Thursday, February 23, 2023

In celebration of Pepys

It’s Samuel Pepys’s birthday, his 390th. For a decade or so in the early part of his career - which would see him become Chief Secretary to the Admiralty - he kept a diary so brilliant that it would become one of the most important and famous of all diaries. With meticulous detail and literary skill, he recorded everything in his life, from the tragic to the comic, from grand affairs of state to the frailties of his own character. Moreover, in the diary, he left behind an immensely important account of the Restoration period in English history, as well as first-hand accounts of many major events, not least the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London,and the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Pepys is to diaries what Shakespeare is to plays.

Pepys was born in London on 23 February 1633 above a shop, near Fleet Street, where his father provided a tailoring service for lawyers. He was schooled in Huntingdon at first, and at St Paul’s, London, and then was able to study at Cambridge University thanks to various scholarships and grants. In 1655, he entered the household of a relation, Sir Edward Montagu, and the same year married Elisabeth de St Michel, a descendant of French Huguenot immigrants, who was only 14 at the time. She would die young, in 1669, without having had children.

In 1658, Pepys moved to live in Axe Yard, near where the modern Downing Street is located, and underwent a painful and difficult operation to remove a large bladder stone.  Two years later, Montagu, by then an admiral, promoted him to secretary. In May the same year, he sailed with Montagu’s fleet to the Netherlands to bring Charles II back from exile. Pepys continued to rise in importance with Montagu’s success. When the Second Anglo-Dutch War dominated foreign affairs in the mid-1660s, Pepys proved himself an indefatigable and skilled administrator. However, in the years after the war, Navy Board practices, and Pepys himself, came under considerable and critical scrutiny. A virtuoso performance by Pepys in Parliament in March 1668 helped his cause, and, ultimately, the support of Charles II helped him keep his job.

In 1673, Pepys first became a Member of Parliament. He fell out of a favour for a few years in the late 1670s for allegedly betraying naval secrets, but the charges proved to have been fabricated, and by 1684 had been appointed King’s Secretary for the affairs of the Admiralty, a post he retained after the accession of James II. He was again an MP in the latter half of 1680s. For two years, starting in 1684, he was president of the Royal Society, a period in which Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica. With the deposing of James II and the subsequent succession of Mary II and her husband William of Orange, Pepys was again accused of political plots and imprisoned briefly. He never returned to public life, and died at his house in Clapham in 1703. Further information is available at Wikipedia, a virtual exhibition at the Magdalene College website, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Pepys left his vast library to Magdalene College, Cambridge University, where the 3,000 tomes are shelved in his own bookcases in a building named after him. Though containing many important volumes, the most important by far are the six of Pepys diary. He started writing on New Year’s Day 1660, when still poor, without apparent prospects, and without having anything significant to write about. One of his modern biographers, Claire Tomalin (Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Viking), looks carefully at why he did this, suggesting possible reasons: his employers kept journals, he wished to give himself a serious task, he was a passionate reader and cared for good writing, he was aware of the high political and religious drama going on around him, and he was unrepentantly curious about himself. He stopped writing his diary in May 1669, fearing the activity was having a negative impact on his deteriorating eyesight.

Written in a shorthand code, with a meticulous hand (as beautiful as pieces of embroidery, for Tomalin) Pepys’s diaries were not deciphered or published until the 1820s. A second transcription of the original diaries was completed in 1875 by Mynors Bright and various published editions followed, some more complete than others. Even the most complete, though, omitted some passages which the editors thought ‘cannot possibly be printed’. The same editors do not explain but simply ask the reader to have faith in them. Some of these editions are freely available today on the internet - such as The Diary of Samuel Pepys website run by Phil Gyford, which also has a Pepys encyclopaedia, in-depth essays, and a lively forum for debate on all things Pepys. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that Robert Latham and William Matthews transcribed and edited the complete diary for publication in nine volumes published by Bell & Hyman, London, and the University of California Press, Berkeley.

At least seven Diary Review articles have been based on Pepys’s diary:
Pepys on Sir Edward Hyde (historian, statesman and grandfather to two queens)
Mistress of the bedchamber (Barbara Palmer, the most famous of Charles II’s mistresses)
1st Duke of Albemarle (a soldier and a key player in the restoration of Charles II)
John Blow’s bad singing (an English organist and composer)
Speaker without his mace (about the disbanding of the Long Parliament)
Height and raptures  (Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, soldier, statesman and playwright)
Pepys, fire and Parmesan cheese

Here, to celebrate with Pepys, are several short extracts from his great diary, including one sometimes cited as the first reference to Punch and Judy in English literature, several about Bartholomew Fair, and two about the plague.

9 May 1662
‘Thence with Mr Salisbury, who I met there, into Covent Garden to an alehouse, to see a picture that hangs there, which is offered for 20s., and I offered fourteen - but it is worth much more money - but did not buy it, I having no mind to break my oath. Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and great resort of gallants. So to the Temple and by water home, and so walk upon the leads, and in the dark there played upon my flageolette [a woodwind musical instrument], it being a fine still evening, and so to supper and to bed.’

25 August 1663
‘It seems this Lord Mayor begins again an old custome, that upon the three first days of Bartholomew Fayre, the first, there is a match of wrestling, which was done, and the Lord Mayor there and Aldermen in Moorefields yesterday: to-day, shooting: and to-morrow, hunting. And this officer of course is to perform this ceremony of riding through the city, I think to proclaim or challenge any to shoot. It seems that the people of the fayre cry out upon it as a great hindrance to them.’

4 September 1663
‘Thence Creed and I away, and by his importunity away by coach to Bartholomew Fayre, where I have no mind to go without my wife, and therefore rode through the fayre without ’lighting, and away home, leaving him there; and at home made my wife get herself presently ready, and so carried her by coach to the fayre, and showed her the monkeys dancing on the ropes, which was strange, but such dirty sport that I was not pleased with it. There was also a horse with hoofs like rams hornes, a goose with four feet, and a cock with three. Thence to another place, and saw some German Clocke works, the Salutation of the Virgin Mary, and several Scriptural stories; but above all there was at last represented the sea, with Neptune, Venus, mermaids, and Ayrid on a dolphin, the sea rocking, so well done, that had it been in a gaudy manner and place, and at a little distance, it had been admirable. Thence home by coach with my wife, and I awhile to the office, and so to supper and to bed.’

7 June 1665
‘Thence, it being the hottest day that ever I felt in my life, and it is confessed so by all other people the hottest they ever knew in England in the beginning of June, we to the New Exchange, and there drunk whey, with much entreaty getting it for our money, and [they] would not be entreated to let us have one glasse more. So took water and to Fox-Hall, to the Spring garden [later known as Vauxhall Gardens, opened a few years earlier and would stay open for around 200 years], and there walked an houre or two with great pleasure, saving our minds ill at ease concerning the fleete and my Lord Sandwich, that we have no newes of them, and ill reports run up and down of his being killed, but without ground. Here staid pleasantly walking and spending but 6d. till nine at night, and then by water to White Hall, and there I stopped to hear news of the fleete, but none come, which is strange, and so by water home, where, weary with walking and with the mighty heat of the weather, and for my wife’s not coming home, I staying walking in the garden till twelve at night, when it begun to lighten exceedingly, through the greatness of the heat. Then despairing of her coming home, I to bed.

This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw, which took away the apprehension.’

12 August 1665
‘The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by day-light, the nights not sufficing to do it in. And my Lord Mayor commands people to be within at nine at night all, as they say, that the sick may have liberty to go abroad for ayre.’

6 September 1667
‘At Aldgate I took my wife into our coach, and so to Bartholomew fair, and there, it being very dirty, and now night, we saw a poor fellow, whose legs were tied behind his back, dance upon his hands with his arse above his head, and also dance upon his crutches, without any legs upon the ground to help him, which he did with that pain that I was sorry to see it, and did pity him and give him money after he had done. Then we to see a piece of clocke-work made by an Englishman - indeed, very good, wherein all the several states of man’s age, to 100 years old, is shewn very pretty and solemne; and several other things more cheerful.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 23 February 2013.

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