Two bright stars, 1658
A great diarist's grief laid bare.
After last week’s levity from Virginia Woolf, I’m afraid this week in Histories we strike a sombre note, in the company of one of history’s great diarists.
We’ve met John Evelyn (1620–1706) before briefly, enjoying a frost fair on the Thames and trying to solve London’s pollution problems (how’s that working out, 350 years later?). I could probably fill a whole year with interesting excerpts from the writings of this engaging courtier, gardener, minor official and understated polymath, whose wonderful personal motto was: omnia explorate meliora retinete (explore everything; keep the best). Only a few weeks ago I was walking part of the Thames Path in Deptford, London, and encountered an old mulberry tree which was allegedly planted there by Peter the Great of Russia, in what used to be the garden created by John Evelyn at Sayes Court manor house, where he lived for 40 years. (There’s a story I may need to follow up…)
But this time we look at Evelyn’s role as a parent, and more specifically at his grief at losing a son. Of course infant mortality was a fact of life in his era, but his experience was particularly heartbreaking: of the eight children he and his wife Mary had, only one (their youngest daughter Susanna) would outlive the couple. John had married Mary Browne, daughter of the English ambassador in Paris, in 1647 (when she was only 12). They moved to Sayes Court in c.1652, taking it on from John’s father-in-law Sir Richard Browne. Their first child, Richard, was born in 1652; by the time of the diary entries recording his death in 1658, they had already lost their second son, John, four years earlier.
The text I share below speaks for itself, really: a father’s pride, his grief and his anger, leading him to point the finger of blame.
27th January, 1658
After six fits of a quartan ague [a form of malaria] it pleased God to visit my dear child Dick with fits so extreme, especially one of his sides, that after the rigor was over & he in his hot fit, he fell into so great & intolerable a sweat, that being surprised with the abundance of vapours ascending to his head, he fell into such fatal symptoms, as all the help at hand was not able to recover his spirits, so as after a long & painful conflict, falling to sleep as we thought, & covered too warm, (though in midst of a severe frosty season) and by a great fire in the room; he plainly expired, to our unexpressable grief & affliction.
We sent for physicians to London, whilst there was yet life in him; but the river was frozen up, & the coach broke by the way ere it got a mile from the a house; so as all artificial help failing, & his natural strength exhausted, we lost the prettiest, and dearest child, that ever parents had, being but 5 years & 3 days old in years but even at that tender age, a prodigy for wit, & understanding; for beauty of body a very angel, & for endowments of mind, of incredible & rare hopes.
To give only a little taste of some of them, & thereby glory to God, (who out of the mouths of babes & infants does sometimes perfect his praises). At 2 year & half old he could perfectly read any of the English, Latin, French or Gothic letters; pronouncing the three first languages exactly: he had before the 5th year or in that year not only skill to read most written hands, but to decline all the nouns, conjugate the verbs, regular, & most of the irregular… got by heart almost the entire vocabulary of Latin & French primitives [root words] & words, could make congruous syntax, turn English into Latin & vice versa, construe & prove what he read & did… the number of verses he could recite was prodigious, & what he remembered of the parts of plays, which he would also act… [Evelyn continues this list of Dick’s prowess, including his knowledge of mathematics and scripture, at some length here, reminding me of another precocious child and proud parent we have encountered.]
… These and the like illuminations, far exceeding his age & experience, considering the prettiness of his address & behaviour, cannot but leave impressions in me at the memory of him… He declaimed against the vanities of the world, before he had seen any: often he would desire those who came to see him, to pray by him, & before he fell sick a year, to kneel and pray with him alone in some corner. How thankfully would he receive admonition, how soon be reconciled! how indifferent, continually cheerful: grave advice would he be giving his brother John, bear with his impertinences, & say he was but a child. If he heard of, or saw any new thing, he was unquiet till he was told how it was made, & brought us all difficulties that he found in book[s], to be expounded… In a word he was all life, all prettiness, far from morose, sullen, or childish in any thing he said or did…
The day before he died, he called to me, & in a more serious manner than usually, told me, that for all I loved him so dearly, I would give my house, land & all my fine things to his brother Jack, he should have none of them, & next morning when first he found himself ill, & that I persuaded him to keep his hands in bed, he demanded, whither he might pray to God with his hands unjoined, & a little after, whilst in great agony, whither he should not offend God, by using his holy name so oft, calling for ease. What shall I say of his frequent pathetical ejaculations uttered of himself, Sweet Jesus save me, deliver me, pardon my sins, let thine Angels receive me &c. So early knowledge, so much piety & perfection; but thus God having dressed up a saint fit for himself, would not permit him longer with us, unworthy of the future fruits of this incomparable hopeful blossom. Such a child I never saw; for such a child I bless God, in whose bosom he is. May I & mine become as this little child, which now follows the child Jesus, that Lamb of God, in a white robe whithersoever he goes…
[We then learn Evelyn had made the distressing decision to call for an autopsy.]
On the Saturday following, I suffered the physicians to have him opened: Dr. Needham & Dr. Welles, who were come three days before, & a little time ere he expired, but was past all help, & in my opinion he was suffocated by the woman & maid that tended him, & covered him too hot with blankets as he lay in a cradle, near an excessive hot fire in a close room; for my wife & I being then below & not long come from him, being come up, & I lifting up the blanket, which had quite covered the cradle, taking first notice of his wonderful fresh colour, & hardly hearing him breath or heave, soon perceived that he was near overcome with heat & sweat, & so doubtless it was, & the child so far gone, as we could not make him to hear, or once open his eyes, though life was apparently in him: we gave him something to make him sneeze but ineffectively:.
Being opened they found a membranous substance growing to the cavous [hollow] part of the liver, somewhat near the edge of it for the compass of 3 inches, which ought not to be; for the liver is fixed only by three strong ligaments, all far distant from that part, insomuch as it could not it move in that part; on which they confidently affirmed, the child was (as tis vulgarly called) liver-grown, & thence that sickness & so frequent complaint of his side: & indeede both liver & spleen were exceedingly large &c.
After this I caused the body to be coffined in lead, & reposited him that night, about 8 o’clock in the church of Deptford, accompanied with diverse of my relations & neighbours, among whom I distributed rings with this—Dominus abstulit: intending (God willing) to have him transported with my own body, to be interred at our dormitory in Wotton church in my dear native county Surrey, & to lay my bones & mingle my dust with my Fathers, &c if God be so gracious to me; & make me as fit for him, as this blessed child was. Here ends the joy of my life, & for which I go even mourning to the grave. The Lord Jesus sanctify this & all other my Afflictions: Amen.
[In fact, young Richard’s body was never taken to Evelyn’s birthplace of Wotton, and John later erected a monument to him at St Nicholas in Deptford, with a Latin epitaph said to have been written by Sir Christopher Wren. Sadly, only two weeks later John would write the following entry in his diary.]
The afflicting hand of God being still upon us, it pleased him also to take away from us this morning my other youngest son George [born in June 1657], now 7 weeks languishing at nurse, breeding teeth, & ending in a dropsy. God’s holy will be done: he was buried in Deptford Church the 17th following.
On 17th February, John’s friend Jeremy Taylor, a Royalist priest known for his fine prose, wrote a letter of condolence.Here is a short extract…
I account myself to have a great cause of sorrow not only in the diminution of the numbers of your joys and hopes, but in the loss of that pretty person, your strangely hopeful boy.… I can no otherwise comfort you but by telling you, that you have very great cause to mourn: so certain it is, that grief does propagate as fire does… But, Sir, I cannot choose but I must hold another and a brighter flame to you—it is already burning in your breast; and if I can but remove the dark side of the lanthorn [lantern], you have enough within you to warm yourself, and to shine to others. Remember, Sir, your two boys are two bright stars, and their innocence is secured, and you shall never hear evil of them again. Their state is safe, and heaven is given to them upon very easy terms; nothing but to be born and die. It will cost you more trouble to get where they are; and amongst other things one of the hardnesses will be, that you must overcome even this just and reasonable grief…
There are numerous editions of Evelyn’s diary and it was tempting to take the text from William Bray’s 1850 modernisation of the text (digitised from a 1901 edition here) – but he seems to have rewritten the text wholesale. Here I have used the original, more personal text (here, from 1955) but simply modernised the spelling and punctuation.