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The Plot Against Pepys -- Review -* Spoiler *- Post diary

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  • Michael Robinson
    And so to plot Philip Hensher The Plot Against Pepys James Long and Ben Long Faber, pp. 322pp, ££17.99, ISBN 9780571227136 There s a theory, no doubt
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 9, 2007
      And so to plot
      Philip Hensher

      The Plot Against Pepys
      James Long and Ben Long
      Faber, pp. 322pp, ££17.99, ISBN 9780571227136

      There's a theory, no doubt implausible and based on selective
      evidence, that alone among the peoples of Europe the English are
      somehow immune from those fits of mass hysteria which break out with
      murderous effect elsewhere. It must be nonsense, but it's very easy to
      find instances in English history where what looks like the beginnings
      of a general pogrom take place; and for some reason a brief season of
      mayhem fails to carry on into the murder of thousands or millions.

      The nearest thing to observable mass hysteria in this country in
      recent years, the so-called `Diana week' of September 1997, took many
      people by surprise and was said, then and more frequently later, to be
      fundamentally uncharacteristic of the national character. A more
      subtle reading would show, by comparison, that actually everything
      about it was characteristic, including the speed with which it sank
      into a generally felt embarrassment. That sequence of events occurred
      in the same order, and with the same seemingly natural limits, in
      episodes of judicial murder and mob passions centuries ago.

      In other episodes, for instance the Gordon Riots of the 1780s and the
      tiny Fascist movement of the 1930s, great passions were worked up over
      the sense of an unEnglish fifth column at work in the midst of English
      society. Sometimes it is the Jews; sometimes Roman Catholics. In
      recent years, people have seriously proposed that there might be a
      homosexual mafia at work within government, and questions are often
      heard these days about the real loyalties of British Muslims. Such
      questions are, in reality, centuries old. Only the object changes, and
      not the topic. If, to liberal-minded observers at the time, the
      phenomenon seems frightening, one could reflect that the frenzy
      usually passes with only a small number of tragedies.

      This interesting book, tied to a specific knot of names which still
      have resonance for us, is concerned with one of the oddest of such
      cases, and, in many tellings, one of the hardest to understand. When
      Charles II was welcomed back after the Restoration, it was not an
      unconditional welcome. The country was concerned to maintain the
      rights of Parliament, and there was an increasing obsession with
      secretly practising Catholics, some in the highest places. If the
      story about Charles II converting on his deathbed remains open to
      question, there is no such doubt about his brother, the Duke of York,
      later James II.

      Catholics were suspected, as in so many such cases, because of a sense
      of mutual secret brotherhood, and because their primary loyalty was
      guessed to be with the Pope, and, more worryingly, with the French
      king. It was all rather like the Zinoviev Letter in 1924, or the
      Protocols of the Elders of Zion. People knew very well what they
      wanted to believe, and pretty soon a handy supplier of evidence arose
      to fill a vacuum.

      Very few such people, however, have ever been so ludicrously unlikely
      as Titus Oates. It is hard to see why this arch-detector of Catholic
      plots should ever have been listened to. At one point, talking to a
      meeting of the Privy Council, no less, Oates claimed he had seen Don
      John of Austria at a conspirators' meeting. When the king asked him to
      describe his royal cousin, it was instantly apparent that Oates had
      never laid eyes on the man in his life.

      Oates is, or ought to be, an absurd figure, but he was of use to much
      more cunning and powerful anti-Catholic fanatics, such as the first
      Earl of Shaftesbury. The chief operator in this dark and sinister
      narrative is a Colonel John Scott, a man over whom considerable
      controversy still rages. In this telling, he had criminal dealings in
      the American colonies, the failure of which led him to a long-running
      and obsessive hatred of the Duke of York. Scott's plan, according to
      the meticulous telling of James and Ben Long, was to bring down the
      fall of the duke by picking off his allies and underlings. One of
      these was Samuel Pepys. His trial for treason and the trumped-up
      charge of selling secrets to the French occupies the bulk of the
      narrative. As the Longs convincingly show, what Pepys was accused of
      were the exact deeds carried out by Scott. He could be so detailed in
      his accusations because the crimes and their setting were his.

      Pepys presents a peculiar nightmare to any biographer. For most of his
      life, the evidence is what you would expect of any minor 17th-century
      political operative: a good deal of dull archival material about a
      professional career, rather thin on the ground in anything personal —
      we don't really know anything much about the woman he ended his life
      with, for instance. But for nine years of his life — between 1660 and
      1669 — we know, through the Diary, more about the intimate life of
      Pepys, his thoughts and his ambitions, presented almost entirely
      without apology or gloss, than any major writer in English. The modern
      biographer has the problem of seeming either excessively speculative
      or entirely unnecessary.

      The problem was overcome in splendid style a couple of years ago by
      Claire Tomalin in her full-dress Life. The Longs, father and son, have
      solved a problem in a different but just as effective way. They have
      focused on Pepys's bizarre but terrifying trial as the central episode
      in an insane witch-hunt. The trial dates from ten years after the
      Diary draws to a close; this Pepys, then, is a much grander and more
      important fellow, and the comic social aspirations so beguiling in the
      Diary have borne considerable fruit in an important post at the
      Admiralty. The Longs, however, make the fair assumption that his
      character and tastes are much the same and rewardingly read his
      sometimes reckless behaviour in the light of what we know of the
      younger author. Still, there is no doubt that this figure has grown up
      somewhat. It is surprising, for instance, to catch a glimpse of Pepys
      terrorising and giving formal warnings to his junior clerks; he had
      obviously mastered, in the years intervening from the Diary's end, the
      art of being a hard taskmaster.

      There might be a slight lack of tension in the narrative arising from
      the fact that the case against Pepys was clearly nonsense from the
      start. The judicial murders numbered, in the end, dozens rather than
      hundreds. Nevertheless, in the demonic figures of the committees of
      inquiry, the half-crazed conjurors of fake evidence, and the
      nightmarish sense that, as in Stalin's Russia or the Terror after the
      French Revolution, denial could only serve to confirm guilt and
      disproof could only demonstrate involvement in a larger conspiracy,
      the Longs have discovered and spelt out a terrifying corner of English

      The mob put its placards down and settled for a few dozen executions.
      It could have been very much worse — a sentiment which runs through
      the whole of English history. But in reality it was quite bad enough,
      and this terrifying tale continues to carry baleful warnings in our
      own age of suspicion and interrogated loyalties.

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