We can touch the past through diaries, letters and memoirs, which allow a measure of intimacy and immediacy even across the centuries. The accepted view is that they begin to proliferate in the second half of the seventeenth century with Pepys, Evelyn, Lucy Hutchinson and John Aubrey. But there is an earlier figure who has somehow slipped below the literary horizon. The letters that John Chamberlain (1554–1628) wrote are the first in English that can be read without difficulty and with pleasure.
Chamberlain was well placed to be an observer of the end of Elizabeth’s reign and the subsequent Jacobean period. His father had been Master of the Ironmongers’ Company in London, as were three of his brothers. His was therefore a comfortably off family, on the cusp between the urban middle class and the gentry. He went to Trinity, Cambridge, but did not take a degree; attended Gray’s Inn, but was not called to the bar; never had a job and never married. He knew his station and his limitations: ‘I never did abound, so I was. . . never in want . . . I am past all ambition and wish nor seek nothing but how to live suaviter and in plenty.’ Here was an ideal looker-on, gathering all the news and gossip in circulation on his daily visits to St Paul’s Cathedral where he and many others went ‘Paul’s Walking’, up and down its naves and aisles. By far the greatest number of his letters are to Dudley Carleton, a career diplomat much younger than he who is anxious to be kept abreast of what is happening back in England.
This is the age of Shakespeare, though alas Chamberlain makes no mention of him. He does, however, report the burning of the Globe Theatre in 1613 after its thatched roof was set alight by the discharge of a stage cannon, and of the Fortune Theatre in 1621, owned by Edward Alleyn, the founder of Dulwich College. He also gives frequent evidence of how the English language had suddenly caught fire, not merely at the hands of the p
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