A Seventeenth-century Modern

Samuel Pepys did not, in fact, tell us everything

On October 24, 1662, a man sat down to dinner in his house in London with his wife. They were in a very good mood; that morning the man had found it hard to get out of bed to go to work, and the two of them had indulged in a good long lecherous dawdle between the sheets, dozing, pawing, and lazily romping. It was a Friday, and our Londoner turned up at the office late and shouted at his subordinates about their bookkeeping. By midafternoon he was putting himself outside a gigantic dinner; it was an odd sort of dish he was eating, a stew of tripe with mustard, but he was enjoying it a great deal. Maybe it wasn't really all that delicious, but it was exactly the same dish that he had recently eaten at a very grand dinner party. So they ate the lot.

Dinners were eaten all across the world on October 24, 1662, but it is fair to say that only the Recording Angel knows, or could ever know, about more than half a dozen of them. This dinner we do know about: we know what they ate, why they ate it, why they enjoyed it, why they were in a good mood with each other. And we happen to know lots of other things about the circumstances in which they sat and ate tripe: how much money they had at that moment, what their house looked like, how good their health was. Not one of these circumstances could be considered important in any obvious way; each has the quality, instead, of being interesting, which is much stranger and much harder to achieve. We know about the socially aspiring dish of tripe and the randy morning because the man wrote it all down.

Commentators on Samuel Pepys always ask why he suddenly abandoned his Diary in 1669, but the much bigger question is this: Why did he begin it? Why, for nearly ten years, did he record, in rich detail, the circumstances and the events of his life? On the surface there is an explanation. The Diary begins at a time in English history that was obviously of great moment: Cromwell's Commonwealth was collapsing and the exiled King Charles II was preparing to return. Pepys was close to the center of events, and in a position to observe the players in an extraordinary drama; in the years to follow he became a figure of considerable power and authority. To that extent his contemporaries would have understood exactly why he should set down a record of events.

It is important to remember, however, that the seventeenth and, indeed, the eighteenth century knew absolutely nothing of Pepys's Diary. Written in shorthand, none of which was deciphered until the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was not published in full until after World War II. (The Diary of Samuel Pepys, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, is the best edition now available.) The Diary would in fact almost certainly have baffled Pepys's contemporaries; there is no precedent and no parallel for what Pepys actually did. Others did something superficially similar; among works that are still read, perhaps the closest are the court memoirs of Lord Hervey and those of Saint-Simon. Like Pepys, these men found themselves in a position to observe powerful figures intimately; also like Pepys, both were driven by an urge to expose the failures and weaknesses they saw in princes. But there the resemblance stops. Saint-Simon and Hervey automatically referred to themselves in the third person, and it wouldn't have occurred to either of them to tell us what he had for dinner. They wrote decades after Pepys, but they could never have understood what Pepys was doing.

Pepys didn't explain his purpose, and perhaps he, too, found his urge inexplicable. If, like Saint-Simon's detailed journal of the last years of Louis XIV's court and the Regency, the Diary is in part a romance of public life, the great bulk of it, and its greatest appeal, is on the tripe-and-mustard level. The oddest fact about the Diary becomes apparent when one sets it not against other journals of historical record but against journals that explore the self, whether in this period or subsequently: Pepys wrote a great deal about himself, as many of his contemporaries wrote about themselves, privately or publicly; but his considerations and dramatizations of his consciousness and behavior have almost no spiritual or mystical aspect. Even John Evelyn's diary, which is very engaging, never escapes from the temptation to moralize. Religious questions, one feels, became urgent for Pepys only when they took on a political or a social significance—as perhaps they did when his enemies in the House of Commons started calling him a practicing Roman Catholic.

Pepys was pretty well the only writer at this time who demonstrated that there was such a thing as a secular, worldly way to interrogate an individual life and an individual character; the difference between the self-analysis in Pepys and that in, say, the Religio Medici of Sir Thomas Browne is huge. To come to Pepys after laboriously assembling an appreciation for Browne is to have the sensation of coming out of a ramshackle and dusty provincial museum into a brilliantly sunlit and crowded street.

From the archives:

"Bozzy's Life" (September 2001)
A dazzling portrait of James Boswell as a literary artist. By Miranda Seymour

The biggest oddity in Pepys, and the real core of his undying fascination, is something one doesn't pretend to be able to explain. He wrote endlessly about himself, about his life, about his house and his friends and his ambitions. He examined himself, and he reported exactly what he had done each day, even if he had only eaten some tripe or seen a play. (The reader should know that in exploring that particular day in October of 1662 I took a passage completely at random. Pepys was interested in everything, and everything in the Diary is interesting.) One concludes that he was deeply absorbed by his own life and character, but the Diary is the opposite of solipsistic. Set it next to Boswell's journals, or Benjamin Haydon's, and the difference is immediately apparent. Pepys seems to have been focused primarily on the world, the external circumstances of his society, and in the Diary the "I" strikes us as a character like any other. Just as in Gulliver's Travels, or Defoe, or Dickens, or Proust, no special privilege or indulgence is permitted to the wielder of the first person singular; we feel that Pepys watched himself quite neutrally.

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