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02 June 2008

Samuel Pepys

There are so many research opportunities that pass me by. I hear about the Prime Ministers of the Regency period and think, "I should learn more about the Tories and Whigs." Someone mentions the Edinburgh Review and I think "I ought to find out who wrote for that. The Library of Congress must have some copies."

My sister Hoydens are full of useful information and I am amazed at their ability to retain details. A big picture person, that’s me.

So last month when Samuel Pepys name came up I wondered, "Am I the only person who is not familiar with his him?" Sure, I know the name and that he kept a diary, but I know so little that until I began my research I pronounced his name ‘Pepees’ instead of the preferred ‘Peeps’.

So here is a primer on Samuel Pepys in case we have some readers who are so focused on the Regency that the rest of the world is ignored.

Pepys lived during the Restoration (1633-1703). The third of eleven children, by the time he reached puberty only three younger siblings were still alive. (Posting a blog on mortality in England pops into my mind here) Pepys was well educated, graduating from Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was then given a position as secretary to Edward Montagu who was in government service.

By various accounts his marriage to Elizabeth St. Michel (1655) was not smooth, even in its early years. They were separated in 1658, but when he began his diary in 1660 they were again living together.

His diary is considered to be one of the best primary sources of the Restoration period. Though he made positive contributions to his world, primarily through his work for the Admiralty, Pepys diary is his greatest contribution to literature and as a primary source.

Pepys began his diary shortly after Richard Cromwell was overthrown and England began to work its way back to a monarchy. In his introduction to the Diary, Robert Louis Stevenson sites Pepys “unflinching sincerity… which make it a miracle among human books. He [Pepys] was not unconscious of his errors [flaws] --- far from it; he was often startled into shame, often reformed, often made and broke his vows of change.”

For me this is the key to the long lasting appeal of his work. Besides being an amazingly readable collection, Pepys’ reflections are so universal that any honest reader can relate to his failings and his joy in life. Pepys reveals himself as a man who enjoyed the exchange of ideas, serious reflection and a rousing good time in bed and out of it.

Despite his failings (Richard Le Gallienne calls one “a weakness for women) Pepys is clearly a charming, robust man who embraces life (Stevenson names it “lively pleasure) and all it has to offer, to both the sinner and the man of virtue. It is at this point that I understand why he had a marriage at once troubled and enduring.

His diary was bequeathed to Magdalene College, Cambridge and was largely ignored until an undergraduate began to decipher it in 1819. It was first published in 1825. (Wow that means for over t one hundred years it lay ignored in the Magdalene Library. There is a story, fellow regency writers). Yes, Pepys wrote his diary in a code, which would seem to indicate that he never intended for it to be widely accessible.

Stevenson spends some time justifying his belief that Pepys meant for the diary to be “publicized.” The most obvious is that Pepys did not order the six volumes burned on his death and as Stevenson points out “he took unusual precautions to confound the cipher in the ‘rogueish passages’.”

No matter what Pepys wanted, that is one thing he did not make clear in the diary’s pages, his journal is one of the most outstanding, honest, insightful, historical documents I've ever read. Take some time to read it if you have not already. It covers all manner of one man’s life and observations during the Restoration. My thanks to the Hoydens who finally made me fill in that gap in my education,

If you’ve read Pepys share your favorite parts as well as your opinion. Can anyone name a contemporary autobiography that has the same honesty and potential long term value as a primary source?

8 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wonderful post Mary! I discovered Pepys diary in college when I was studying Restoration drama. I think that the two combined give the reader a fairly accurate (although not unbiased) picture of life in Restoration England. Some of his comments on Charles II's royal mistresses come to mind, particularly about Barbara Castlemaine.

Noel Coward's diaries, although not strictly contemporary, are a good source for what life was like in the twenties, thirties and forties. Also Joe Orton's diaries.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fabulous post, Mary! I read Pepys whole diary, cover to cover, when I was researching the merry monarch Charles II and his many mistresses for ROYAL AFFAIRS. It's such a perfect picture of the era as well as of the court life and city life. His comments on the mistresses (Barbara Castlemaine, La Belle Stewart, and "pretty witty Nell Gwyn") are priceless, as are his admissions of lusting in his heart after Barbara's drying lingerie and Frances Stewart's other ... charms.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love Pepys. Talk about recording the minutia of life . . . you can find multiple copies of his diaries on Google Books.

His comment about his wife's drawers (“But I am ashamed to think what a course I did take by lying to see whether my wife did wear drawers to-day as she used to do”) are the oldest written reference to any such garment for women in English (though it must be remembered that his wife was French). Then next one is more than 100 years later (you don't even see them come up in household inventories; which is telling as they often record every scrap of linen right down to cleaning rags).

12:18 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

it's what I love about this blog -- I learn so much more than I share. Elizabeth, I did not even know who Joe Orlon was. Now that I do, I have to admit I do not think his diaries would appeal to me.

Amanda, I am sure it was your comments on Pepys that put me on the road to being better informed about him. What a treat and thanks.

Kalen, so why did French women wear drawers so long before the English -- a bit of Regency life that always amazes my friends. Your attention to detail makes me wonder if you would have liked to work on the original OED....

6:57 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

What a great post, Mary! I think the art of keeping a diary is fast becoming a lost art. My late dh kept a journal and it is a great comfort to me. He was a great observer of the human condition. (He became a psychiatrist, so I shouldn't be surprised!) The funniest thing he recorded was an account of our first date. We went to dinner and a movie. He knocked a bottle of ketchup over and it ruined the silk blouse I wore. I laughed it off, but I read that he was completely mortified!

I think that is what is appealing about Pepys diaries - the little things. His observations of the human condition and the unwavering eye he turned on himself. They really are an exquisite snapshot in time. We are so fortunate to have them.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes, doglady I think that is what I value most about his diary --the "snapshot in time".

I have letters my Dad wrote to my Mom when they were engaged and they are just delightful. If the art of keeping a diary is lost then letter writing is the next to go...

8:48 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great post! I've read parts of Pepys's diaries but not the whole. I particularly love his observations about the theater.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

My grandfather (b. 1902. d. 1991) had to move to Chicago when his father died in 1912 because his mother had famiy there. He was a writer, so a lot of his papers survive, but one of my favorites is the diary he kept when he was about 15-17 years old in Chicago. He would either cut school to go to the movies, or rush to the cinema after classes were over, and he would write up reviews of the films he saw (and remember, they were silents!) in his diary. It's a great picture of Chicago in the 19-teens as well as a near-catalog of mostly forgotten films.

3:43 AM  

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