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THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, on 16 May 1703, at exactly fortythree minutes past three in the morning by his own most reliable watch, Samuel Pepys died. The son of a London tailor, Pepys had risen to become one of the most important men in the Kingdom – the First Secretary to the Admiralty and President of the Royal Society. He was, according to John Evelyn, his friend of nearly forty years, ‘a very worthy, industrious and curious person ... universally beloved, hospitable, generous, learned in many things, skilled in music, a very great cherisher of learned men ...’ Yet these great achievements might have merited only passing references in the history books had it not been for his Diary – an extraordinary, marvellous, racy and unique document, covering ten years of his life, which no one, not even his wife, knew he was writing.
Samuel Pepys began his Diary on New Year’s Day 1660. He was 26, had been married for five tempestuous years, and had barely £25 to his name. Quite why he decided to keep a diary is a mystery. Certainly he was living in turbulent times, with Cromwell dead and the Commonwealth on the point of collapse. Had he done no more than record the events of the dramatic decade that followed, his Diary would still be of inestimable historical importance.
In March 1660 Pepys travelled to Holland with his employer, Edward Montagu, to bring Charles II home from exile. His job was the procuring of ‘a rich barge’ in which to ferry the King ashore, and he was well rewarded for it, becoming clerk of the Acts with the Naval Board, which commanded a salary of £350 a year and a great many informal payments and benefits beside.
In October of the same year he witnessed the hanging, drawing and quartering of Thomas Harrison, one of the regicides: ‘Thus,’ he says, ‘it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White-hall and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing-cross.’ He caught the tide at its turning – the Restoration was to become his own stretch of history.
Plague devastated London in 1665, killing six thousand Londoners a week, at its peak. Watching as it spread into his parish and up his street, Pepys knew that the bells of St Sepulcher’s might soon toll for him and his household, yet admitted, ‘I never lived so merrily as I have done during this plague-time.’
A year later, the Great Fire inspired one of his most memorable descriptions – an extraordinary evocation of panic, of greed versus self-preservation among the people. Even the pigeons, he wrote, ‘were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down’. He himself broke the news of the fire to Charles II and suggested that houses be pulled down to create a fire-break – the only sensible advice the King was given.
For two and a half years, from May 1665 until August 1667, England was at war with the Dutch – a savage conflict to gain commercial supremacy, particularly in the lucrative slave trade. The fighting was almost entirely at sea – the two sides bombarding each other in ships that have been described as ‘floating abattoirs’. Pepys’s job was to organise the paying, supplying and maintaining the of the Navy, which he did with great energy, though he managed to be out of town when the Dutch launched an attack on the Medway, destroyed a fort, burned several ships and landed on Canvey Island.
In Samuel Pepys’s Diary great events are part of an everyday existence encompassing every aspect of his life: his career, his friendships, his pleasures, his pains, and above all his marriage: there is no better account of the struggles, joys and woes of the married state and no better reminder, either, that in three hundred years things have not much changed. Others have chronicled great events, but no one has chronicled quite so candidly, dispassionately and perceptively the vicissitudes of one human life.
From the opening page, which contains the news that his wife Elizabeth is not, after all, pregnant (they remained childless), every detail is set down. Pepys describes his professional progress, his ambitions and speculations, his pettinesses, his extra-marital affairs, his working practices, his money (he was was apt to fine himself for fallings off in his behaviour), his books, his love of clothes, his worries about his drinking, his shame at his lowly connections, his rows with his wife.
From his house and office just by the Tower of London, Pepys rushes between engagements across the city or up and down the Thames, filling each day with an astonishing amount of business and pleasure. There are audiences with the King – not a great conversationalist, according to Pepys, though he enjoyed telling the story of his adventures as a hunted man after the Battle of Worcester, and Pepys enjoyed hearing it.
We are regaled with music and theatre-going; with boisterous nights in taverns and at parties; with dance crazes and new suits of clothes. He is obsessed with his wife’s health – especially when it leads to denial of his conjugal rights – and with his own – not surprising in a man who, in his early twenties, had endured an operation without anaesthetic for the removal of a kidney stone.
He was, like most of us, a mass of contradictions. It was not unknown for the hard-working reformer of the Navy to take the odd kick-back from the illegal sale of goods from prize ships, nor was he above spreading malicious gossip about his colleagues to ensure his own preferment. The philanderer who would feed a girl lobster before having his way with her under a chair in a tavern could also play the stern moralist (he wrote a letter rebuking his chief patron, the Earl of Sandwich, over a scandalous affair which threatened to wreck his career). And when his wife catches him in flagrante for the only time in their 13-year marriage, he is mortified, bleakly watching her as she vents her anger and hurt by refusing to wash for five weeks.
For the most part, however, Mr Pepys is an irrepressible
and jaunty companion. His Diary is history of the most
seductive kind, but it is comedy too. Three centuries
later we can live those hours, days, years alongside him
– privileged witnesses to all the happinesses, tragedies and absurdities of his life.
Fearful of losing his eyesight, Samuel Pepys made his last entry on 31 May 1669. The following year Elizabeth died, aged only 29. The husband who had immortalised their marriage would live for another thirty years and more.