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  • John Evelyn and His Milieu
  • Lee Piepho
Frances Harris and Michael Hunter, eds. John Evelyn and His Milieu. London: The British Library, 2003. x + 298 pp. index. illus. map. £35. ISBN: 0-7123-4817-4.

In John Evelyn's time and for a century afterwards he was known as an early advocate of the arts in England, a prominent member of the circle that founded the Royal Society, and (largely on the basis of his Sylva) an important writer on forestry and horticulture. Then in the early nineteenth century his reputation was transformed with the publication of his Diary, a work that conveniently fit in withthe emerging Victorian ideal of the English gentleman, and of his Life of Mrs.Godolphin, newly discovered and susceptible to sentimental Victorian readings of its pious young subject. Now our understanding of Evelyn seems destined to change again, deepening this time as the British Library's acquisition in 1977–78 of an important portion of his book collection and of the Evelyn manuscripts and family archive in 1995 makes itself felt. The present volume should be viewed in this light. A collection of fifteen essays originally presented at a conference in 2001, [End Page 744] John Evelyn and His Milieu mines the Library's newly enriched holdings to explore the activity and influence of this quintessential seventeenth-century English virtuoso.

Douglas Chambers opens the collection with a discussion of Evelyn's letters, as important a part of his life record as his more famous Diary. Of particular interest to students of epistolography will be his demonstration of how carefully Evelyn modeled what Chambers calls "letter-essays" on an epistolary genre grounded in writers in Roman antiquity such as Cicero, Seneca, and the younger Pliny.

The next four essays look to various aspects of Evelyn's formative continental travels during the 1640s. In Paris during this time he developed, Mirjam Foot points out, a penchant for fine bookbindings that he took back with him to England. Evelyn's Parisian years were likewise the climactic period of his interest in prints and printmakers, and Antony Griffiths uses his 1687 catalogue together with Christie's auction catalogues recording the disastrous dispersal of his print collection during the 1970s to give us a sense of the scale, quality, and purpose of his collecting. In an interesting paper Edward Chaney discusses Evelyn's introduction to northern Italy's cultural treasures under the aging Earl of Arundel's guidance, an encounter recorded in a "Remembrances" the earl sent him and useful in helping us to understand his later role in England's cultural history. Giles Mandelbrote considers the British Library's copies of the collection of books that, beginning in his Parisian years, Evelyn amassed for his private use. Annotations and marginal marks in these copies are often extensive, sometimes suggesting successive perusals, and relation of the marks to three commonplace books preserved in his archive is important but remains tantalizingly elusive.

Evelyn is best known in a particular field for his work on gardening, not only in his Elysium Britannicum but at Sayes Court in Deptford, where he created one of seventeenth-century England's most famous gardens. Mark Laird gives an interesting and entertaining account of the vicissitudes Evelyn's garden suffered not only from its disadvantageous location (downstream from London, adjacent to the dockyard) but the buffeting it took from the last years of Europe's Little Ice Age and from every gardener's perennial enemies: caterpillars, slugs, and rapacious birds.

Devotional manuscripts form the largest single portion of Evelyn's archive at the British Library, and John Spurr uses this material to inquire into the nature of his Anglicanism. He shows how even in emotionally charged times Evelyn sought to rationalize the basis of his beliefs. During the 1650s he developed, Spurr points out, a private devotional world to compensate for the loss of the Church of England's public ritual, an oppositional posture that, Spurr notes, carried over in Evelyn's cultivation of a lay religious coterie in the less than sympathetic environment of the Restoration court.

The next two essays consider Evelyn's role as a public servant and his political beliefs. Gillian...


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pp. 744-747
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Archived 2009
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