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The first place to begin with an introduction to the Diary of the Samuel Pepys often seems to be with that strange last name. While it does not really matter much to the lone reader traversing across England’s geographical and historical landscape within the diaries if he continually refers to the diarist as something like Samuel Pep-Pis, once that isolated reading transforms into dialogue with others—as it almost always does—embarrassment can be saved by learning early on that, illogically as it may seem, Samuel’s last name bears the exact same pronunciation as those delicious marshmallow treats that flood stores every year before Easter.
The diary kept by name called Samuel “Peeps” is, of course, far more than some mere log of mundane daily events in the life of a contemporary of King Charles II and eyewitness to the back-to-back devastating hits experienced by Londoners between 1664 and 1666: the Great Plague and the Great Fire. If Pepys' diary gave the world nothing else, it would have become notable for its CNN opinion-show-like coverage of those two massively revolutionaries events in the transformation of London into a city considered that would soon earn its distinction of being mentioned in the same breath as Athens and Rome.
The most important thing to keep in mind about Pepys’ diary for who already know the skinny on his weird last name is that this ersonal journal was recorded with the intention of being just that: a personal diary written in code with no delusions of grandeur by way of publication. Pepys did not start or keep the journal with an eye toward making it the most famous literary endeavor of his life. That decision thus freed him to record without either implicit or explicit self-censorship. Since nobody that Pepys did not personally approve of as reader was ever going to read the contents while he was still alive at least, he could be brutally honest as well as utterly open to commentary on every subject.
For instance, one of the many bits of oddball trivia to be gained from reading an annotated version of The Diary of Samuel Pepys concerns a word that most dictionaries agreed was used in its present context for the first time in the entry Pepys made on June 10, 1666 regarding the latest mistress of the Duke of York. As part of his entirely personal commentary on the subject, Pepys singles out a certain individual as the “pimp” responsible for change in status of a certain young woman. Coining the concept of pimping is far from the only historical shock one is likely to get from reading the diary. It is, in fact, nearly as notorious for its—admittedly coded—regales of Pepys’ own truly impressive sexual appetite as it is for the utterly fascinating first person account of the Great London Fire of 1666 and its aftermath almost from the moment it started until the final embers has been extinguished.
Pepys diary provides almost beyond argument the single most incisive and illuminating account of the details involved in London rising like a phoenix from the ashes to assertively declare that it was a city unlikely to be rendered obsolete solely on account of a conflagration so pitiful as to leave behind virtually undamaged the structures housing 10,000 of the city’s estimated 80,000 occupants. Much of the most interesting elements of Pepys diary from that point forward is the highly personalized observation of how those other 70,000 residents left with virtually nothing to do their name came together under the guidance of the country’s greatest thinkers and its political leaders to rebuild London even in the face of a continual threat of another outbreak of the Plague carrying the potential to wipe out practically every gain made in the subsequent years.
The journal entries finally came to a sudden end in 1669 as the result of a failure of vision so striking that he grew concerned that even he could not decipher the cryptic secret code he had devised to ensure the contents were kept from prying eyes. Before his death, the diaries in total were contributed to Magdalene College of Cambridge University where they very nearly faded into the dusty archives of history perhaps for all time until their rediscovery in 1819. A long process of deciphering Pepys’s code preceded publication which was initiated in 1825 as a two-volume compendium. The diary in its final completed form would eventually require eleven volumes.
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A Look at Samuel Pepys
One of my favorite authors is Samuel Pepys. For almost ten years he recorded his daily life in breathtaking honesty. His diary reveals his jealousies, insecurities, trivial concerns, and his sad mistreatment of his wife. This truthfulness is ultimately seductive. His philosophies and feelings are laid open in a way that I have seen nowhere else.
The openness of the diary is to me Pepys's chief appeal. However it is also important as an account of London in the 1660's. He records the restoration of the monarchy, war with the Dutch, fire, and plague. Pepys was well placed to view what was happening. He was always curious and often acted on that curiosity, as he acted upon almost all his impulses.
He spent a great deal of time evaluating his fortune and his place in the world. He would not be out of place in today's environment for self-improvement. Periodically he would resolve to cut down on drinking and womanizing and to devote more time to those endeavors where he thought his time should be spent. For example, this entry on Dec. 31, 1661, "I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine..." The following months reveal his lapses to the reader as by Feb. 17 "And here I drank wine upon necessity, being ill for the want of it."
Pepys's job required that he meet with many people to dispense monies and make contracts. He often laments over how he "lost his labour" having gone to some appointment at a coffee house or tavern there to discover that the person he was seeking was not within. This was a constant frustration to Pepys. But in our day of instant communication, hanging up the phone and dialing the next person, there is something appealing in setting out to a tavern in the hope that the person you are seeking will be there.
As you read the diary, the pattern of his life, and certain recurring phrases imprint themselves on you. There is a pleasurable sense of the familiar as you begin to anticipate what he will say. Perhaps when you tuck yourself in, you will think "and so to bed," that phrase which so often ends the day's entry.
The diary is unusual in that it can be read many ways. I have the unexpurgated version, which includes nine volumes of the diary. It can be read as any other book, or you can read it on the day that it was written; so that you are celebrating holidays at the same time. A more ambitious reader might read several years worth of the same date, and thereby make a comparison of where Pepys stood from year to year.
In this time when every difference is examined to show how men are unlike women and New Yorkers are unlike Californians, it gives this twentieth century woman great pause to read Samuel Pepys's diary. You cannot set it aside without thinking how very much alike we must all be.
Read Pepy's for yourself! Order his books online here.