Samuel Pepys' diary: A decade worth recording

By Peter Bills
Tuesday 05 January 2010 14:17

He may have started it, just as we make similar plans nowadays, as a New Year resolution.

Whatever the reason, his diary, which he began exactly 350 years ago this very week, remains the most famous in British literary history. Little could Samuel Pepys, a humble clerk living and working in London, have known that his diary would endure down the centuries, be read by kings and queens and studied by scholars the world over. How Mr. Pepys would have beamed at such a state of affairs.

It was on January 1, 1660 that Pepys, all fired up and enthusiastic at his new project, began his famous tome. He bought plain paper, carefully drew lines across each page and went to work with almost religious zeal, consuming the pages with the details of his everyday life and thoughts.

Of course, in 1660, Pepys could not have known that he had chosen one of the most dramatic decades in England's long and turbulent history to record faithfully the details of his time. From 1 January 1660 to 31 May 1669, Pepys provided a unique, vivid insight into his life and times. And what an era it was to prove to be, to describe.

The restored Long Parliament voted to dissolve itself on 16 March 1660 and to call new elections, leading to the return from France of King Charles II and his coronation in April 1661. Four years later, came the Great Plague of 1665 followed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. Just across the English Channel, in 1661, Louis XIV, the famous 'Sun King' began his sumptuous reign as French king.

From a position of increasing privilege in his professional life, much of it earned by patronage, Pepys watched it all unfold with a highly observant eye. He recorded it all with his bookkeeper's precision and what he left us with, was a window that can, still today, be opened to offer an intriguing, fascinating vista surveying England in the 17th century.

His first entry, for Sunday January 1, 1659/1660 reads as follows:

'Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain, but upon taking of cold. I lived in Axe Yard, having my wife, and servant Jane, and no more in family than us three. My wife... gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year … .the hope was belied. The condition of the State was thus; viz. The Rump, after being disturbed by my Lord Lambert, (Parliament's most capable commander) was lately returned to sit again. The officers of the Army all forced to yield. Lawson (Vice-Admiral and Commmander of the Channel fleet) lies still in the river, and (General George) Monk is with his army in Scotland. Only my Lord Lambert is not yet come into the Parliament, nor is it expected that he will without being forced to it. The new Common Council of the City do speak very high; and had sent to Monk their sword-bearer, to acquaint him with their desires for a free and full Parliament, which is at present the desires, and the hopes, and expectation of all. Twenty-two of the old secluded members having been at the House door the last week to demand entrance, but it was denied them; and it is believed that [neither] they nor the people will be satisfied till the House be filled. My own private condition very handsome, and esteemed rich, but indeed very poor; besides my goods of my house, and my office, which at present is somewhat uncertain. Mr. Downing...master of my office.

(Lord's Day)

'This morning (we living lately in the garret,) I rose, put on my suit with great skirts, having not lately worn any other, clothes but them. Went to Mr. Gunning's chapel at Exeter House, where he made a very good sermon upon these words:—"That in the fulness (sic) of time, God sent his Son, made of a woman," &c.; showing, that, by "made under the law," is meant his circumcision, which is solemnized this day. Dined at home in the garret, where my wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand. I staid (sic) at home all the afternoon, looking over my accounts; then went with my wife to my father's, and in going observed the great posts which the City have set up at the Conduit in Fleet Street. Supt at my father's..........'

The reader is invited into a world of characters, famous and unknown. Pepys' descriptive powers are legendary, his wit subtle yet readily apparent.

The diary cites the year 1659/1660 because in those days, the New Year did not start until 25 March. But this was to be no New Year resolution that became quickly abandoned. Pepys jotted down his entries for individual days whenever and wherever he could: sometimes at work, more usually at home, often in bed at night or beside a candle before he retired. Occasionally, he would lapse and need to fill in a few days' activities and views on events of the time, yet he always managed it.

Despite his degree at Cambridge University, Pepys began his working life in humble surroundings, as a clerk in a London office. It was because his family had connections in high society - Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich, was his father's cousin - that Pepys prospered. From January 1660 when he began the diary to July of that year, he had changed jobs and become 'Clerk of the Acts' an important Government post, met the new King, Charles II ("a sober man" he called him) and been to sea as clerk to General Montagu. His life had been transformed.

With his new, important job came a house, in Seething Lane, and here Pepys and his wife Elizabeth increasingly entertained important figures, as well as family and friends. At last, Pepys had the room to expand, creating a library that was to become his pride and joy.

It is thought that Pepys, a young man from a poor family of 11 children with few prospects, only ever began a diary because his two employers at the time kept journals. They may have inspired the idea in him. But he had always been a man of words, books and literary interests. Thus, with a quill pen and ink, and through a series of notes, observations and abbreviations, he began the document that was to make his name more renowned in English history than many of the great Generals, Sea Captains and Lords of his time whom he met and knew.

The abbreviations in his diary were an adaptation of Thomas Shelton's short-writing style, published in 1626, which was also used by Sir Isaac Newton. He used it partly for reasons of confidentiality and with good reason – Pepys tells us of some of his innermost thoughts and desires towards women of the time whom he knew. Characters such as Betty Lane, a linen draper, were the focus of his many amorous intentions.

The diary became a comfort, like a close, personal friend to which he could pour out his innermost feelings and views. But it is his observations of London life, from the soldiers to the elegant ladies, to the royal family members, politicians and simple workers that make his diary so unique, so charming and such compelling reading. It flows with the gentle movement of a brook on an English summer's day.

He tells us of his visits to theatres, taverns and churches, relating details of plays, meals he ate and ale he supped, plus the books he read and sermons he endured. Money is a constant theme, from his early days when he had very little to later times when he became most prosperous. When the diary started in January 1660, Pepys concedes he had little more than £25 in the world, and was so poor he could not afford to heat his modest rooms in winter. When it ended less than 10 years later, he had amassed a fortune in excess of £10,000 and lived in much style.

In between, the pages glow with an era brought dramatically to life. He dines with naval surgeons, works for George Downing (of Downing Street fame) and witnesses, besides the horrors of the plague and Great Fire, the hanging, drawing and quartering of those involved in the execution of King Charles I. Throughout it all, Pepys offers us a unique spy-hole into the world of 17th century England, with all its social imbalances, its cruelties, its glorious pageantry and its myriad contradictions.

Alas, the diary ends, in 1669, fully 34 years before his death at the age of 70. Why did it finish so abruptly? The likeliest reason is that Pepys feared his eyesight was being damaged, by so many nights work with only candlelight to sustain him.

Of course, it would have been a joy had he continued it to its natural conclusion. But we should consider ourselves fortunate and grateful for what he did write.

Ironically, it was not until more than a century after his death, that the importance of Pepys' notes was realised and understood. Then, between 1819 and 1822, an undergraduate at Magdalene College, Cambridge, to where Pepys had bequeathed his papers, undertook the task of transcribing the work. He completed the entire, arduous job without realising the key to the shorthand abbreviations lay close by in the same library.

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