woman with much to complain of, and she does complain. In the 17th century, she is burdened both by patriarchy and the double sexual standard at one of its most dominant phases. But surely there is something more an author could do with this plight, rather than pages of plaintive complaint?