on February 11, 2003
Pepys' secret diary, kept in cryptic shorthand to shield it from prying eyes, covers the years 1660 to 1669, starting with the return of Charles II from exile and ending when the writer's failing eyesight made writing difficult. He was 27 years old when he began this work, and quite impecunious. Through the patronage of his kin, Edward Montagu (later Earl of Sandwich) he rose from humble beginnings to a respected position (Clerk of the Acts in the navy office). Educated at Cambridge, he was ill prepared for the job: while he read Latin and French, he did not know the multiplication tables and had to be taught basic mechanics. However, he seems to have applied himself to his work with diligence and persistence. During the naval war with Holland (1665-67) he was surveyor of victualling. In this capacity, he gained the confidence of the lord high admiral, the Duke of York (later King James II). After the war, he defended the navy office in Parliament against charges of mismanagement with a speech that seems to have been the high point of his career.
His eyewitness accounts of the Plague (1665) and the Great Fire (1666) in London are riveting. But it is the description of quotidian events that sheds light on how the people lived. Moving easily among different social classes, he recorded their moods and diversions. He attended public executions of regicides (complete with display of heads and organs to a cheering crowd), and noted when initial enthusiasm for the restoration of the monarchy gave way to disillusionment; when anger at the King's debauchery and neglect of state business bred nostalgia for the reign of Oliver Cromwell.
While critical of the King's and the Court's incessant "gambling and whoring", Pepys himself was no paragon of virtue. His dalliances with maidservants and accommodating ladies of his acquaintance caused bitter quarrels with his wife. He seems to have lusted after every pretty girl who crossed his path. Repeated vows to mend his ways generally came to naught. Some of the racier passages in his diary are written in fractured French or Latin.
Pepys was an avid theater-goer: he loved Macbeth and Henry IV, but thought Midsummer Night's Dream silly and inane. There was a lot of music in his life: he played the lute, the flageolet, and the violin, and missed no opportunity to join in singing, dancing, drinking and merry-making. He carefully noted, however, how much these diversions cost him. He also conscientiously recorded the bribes and kickbacks paid him by suppliers. Forever curious, he attended lectures and observed experiments, read voraciously and enjoyed a good discourse.
If he often appears vain and foolish, it is because he portrays himself as vain and foolish. His naive enjoyment of even the most mundane things ("this pleased me mightily" is an oft-repeated phrase) cannot fail to strike a sympathetic chord in the reader. He comments on fashion trends (powdered wigs, beauty spots, wearing of masks and male riding habit by court ladies, etc.). When he yielded to fashion and had a periwig made for himself, it was delivered full of nits. New servants had to be deloused and fitted with clean garments, but once domesticated, they were part of the household; they received music lessons and, in some cases, lessons in Latin and Greek. When they misbehaved, he beat them until his arm hurt.
The parallel career of his wife deserves some reflection: the "poor wretch" who, early in their marriage, used to wash his dirty clothes by hand, graduated to lace gowns, powdered wigs and a coach of her own; but discontent increased in proportion to luxury. "I have to find her something to do", mused Sam. Dancing and painting lessons, theater visits and parties filled the void. The couple had no children.
The Modern Library Edition is, of course, a greatly abridged version of the six-volume original. One may quibble with the selection or deplore the lack of notes; but the hefty original is available to all who want to know more.
on February 13, 2002
While this Modern Library edition is attractively produced, all teachers and students who hope to use it in an academic setting should be aware that this is a severe abridgement--it represents about one-eighth of the original text from 1660-1669. As a result, there are large gaps in continuity, exacerbated by a lack of editorial notes to fill in those gaps. Also, the abridgement omits many of the sexiest passages and seems tailored to a Victorian sensibility. ...