A Word for Pepys

THE final edition of Pepys is a matter that may deservedly receive some brief attention. In these twelve volumes,1 admirable in all points of bookmaking, low-priced, and containing large additions to Lord Braybrooke’s version, together with important corrections in the old rendering of the cipher, we have all of the original manuscript that will see the light until there is some change in the editor’s standard of decency; and the text is illustrated, and as fully as possible elucidated, by notes. As one glances over the pages, not for the last time, and lingers on some whimsicality, or piece of gossip, or other révélation intime it may be, he escapes the guilty consciousness of eaves-dropping just by the very awfulness of the joke Pepys played upon himself in being his own sole confidant, and thus blabbing more than the tiring-women of the whole

century. Here under our hands we have in cold type “ the perpetual aside” he whispered in his own confidential ear, and the humor of the situation is something not approached in comedy. How could it be unless the screen-scene in Joseph Surface’s drawing-room could be made a whole play, or Molly Seagrim’s rug be falling through an entire novel ? This dramatic situation, this continued discovery of Pepys behind the circumspect worldliness with which he sheltered his peeping soul, is a main element in the humorous fascination of the diary ; one feels almost as if he were himself among the laughing gods who see this same comedy of What Fools these Mortals Be playing everywhere on the broad stage of the world, and there is a taste of divine felicity in the spectacle. If one cannot apply to the diary the classical definition of a good book, — “ the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life,” — it is a classic, nevertheless, and keeps the plebeian vitality of a very honest, vain man and a true Briton, though possibly he would rather have been condemned to a second death than possess an immortality of such very extraordinary publicity as Fortune has given him. Be that as it may, he has added cheerfulness to history and given humaneness to our thoughts of the feeblenesses of our kind. The most cynical, seeing how fairly well this inconsiderate diarist turns out in the confessional of his least-breathed-on thoughts, must feel less certain of the sight men would see were the curtain lifted from the bosom of the passerby. Pepys was one of the most English of his race ; he was the British islander, and, circle within circle, the Londoner, just as Voltaire was French, Gautier Parisian ; he had the defects of his nativity, broad, deep, well-marked defects, visible as far as you can see a scarlet coat, and he had foibles and eccentricities of his own, and cranks of many varieties, but his good nature and his contracted view carry them off ; one no more thinks of criticising him than the ideas of old Sir Roger; and with all these appurtenances of humor, he had sound and sterling qualities of business, integrity, public spirit, intelligent and active curiosity, and, in a certain sense, traits of a liberal mind and some humane tastes, so that any reader may well pray that, should the discretion of his own silence ever be turned by some flank movement of posterity, and the conscienceless editor come in on the rear of his thoughts, he may cut as respectable a figure as the highly honorable Mr. Pepys, who was garrulous of his follies only to himself, and when his lock was forced was found to have been addicted only to Lilliputian wickedness. Everything about him was on a petty scale, it is true, except his diary ; but the size of that makes amends for his littleness in other things.

Of all the wandering loves of Fortune, this, which has made Pepys immortal, is the strangest vagary. How many laureled heads of Davenants and Bayeses did she pass by to fix this paper crown on the busy official of the navy, who wrote with less regard to his readers than probably any other popular author ! All the comic dramatists of the Restoration, as they are now styled, have gone, with their dry jests and elaborated humor, into the property-box of the English theatre, and are shut up to be food for worms ; their names fresh only in these pages and the foot-note that explains the obscure reference. The real comedy, the one Fortune had fixed her favor on, was this one of the navy official’s, indited in prose, — no French influence to be observed in it, corrupting and enfeebling the old English stock, any more than in the Department he had in charge. But Fortune is wise, and out of her caprice has given us a good gift to make our advantage of, — the sincere history of one Englishman’s life, selected, it would seem, almost at random from the intelligent men of his time, but one who remained at bottom the mere human creature, and so by the weakness of our own nature creeps in to our hearts ; and in our charity and remembrance and knowledge of ourselves he is as safely sheltered, perhaps, after all, as would have been the case had the short-hand volumes of manuscript never been disturbed. His journal is at once a history and a biography, as well as a scene from the great Comédie Humaine, and those whom it cannot satisfy in any of its three interests must be very dull people.

  1. Diary and Correspondence of Samuel Pepys, Esq., F. R. S. From his MS. cipher in the Pepysian Library, with a life and notes by RICHARD LORD BRAYBROOKE, deciphered. with additional notes by Rev. MYNORS BRIGHT. M. A. 12 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1884.