Exactly 350 years ago, on 31 May, 1669, Samuel Pepys stopped writing his diary and our intimate view of life in London in the 17th century was suddenly cut short, writes novelist Deborah Swift. She tells Historia what we’re missing as a result.
Born the son of a tailor, Pepys was a self-made man who rose up the ranks to become one of the foremost citizens in Restoration London and a personal friend of Charles II.
So what did we miss out on, once he stopped giving us his fly-on-the-wall accounts of London life? And why should we care?
The diary is unique in that it veers from the very personal – “Almost foxed with wine, God forgive me!” – to the internal wranglings over the King’s summoning of Parliament to raise money for war against the Dutch:
“How the King come to be advised to this, I know not; but he tells me that it was against the Duke of York’s mind flatly, who did rather advise the King to raise money as he pleased; and against the Chancellor’s, who told the King that Queen Elizabeth did do all her business in eighty-eight without calling a Parliament, and so might he do, for anything he saw.”
Pepys’s daily entries combine coverage of major crises, such as the Plague and the Great Fire of London, with political events, gossip, and intimate details of his many affairs. It holds nothing back and tells us what people ate, how they relaxed – Pepys was a great musician and theatre-goer – how they spent their money, and all the details of the minutiae of everyday life. Reading Pepys is like looking over his shoulder as he writes; you can almost smell the tallow from his candle.
Pepys began his entries on New Year’s Day in 1660 using Thomas Shelton’s shorthand, a method he probably used in his work life for speed. He wrote with a quill pen in standard notebooks of 282 pages, with hand-ruled margins in red ink. The diary at first looks like impenetrable code – all squiggles and dots with only the occasional recognisable word. Pepys also used this ‘code’ for privacy; for he certainly would not have wanted his wife to read about his extra-marital affairs, or the King to hear his frank opinions of life at court, though for 21st-century readers these are the parts that make his diary so vivid.
Samuel Pepys was Clerk to the Navy, which, in the era of sail, when wars were fought at sea, meant he had enormous responsibility for the supplying of ships with everything from ship’s biscuits to cannon. He took it all in his stride and was a man who was curious about everything; from investigating the science of dissection, to deciding whether or not the phenomenon of second sight really existed. Because Pepys moved in scientific and intellectual circles as well as patronising the arts, we get a well-rounded insight into the mindset of the early modern era.
Pepys continued his diary for a little over nine years, to 31 May, 1669, when he had trouble with his eyesight, feared he was going blind, and, regrettably, stopped writing it. In this last entry he states that he will get his clerks to keep a daily record for him, but that, from now on, the entries must be fit for public ears.
In his later, more public, writings, one of the things the reader misses the most is the juxtaposition of the mundane with the extraordinary, and how Pepys himself accepts the whole horror and beauty of the day with equal cheerfulness. In this typical example from 19 January, 1661, he goes quite unperturbed from one event to the next:
“By coach to White Hall; in our way meeting Venner and Pritchard upon a sledge, who with two more Fifth Monarchy men were hanged to-day, and the two first drawn and quartered… Hence to my Lady, who told me how Mr. Hetley is dead of the small-pox going to Portsmouth. My Lady went forth to dinner to her father’s, and so I went to the Leg in King Street and had a rabbit for myself and my Will, and after dinner I sent him home and myself went to the Theatre, where I saw The Lost Lady, which do not please me much. Here I was troubled to be seen by four of our office clerks, which sat in the half-crown box and I in the 1s. 6d. From thence by link, and bought two mouse traps of Thomas Pepys, the Turner, and so went and drank a cup of ale with him, and so home and wrote by post to Portsmouth to my Lord and so to bed.”
For the uninitiated, Will is his clerk, and the “my Lord” and “my Lady” he refers to are the Earl and Countess of Sandwich. Pepys must have been keenly aware of keeping up appearances as he was miffed to be seen at the theatre in cheaper seats than his employees.
And obviously mice were a problem at home in Seething Lane! Writing his diary at night, he often ended with the phrase “and so to bed”, presumably accompanied by the scratching of mice.
Fortunately for posterity, Pepys left his diary to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he had been a scholar, and his whole library can be seen there too – some 3,000 books, still in the original shelves Pepys commissioned for the purpose. As a writer who buys far too many books, I was fascinated by Pepys’s book-buying habit, which is well-documented in his diary. However, I don’t think the shelves at Cambridge include this book:
“Thence away to the Strand, to my bookseller’s, and there staid an hour, and bought the idle, rogueish book, L’escholle des filles; which I have bought in plain binding, avoiding the buying of it better bound, because I resolve, as soon as I have read it, to burn it, that it may not stand in the list of books, nor among them, to disgrace them if it should be found.”
L’escholle des filles was, as you can imagine, one of the earliest works of erotic fiction.
A first glance at the diary has been known to put people off. It is vast, more than a million words, and populated by nearly 3000 different people. However, the advantage of a diary is that the entries are bite-sized. Do celebrate this remarkable document by picking a page at random and transport yourself back to another era. You can find the helpfully-annotated online version at Pepys Diary Online.
Deborah Swift is the author of a trilogy of novels, each featuring one of the women depicted in Pepys’s Diary. Pleasing Mr Pepys and A Plague on Mr Pepys are available now, and the third, Entertaining Mr Pepys, will be published on 12 September, 2019.
Read Jean Briggs’s review of Pleasing Mr Pepys.
Portrait of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1666): via Wikimedia
The first page of Pepys’s Diary: via Wikimedia
Charles II and James, Duke of York, on board HMS Triumph, with three Royal Yachts of Dover by Jacob Knyff: via Wikimedia
Incidents in the Rebellion of the Fifth Monarchy Men under Thomas Venner, and the Execution of their Leaders: via Wikimedia