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Pepys: Spirit Of His Age

Why the great diarist still speaks to us

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I first encountered Samuel Pepys in my early teens, in a one-volume selection considered suitable for schoolchildren (no mention of his sex life, marital or otherwise); thankfully I rediscovered him as an adult, via The Shorter Pepys. I became enthralled by the man, and now own the complete, eleven-volume Diary which I am determined to finish reading eventually. The great diarist has become an institution, offering a window into his age: man about town, hardworking civil servant, theatre-goer, husband and philanderer, and eyewitness to events like the Great Plague and Great Fire of London. For the author, however, he is more than a riveting read: he left behind the fullest and most absorbing primary source available to anyone interested in the Restoration period, specifically the decade covered by the Diary, the 1660s.

Pepys was not the only diarist of his time: his friend and correspondent John Evelyn, the best-known example, left a diary spanning a longer period. Yet it is Pepys to whom I invariably turn for his startling honesty, his vivid descriptions and his irrepressible joie de vivre. Evelyn, a sober man, polished his accounts before writing them up, with an eventual readership in mind. Pepys, who employed a shorthand not deciphered until the nineteenth century, wrote for no eyes but his own, and it is his willingness to reveal himself ‘warts and all’ which makes him so compelling.

Unsurprisingly the Diary has been plundered as a source by generations of writers, yet Pepys is often sniffed at by historians. To take two examples: as I recall, Maurice Ashley’s England in the Seventeenth Century mentions him only twice. Professor Barry Coward, in The Stuart Age, barely includes him at all, calling him ‘that arch-gossipmonger Pepys’ and omitting him from his bibliography. On the other hand authors who explore more specific topics are happy to quote him, as Antonia Fraser often does in her study The Weaker Vessel, as a telling source of seventeenth-century attitudes towards women. While Liza Picard, in her Restoration London, freely admits that, being such a detailed source for the 1660s, Pepys provided the parameters for her book, which focusses chiefly on that decade.

The reason for this is clear enough: Pepys was not a historian, nor a political or religious propagandist. But he was – fortunately for the writer of fiction – an intelligent, well-informed observer, a man with an engaging mix of curiosity, energy and zest for life (the Diary, after all, was written when he was aged 26–36). To attempt to recreate the past, as a historical novelist like myself does, it is necessary to get ‘up close and personal’ — and for this Pepys is the go-to source who never fails to inspire me. When he hails a boat for Westminster, I’m with him on the Thames with its bustling traffic and the shouts of watermen. At Whitehall I walk the corridors of power with him, alert for tidings and gossip. It is the ‘arch-gossipmonger’ who both charms and informs us, whether he is relaying court intrigue: ‘my Lord [his patron] […] tells me as very private, that there are great factions at the Court between the King’s party and the Duke of Yorke’s’ (25/10/1665), or collecting a new periwig ‘made of my own hair, which comes to 21s. and 6d.’ (13/11/1663).

With my ‘research hat’ on, I’m invariably taken by Pepys’ descriptions of everything from food and drink, fashion, housekeeping and marital relations to his wrangling with the doyens of the Navy Board (Pepys’s title was ‘Clerk of the Acts’ to the Board, a kind of senior civil servant). Limitations of space oblige me to be selective (the unabridged Diary contains some one-and-a-quarter million words). But to look at, say, eating habits, we are drawn to entries ranging from the horrific: ‘my stomach was turned when my sturgeon came to table, upon which I saw very many little worms creeping’ (26/6/1662), to the rather lavish. Lunch for Pepys, his wife and four guests on 26th March 1662 consisted, apart from wine, of ‘a brace of stewed carps, six roasted chickens, and a jowle of salmon hot, for the first course — a Tanzy [egg pudding] and two neats’ [ox] tongues and cheese the second. And were very merry all the afternoon’.

Whatever one’s interests Pepys has something to contribute. His relations with women, for example, have aroused much attention — though not so much for the detail, which is often mundane, as for his attitude. He had a young and pretty wife, ‘whom I love with all my heart’ (15/6/1663), and was often jealous (‘disturbed… out of my jealousy of my wife tomorrow when I am out of town, which is a hell to my mind’, 25/2/1664). Yet he records only passing remorse at his own flirtations and liaisons with servants and mistresses. These range from the fairly innocent (‘after eating [I] kissed the daughter of the house, she being very pretty, [and] took leave’, 27/2/1660), to the purposeful, as on 1st August 1663: ‘went over the water with a Mrs Palmer because I had heard she is a woman of that sort, that I might there have light upon some lady of pleasure (for which God forgive me)’. We note the ‘God forgive me’; similar comments occur elsewhere, as after a visit to his mistress Betty Lane on 24th September 1663:

In the afternoon, telling my wife that I go to Deptford, I went by water to Westminster Hall;
and there finding Mrs Lane, took her over to Lambeth […] But trust in the Lord I shall never do so again while I live.

The pious self-reproach, however – perhaps comical to our twenty-first-century minds – never lasts long with Pepys; dalliances are frequent. With the Great Fire barely over he is with Betty again, ‘and there did tout ce que je voudrais avec her’ (12/9/1666) [my italics]. This use of French, sometimes mingled with Spanish, sits oddly with Pepys’s habitual frankness, as if he would draw a veil over the details; I can’t help but find it rather touching.

When we come to more important events, however, Pepys’s eye-witness testimonies serve a serious purpose. The Great Fire provides a good example: in-depth studies like Adrian Tinniswood’s By Permission of Heaven make frequent use of the Diary. Evelyn also left an account of the conflagration of September 1666, but Pepys puts me there most vividly: ‘with one’s face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of Firedrops’ (2/9/1666). And on the same day: ‘we saw the fire as only one entire arch from this to the other side of the bridge […] It made me weep to see it.’ It is his details which spring off the page: the pigeons which were afraid to leave the rooftops and so perished, or the ‘poor cat [I did see] taken out of a hole in the chimney […] with, the hair all burned off the body, and yet alive’ (5/9/1666). Nor were the effects over, much later: ‘I did see smoke remaining, coming out of some cellars, from the late Great Fire, now above six months since’ (16/3/1667).

A decade ago, when setting a novel in Restoration times, for background research I immersed myself in the Diary; for the sequel I turned to it again. Repeated reading of Pepys with his easy, fluid style, allowed me to give a period flavour to my narrative without attempting to reproduce late seventeenth-century speech precisely: an important balance to be struck. He is invaluable for the details of everyday living, but for me it is the insight into contemporary attitudes which is just as engaging. Many of his comments would not be out of place today, as when he visits the cock pit: ‘it is strange to see how people […] that look as if they had not bread to put in their mouths, shall bet three or four pounds at one bet, and lose it’ (21/12/1663). I’m often struck by the way he shrugs off disaster and displays an enviable ability to live in the present. Even at the height of the Great Plague he enjoys life: ‘supped with [my wife] [… ] and saw with content her drawings and so to bed mighty merry’ (18/7/1665). His optimism, if sometimes callous to our sensibilities, is at least encouraging as well as informative: ‘Good news this week that there are about 600 less dead of the plague than the last’ (12/10/1665).

To my mind Pepys is the source sans pareil because he describes neither plague nor fire as God’s vengeance on the wicked, as many did: he merely tells us what he saw and how he felt. For the author who wants to live and breathe in that era – and is prepared to make the long journey through the Diary – he can never be surpassed. Bright, energetic, interested in everything, flawed and utterly human, more than the King whom he served Pepys embodies the very spirit of his age.

John Pilkington has written plays for radio and theatre, television scripts for the BBC and numerous historical mysteries for both adults and children. He is currently working on a new historical novel.

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