John Evelyn's Diary Introduction is in John Evelyn's Diary.
The two chief diarists of the age of Charles the Second are, mutatis mutandis, not ill characterized by the remark of a wicked wit upon the brothers Austin. "John Austin", it was said, "served God and died poor: Charles Austin served the devil, and died rich. Both were clever fellows. Charles was much the cleverer of the two". Thus John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, the former a perfect model of decorum, the latter a grievous example of indecorum, have respectively left us diaries, of which the indecorous is to the decorous as a zoölogical garden is to a museum: while the disparity between the testamentary bequests of the two Austins but imperfectly represents the reputation standing to Pepys's account with posterity in comparison with that accruing to his sedate and dignified contemporary.
Museums, nevertheless, have their uses, and Evelyn's comparatively jejune record has laid us under no small obligation. But for Pepys's amazing indiscretion and garrulity, qualities of which one cannot have too little in life, or too much in the record of it, Evelyn would have been esteemed the first diarist of his age. Unable for want of these qualifications to draw any adequate picture of the stirring life around him, he has executed at least one portrait admirably, his own. The likeness is, moreover, valuable, as there is every reason to suppose it typical, and representative of a very important class of society, the well-bred and well-conducted section of the untitled aristocracy of England. We may well believe that these men were not only the salt but the substance of their order. There was an ill-bred section exclusively devoted to festivity and sport. There was an ill-conducted section, plunged into the dissipations of court life. But the majority were men like Evelyn: not, perhaps, equally refined by culture and travel, or equally interested in literary research and scientific experiment, but well informed and polite; no strangers to the Court, yet hardly to be called courtiers, and preferring country to town; loyal to Church and King but not fanatical or rancorous; as yet but slightly imbued with the principles of civil and religious liberty, yet adverse to carry the dogma of divine right further than the right of succession; fortunate in having survived all ideas of serfdom or vassalage, and in having few private interests not fairly reconcilable with the general good. Evelyn was made to be the spokesman of such a class, and, meaning to speak only for himself, he delivers its mind concerning the Commonwealth and the Restoration, the conduct of the later Stuart Kings and the Revolution.
Evelyn's Diary practically begins where many think he had no business to be diarising, beyond the seas. The position of a loyalist who solaces himself in Italy while his King is fighting for his crown certainly requires explanation: it may be sufficient apology for Evelyn that without the family estates he could be of no great service to the King, and that these, lying near London, were actually in the grasp of the Parliament. He was also but one of a large family and it was doubtless convenient that one member should be out of harm's way. His three years' absence (1643-6) has certainly proved advantageous to posterity. Evelyn is, indeed, a mere sight-seer, but this renders his tour a precise record of the objects which the sight-seer of the seventeenth century was expected to note, and a mirror not only of the taste but of the feeling of the time. There is no cult of anything, but there is curiosity about everything; there is no perception of the sentiment of a landscape, but real enjoyment of the landscape itself; antiquity is not unappreciated, but modern works impart more real pleasure. Of the philosophical reflections which afterward rose to the mind of Gibbon there is hardly a vestige, and of course Evelyn is at an immeasurable distance from Byron and De Staël. But he gives us exactly what we want, the actual attitude of a cultivated young Englishman in presence of classic and renaissance art with its background of Southern nature. We may register without undue self-complacency a great development of the modern world in the æsthetical region of the intellect, which implies many other kinds of progress. It is interesting to compare with Evelyn's narrative the chapters recording the visit to Italy supposed to have been made at this very period by John Inglesant, who inevitably sees with the eyes of the nineteenth century. Evelyn's casual remarks on foreign manners and institutions display good sense, without extraordinary insight; in description he is frequently observant and graphic, as in his account of the galley slaves, and of Venetian female costumes. He naturally regards Alpine scenery as "melancholy and troublesome"..
Returned to England, Evelyn strictly follows the line of the average English country gentleman, execrating the execution of Charles I., disgusted beyond measure with the suppression of the Church of England service, but submissive to the powers that be until there are evident indications of a change, which he promotes in anything but a Quixotic spirit. Although he is sincerely attached to the monarchy, the condition of the Church is evidently a matter of greater concern to him: Oliver Cromwell would have done much to reconcile the royalists to his government, had it been possible for him to have restored the liturgy and episcopacy. The same lesson is to be derived from his demeanor during the reigns of Charles and James. The exultation with which the Restoration is at first hailed soon evaporates. The scandals of the Court are an offense, notwithstanding Evelyn's personal attachment to the King. But the chief point is not vice or favoritism or mismanagement, but alliances with Roman Catholic powers against Protestant nations. Evelyn is enraged to see Charles missing the part so clearly pointed out to him by Providence as the protector of the Protestant religion all over Europe. The conversion of the Duke of York is a fearful blow, James's ecclesiastical policy after his accession adds to Evelyn's discontent day by day, while political tyranny passes almost without remark. At last the old cavalier is glad to welcome the Prince of Orange as deliverer, and though he has no enthusiasm for William in his character as King, he remains his dutiful subject. Just because Evelyn was by no means an extraordinary person, he represents the plain straightforward sense of the English gentry. The questions of the seventeenth century were far more religious than political. The synthesis "Church and King" expressed the dearest convictions of the great majority of English country families, but when the two became incompatible they left no doubt which held the first place in their hearts. They acted instinctively on the principle of the Persian lady who preferred her brother to her husband. It was not impossible to find a new King, but there was no alternative to the English Church.
Evelyn's memoirs thus possess a value far exceeding the modest measure of worth allowed them by De Quincey: "They are useful as now and then enabling one to fix the date of a particular event, but for little besides". The Diary's direct contribution to historical accuracy is insignificant; it is an index, not to chronological minutiæ, but to the general progress of moral and political improvement. The editor of 1857 certainly goes too far in asserting that "All that might have been excluded from the range of his opinions, his feelings and sympathies embraced"; but it is interesting to observe the gradual widening of Evelyn's sympathies with good men of all parties, and to find him in his latter days criticising the evidence produced in support of the Popish Plot on the one hand, and deploring the just condemnation of Algernon Sydney on the other. It is true that, so far as the sufferings of his country are concerned, his attitude is rather that of the Levite than of the Samaritan; but more lively popular sympathies would have destroyed the peculiar value attaching to the testimony of the reluctant witness. We should, for example, have thought little of such a passage as the following from the pen of Burnet, from Evelyn it is significant indeed:—.
October 14, 1688. the King's birthday. No guns from the Tower as usual. The sun eclipsed at its rising. This day signal for the victory of William the Conqueror against Harold, near Battel in Sussex. The wind, which had been hitherto west, was east all this day. Wonderful expectation of the Dutch fleet. Public prayers ordered to be read in the churches against invasion.
It might be difficult to produce a nearer approximation in secular literature to Daniel's "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin"..
There is little else in the Diary equally striking, though Evelyn's description of Whitehall on the eve of the death of Charles the Second ranks among the memorable passages of the language. It is nevertheless full of interesting anecdotes and curious notices, especially of the scientific research which, in default of any adequate public organization, was in that age more efficaciously promoted by students than by Professors. De Quincey censures Evelyn for omitting to record the conversation of the men with whom he associated, but he does not consider that the Diary in its present shape is a digest of memoranda made long previously, and that time failed at one period and memory at the other. De Quincey, whose extreme acuteness was commonly evinced on the negative side of a question, saw the weak points of the Diary upon its first publication much more clearly than his contemporaries did, and was betrayed into illiberality by resentment at what he thought its undeserved vogue. Evelyn has in truth been fortunate; his record, which his contemporaries would have neglected, appeared (1818) just in time to be a precursor of the Anglican movement, a tendency evinced in a similar fashion by the vindication, no doubt mistaken, of the Caroline authorship of the "Icon Basilike". Evelyn was a welcome encounter to men of this cast of thought, and was hailed as a model of piety, culture, and urbanity, without sufficient consideration of his deficiencies as a loyalist and a patriot. It also conduced to his reputation that all his other writings should have virtually perished except his "Sylva", like his Diary a landmark in the history of improvement, though in a widely different department. But for his lack of diplomatic talent, he might be compared with an eminent and much applauded, but in our times somewhat decrescent, contemporary, Sir William Temple. Both these eminent persons would have aroused a warmer feeling in posterity, and have effected more for its instruction and entertainment, if they could occasionally have dashed their dignity with an infusion of the grotesqueness, we will not say of Pepys, but of Roger North. To them, however, their dignity was their character, and although we could have wished them a larger measure of geniality, we must feel indebted to them for their preservation of a refined social type.