A marathon, not a sprint: the unabridged diaries of Samuel Pepys

My reading has been dominated over the past 18 months by a personal quest to tackle all  the unabridged diaries of Samuel Pepys. I have now reached 1667; the worst of the plague is over, the Great Fire still smoulders, but life is getting back to normal. However the impertinent and calamitous Dutch raids on the British Fleet at dock in the Thames lie ahead of us.

The diaries are perhaps a unique look into the life and times of early modern Britain. With Pepys’ acute  eye for social and political manoeuvring and scandal, allied to his sometimes unabashed self-aggrandisement  and scarcely revealed scheming, they allow the reader to glimpse the early years of the Restoration as a story unfolding .He achieves the rare feat of making us wonder about outcomes and sensing the tension in the air even when , armed with our historical knowledge ,we know what will happen next.

As a sometime historian I have never felt so immersed in any period as I have been with the Diaries. And as a Londoner, the city comes to life in all its many facets and features in a way that maybe only Dickens has ever equalled.

Claire Tomalin’s massive biography of Pepys, ‘The unequalled self’ places the diaries and the man in context and provides a narrative to the entries. In this piece I want to set out what I have learnt so far from my reading .This will necessarily be a partial and partisan offering.

Much that I understood about English history of the mid 17th century  has been challenged.

The London crowds welcomed Charles into London upon his return from Holland in1660. They welcomed the reopening of the theatres, taverns and other ‘diversions’. They danced round their newly reinstated maypoles and, following the King’s example, put pleasure before profit and puritanism. They did not regret the passing of Cromwell and were glad to see the back of the division and danger that had stalked the land. There was no spirited defence of the republic when its end came. Extremists of whatever religious colour were unwelcome.But the simmering conflict between King and Parliament was far from over and would erupt again in the 1680’s.

The persecution of Catholics was an everyday occurrence in London

Blamed for the Dutch war, the Great Fire and much else besides, life for the small catholic population of London was precarious. Clearly their plight was not helped by the major enemy power – France – being a catholic nation and Charles underhand  negotiations with the French King in an attempt to raise funds. The British reputation for religious toleration was not very evident in this period.

People lived without anything that we today would recognise as ‘news’.

More than anything else, what is most disquieting to the modern reader is the lack of reliable and verifiable facts about wider events in the world and the non-existence of anything we would call ‘the media’. The conduct and outcome of battles is disputed.Rumour abounds and action is taken or not taken on the basis of partial and often untrue information. Catholics and Covenanters are seen at work behind every set back, political or societal.

For many there was no ‘work/life’ balance. There was just ‘life’.

Pepys’ day is divided between home/office/theatre/tavern/Whitehall and the navy yards. He moves between one and the other without any comment as to whether he is ‘at work’ or not. His social life mixes contact with persons he has to do business with and those he has befriended for other reasons, but the mixture of the two is often unclear .For Pepys and his like this is not an issue. As there is little tenured salaried public employment, every contact may in time serve to advance Pepys own interests. Dealing in hemp, masts, prizes and other aspects of the ‘King’s business’ is seen by all as a semi legitimate way to make a living. Only when common practice is ignored and the line between business and corruption is crossed does the law come into play .

Scientific knowledge was rudimentary at best.

Pepys was a founder member of the Royal Society and the diaries contain gruesome accounts of early dissections and the like. This is a fascinating period for the history of science, exemplified by reactions to the great plague. There was less reliance than previously amongst the more educated elite upon Biblical or magical explanations for such phenomenon, but as yet an insufficient body of what we would now call ‘science’ to provide a full and convincing alternative explanation. So families are immured in their homes without question once plague is found to exist in the household since it is clear that the infection can spread through contact. But why that should be simply defeated the medicine of the time.’Churygens’ and doctors have begun to appear on the London scene in greater number, but enemas, leeching  and quack remedies sit alongside the new found , but very crude and painful practice of surgical intervention (as Pepys himself discovered when he had his ‘stone’ removed).

The theatre was subversive

Plays were the rock ‘n’ roll of the age. Many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed for the first time during the diary years and Pepys was often present .But other playwrights, some still performed today, but many more long forgotten, rank higher in his estimation. The Bard was still one amongst many in a London whose theatrical life burst forth as never before or since. But the religious ideology of the Puritan revolution still cast a shadow. Pepys famous ‘vows’ centre largely upon his desire to shake off the sinful habit of going to the theatre. But as with his rampant womanising, he cannot maintain his vows. Yet this very weakness of character allows us to see all too clearly the flawed humanity in the man.

Like the King and the Court, Pepys was an inveterate  womaniser.

I was unprepared for this . While he loves his wife and they seem to enjoy what by contemporary standards would have been seen as a good marriage, he cannot keep his hands off other women. Whether they are  the wives or daughters of his friends or just tavern maids, he is incorrigible. We will never know whether much of this was a form of sexual harassment, a kind of droit de seignior that made women of lesser rank or those in need of his favours for their husbands or sons willing to endure his groping, intimate touching and full intercourse. Of course it may be that in the spirit of restoration London, both sexes were only too keen to set free the libido that had been locked away for almost twenty years. And while we are right to resist imposing our own moral values on Pepys and his time, his own lapses into cod Spanish at those places in the diary when he describes his encounters maybe give the game away ;Pepys knew he was doing something that posterity would not find endearing or acceptable. After all he wishes the King would manage the affairs of the country as well as he manages the affairs of his bedchamber, but cannot see the irony in his own flagrant infidelity towards his wife.

Finally, one for the kids: nobody who is anybody eats vegetables! And everybody drinks wine (sack especially) and beer based concoctions.

Little wonder gout and gallstones were at epidemic levels amongst the upper classes. There was little understanding of any link between diet and health

So what might the diaries teach us ?

All history is contingent. For those alive at any moment, anything can happen next. People in the past knew no more of the future than we alive today .When we think about the past let us always remember that .For too often we fail to see the richness, the personality and the sheer humanity because we want simplistically to connect that past to our own present. Pepys was not a walk on character helping the story of the British people to unfold. The diaries reveal to us a man as human and flawed as many today, motivated by desires and dreams that are recognisable to all of us. We don’t have to approve of what he does or says. I for one am sure that was far from his mind when he wrote the diaries. But if we pay attention to what he has to say about people, life and politics in Restoration London, he can still teach us a thing or two about the curious ways of this world.



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