A Friend, a Booke, and a Garden

John Evelyn's "Elysium Britannicum" and European Gardening

edited by Therese O'Malley and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn
Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 310 pp., $45.00


Three of the liveliest and most popular of seventeenth-century prose writers are known to us not through the work they brought out in their lifetime but through manuscripts first published in the nineteenth century. John Aubrey, the antiquarian (1626–1697), never printed his Brief Lives. They appeared in bowdlerized editions in 1810 and 1898. Debowdlerized, they were turned into a long-running stage show in the 1960s.

The diary of Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) was not deciphered until 1825, and the first full standard edition really came much later (1893–1899). Macaulay fell at once upon this work, and a remark to one of his sisters in 1831 makes it clear how it was appropriated by his imagination, his “fancy.” Through the diary, says Macaulay,

I seem to know every inch of Whitehall. I go in at Hans Holbein’s gate, and come out through the matted gallery. The conversations which I compose between great people of the time are long, and sufficiently animated: in the style, if not with the merits, of Sir Walter Scott’s. The old parts of London, which you are sometimes surprised at my knowing so well, those old gates and houses down by the river, have all played their part in my stories.

And yet Pepys himself does not appear as a key figure in Macaulay’s History. He is acknowledged as a source, but not made explicit as a presence. Pepys’s true fame as a character begins in the twentieth century.

And then there is John Evelyn (1620–1706), who published many books in his lifetime but whose Diary was first printed in 1818, with a preface acknowledging that, while much of its contents “may appear too unimportant to meet the public eye,” some particulars “may gratify the curiosity of those who are inquisitive after the mode in which their ancestors conducted business”:

Thus, when mention is made of great men going after dinner to attend a Council of State, or the business of their particular Offices, or the Bowling-Green, or even the Church; of an Hour’s Sermon being of a moderate length; of ladies painting their faces being a novelty; or of their receiving visits of Gentlemen whilst dressing, after having just risen out of bed; of the female attendant of a lady of fashion travelling on a pillion behind one of the footmen, and the footmen riding with swords;—such things, in the view above-mentioned, may not be altogether incurious.

One opens the diary at random to find that, in Rome on January 7, 1645,

A sermon was preached to the Jews, at the Ponte Sisto, who are constrained to sit till the hour is done; but it is with so much malice in their countenances, spitting, humming, coughing, and motion, that it is almost impossible they should hear a word from the preacher. A conversion is very rare.

A week later, Evelyn goes to the Ghetto with a Jewish acquaintance to witness a circumcision. A couple of pages on, he is admiring…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.