- The Letterbooks of John Evelyn by John Evelyn
Douglas D.C. Chambers and David Galbraith have produced an exemplary edition of John Evelyn’s letterbooks. Its combination of textual precision and explanatory finesse will prove enduringly useful to anyone with an interest either in Evelyn himself or in the intellectual, literary, architectural, political, scholarly, horticultural-agricultural, and religious milieux to which he belonged.
In certain respects, however, this edition is an unusual one. Among other things, Evelyn’s diary is famous for being a work of his later life. Day-to-day accounts were rewritten to project the pious self-image that was how Evelyn wanted his descendants to remember him. His letter-books, now numbered within the British Library’s additional manuscripts, are a related exercise in Restoration self-fashioning: a personally selected collection of his outgoing correspondence, chosen to represent Evelyn as he wanted to be seen by his family and friends. These, rather than Evelyn’s archive of correspondence in its massive totality, are what Chambers and Galbraith have edited. Although it would be hard to envision Evelyn’s selection as a microcosm of his epistolary identity as a whole, the readers of this edition are in luck. In place of the pillar of public and familial rectitude familiar from the diary, Evelyn’s letterbooks make a virtue of the sheer range of personae, interests, and modes of address at Evelyn’s command, to say nothing of the breadth and diversity of his social acquaintance. (As a prominent member of the gentry, Evelyn could—and was expected to—move freely alongside those stationed both above and below him in the social hierarchy of late seventeenth-century England.) To scholars reliant on the diary for their comprehension of Evelyn, these letters will be little short of revelatory. By turns curious, concerned, encouraging, consolatory, and playful—and seriously engaged not only with pet projects like garden design but also with questions of great scientific and theological gravity—this Evelyn is not only enjoyable [End Page 493] but opens a window onto some of the most crucial moments of his age—not least onto the activities that took place in and around the early Royal Society. It is true that Evelyn finds no place for correspondence relating to, for example, his aborted translation of Lucretius’s De rerum natura, presumably on account of the difficulties he faced in squaring his chosen text with a semblance of Christian orthodoxy. We would also turn in vain to the letterbooks for evidence of his passionately chaste relationship with Margaret Godolphin, recently the subject of a study by Frances Harris. But when we have so much else to choose from, and when we recollect that the letterbooks make no pretence to comprehensiveness, it would be churlish to grumble. Evelyn already gives us more than enough to consider.
The form of Evelyn’s chosen letters is as striking, if not quite as various, as their content. Evelyn inhabits and explores a range of classical and contemporary models, from Cicero’s mannered familiarity and Seneca’s didacticism, to Plinian thick description and Erasmian intimacy. He even ventures into the neo-Tacitean stylistics of a Lipsius. All of this, as it was intended to be, is salutary: an early modern letter writer (or poet) might claim immediacy for his compositions but came to know his heart through his literary education. Furthermore, Evelyn’s letters were by no means exclusively written in English: Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, and German all find their place here, though Evelyn’s stylistic virtuosity does not—to this reader—extend much beyond English and French. His non-English letters are translated here with lucidity and skill.
The preface to this book reveals that its preparation was prolonged and difficult. We should thus be doubly grateful to Chambers and Galbraith for the perseverance, learning, imagination, and scholarly tact evinced throughout. Their edition of The Letterbooks of John Evelyn takes its place alongside E.S. de Beer’s masterly edition of Evelyn’s Diary. It is...