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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

X. Memoir and Letter Writers

§ 8. His Public Services

Evelyn obtained his first public appointment in May, 1662, when he was chosen one of the commissioners for reforming the buildings, ways, streets and encumbrances, and regulating the hackney coaches, in London. About the same time, he was appointed on a commission for the purpose of enquiring how the revenues of Gresham college had been disposed of, and why the salaries of the professors were not improved. Little came of either of these commissions. He was appointed on others; but he was not in full public employment until 1664, when he was named one of four commissioners for dealing with the sick and wounded in the Dutch war. This was a most onerous duty, which caused him immense anxiety, not only in providing accommodation and food, but as to meeting the difficulty of obtaining money. In May, 1665, Evelyn was called into the council chamber before the king, when he explained why the expenses of the commission were not less than £1000 a week. In June, he asked for £20,000, and he obtained the use of Savoy hospital, where he fitted up fifty beds. The plague was then raging in London; and he was left single-handed to deal with the vast business of providing for the sick and wounded prisoners. It is interesting to note that, when others fled, Pepys, as well as Evelyn, remained to do their duty in the plague-stricken city.

On 17 September, 1666, Evelyn received news of the defeat of the Dutch by lord Sandwich, and learned that 3000 prisoners had been sent to him to dispose of. He was at a loss how to deal with this great responsibility, but proposed the erection of an infirmary at Chatham, and made an elaborate estimate of the cost, which he sent to Pepys. The commissioners of the navy encouraged the scheme, but they were without money, and the project fell through. At this time, Evelyn required £7000 for the weekly expenses of his charge, but he had great difficulty in obtaining it. Money was still owing to him long after the revolution, and he had to petition for his rights so late as March, 1702, when some of his just charges were disallowed. The highest office held by Evelyn was that of one of the commissioners appointed to execute the office of lord privy seal, in September, 1685, when the second earl of Clarendon was sent to Ireland as lord lieutenant. Evelyn took the test in February, 1686, and went to lodge at Whitehall, in the lord privy seal’s apartments. It was not an easy position for him, as he was unable to agree to James II’s arbitrary proceedings; and he refused to put his seal to certain documents for purposes forbidden by acts of parliament. In March, 1687, the commissioners were relieved of their duties. Evelyn was highly gratified by his appointment as treasurer of Greenwich hospital in 1695, and laid the first stone of the new building on 30 June of the following year. At the time of the great fire of London, he was ready with help; and, like Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, he prepared a plan of considerable merit for the improved building of London. To the two great diaries we owe many vivid pictures of this great calamity, which was turned into a blessing by the self-reliant courage of the men and women of London.

Evelyn was in every way admirable in his public life; but our interest in him centres in his private virtues. He was a fast friend, who stood by those he loved through good report and evil report. He was not ashamed to visit those who were in disgrace, and, as bishop Burnet tells us, was always “ready to contribute everything in his power to perfect other men’s endeavours.” His charity was not of the kind which costs nothing; for we find that, when Jeremy Taylor was in want, Evelyn settled an annual allowance upon him. Both his benevolence and his taste were exhibited in his patronage of Grinling Gibbons. The large correspondence which he left behind him shows him to have been in relations of close intimacy with some of the most worthy persons of his time. Clarendon consulted him respecting the magnificent collection of portraits which he gathered together, and Tenison asked his advice when projecting a library for the parish of St. Martin in the Fields. A matchless collection of manuscripts which he had once possessed and greatly valued gradually passed out of his custody through the carelessness of borrowers. Some were lent to the duke of Lauderdale, and, as he omitted to return them, were sold with his library. Burnet borrowed others for his History of the Reformation, and asserted that they had been lost by the negligence of the printers. Still more were borrowed by Pepys, and these are now in the Pepysian library at Magdalene.

The best known of his friends was the beautiful Margaret Blagge (afterwards Mrs. Godolphin), who, in October, 1672 (when she was twenty years of age), gave him a signed declaration of “inviolable friendship.” Evelyn says in the diary (3 September, 1678) that she regarded him “as a father, a brother and what is more a friend.… She was most deare to my wife and affectionate to my children.” Her Life, which he wrote some years after her death and left in manuscript, first saw the light in 1847, under the editorship of bishop Samuel Wilberforce. This volume has established itself in popular esteem as the revelation of a beautiful soul, by one who knew his subject thoroughly, and who was able, with exquisite taste, to make the purity of a woman’s life, lived not in seclusion but in the midst of a vicious court, reveal itself.

Lady Sylvius, to whom Evelyn afterwards addressed his Life of Mrs. Godolphin, introduced Margaret Blagge to Evelyn. She was married privately to Sidney Godolphin (afterwards earl of Godolphin), at the Temple church, on 16 May, 1675; on which Evelyn remarks, “Her not acquainting me with this particular of a good while after, occasioned a friendly quarrel between us.” On 3 September, 1678, she gave birth to a son, and she died of puerperal fever on the 9th of September following. Evelyn’s expression of his grief occupies some space in the diary; but he adds, “It is not here that I pretend to give her character, having design to consecrate her worthy life to posterity.” Her husband was so completely overcome by his grief at her loss that the entire care of the funeral was committed to Evelyn. The two men who loved her best looked over and sorted her papers, and they were astonished “to see what she had written, her youth considered.”