Pepys and God


WHAT religious training Pepys received from his mother, what childish prayers he murmured at her knee, we shall never know. The Diary does not indicate any very great respect for her character or her admonitions; but doubtless in this matter the child was different from the man. The only direct reference to the religious aspect of the relation that I have noted is argumentative: ‘After supper she and I talked very high about religion, I in defense of the religion I was born in.’

Though during the Diary period Pepys was a loyal member of the Church of England, it seems likely that in his youth his sympathies were distinctly with the prevailing Puritanism in some form, he not being the sort of man to court martyrdom for any faith, religious or political. Late in 1660 his pleasure in meeting an old schoolfellow was much tempered by the fear that his anti-royalist proclivities would be remembered, and probably his anti-clericalism was no less ardent. He is apt to speak of the Puritans with respect, not to say awe. Toward the very end of the Diary he openly admits his disposition to be civil to them, ‘in expectation that those fellows may grow great again,’ and he puts his feeling on a little higher plane in the notable passage in which he criticizes Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, a play which he otherwise greatly admired: ‘only the business of abusing the Puritans begins to grow stale, and of no use, they being the people that, at last, will be found the wisest.’

Also, it is everywhere evident that the Puritan tradition had got hold of him somehow, and haunts him and hangs about him, even in his wildest vagaries. Profanity is apt to give him the shivers. He hates to break the Sabbath, hates to have others break it. And the strain of Philistinism, of formal, conventional regard for the outside, for appearances, so oddly and strongly interwoven in his nature, is always cropping up in unexpected ways.

If the influence of his early surroundings pulled him toward Puritanism, that of his wife later might have tended toward the Catholic Church, unless it worked the other way, as is not unfrequently the case. He has some interesting contacts with Catholicism. There is the delightful visit to a monastery, in which all the little, petty, striking details are chronicled with the usual unforgettable vividness: the priest in his cell, with his haircloth and his scanty garments, and his little bed without sheets, ‘but yet, I thought, soft enough’; his cord about his waist, ‘but in so good company, living with ease, I thought it a very good life.’ And the conclusion is cheerful and even suggests a moderate sympathy: ‘I do not think they fared very hard. Their windows all looking into a fine garden and the Park; and mighty pretty rooms all. I wished myself one of the Capuchins.’

Then there is the Catholic service. Pepys always finds the music captivating, as is natural. But the democracy puzzles and amuses him: footmen, beggars, fine ladies, zealous poor papists, and a few Protestants come to see the show, really, ‘I was afeard of my pocket being picked very much.’ Otherwise he gets an impression of trickery and frivolity and pretense, beads turned over and prayers said, without any very deep impression of piety. But things are made handsome and comfortable, ‘and I see the papists have the wit, most of them, to bring cushions to kneel on, which I wanted, and was mightily troubled to kneel.’

But when it got to be a question of politics, it was a much more serious matter. With his deceased wife a Catholic, and his Navy chief a Catholic, Pepys’s enemies had plenty of handles for mixing him up with the prevailing excitement at the time of the Popish Plot in 1679, and a brief confinement in the Tower was a superb antidote to any Roman leniency that may have found a lodging. In his letters of that period Pepys insists, with the most reiterated fervor, on his thoroughgoing, unshaken Protestantism, and one has no difficulty whatever in believing him.

All through the Diary, at any rate, and probably all his life, Pepys was a faithful churchgoer. Though regularly a member of the Parish of Saint Olave’s, his attendance was quite widely distributed, and he appears now in one church, now in another, as convenience, or some notable occasion of service or preaching, guides or attracts him. He is often interested and full of curious, entertaining comment of all sorts. I do not know that there is any evidence of his being profoundly touched or moved. If this happened, it must have been very rarely. That the observance was largely perfunctory, a matter of habit and early discipline, is clear from the whole tone in which he treats it. Indeed, he was much too inclined to fall asleep, and confesses it on a number of occasions with quite brazen equanimity.

And, do your best to be solemn and reverent, there are always the distractions of all sorts. You may go to church with your mind full of cares and the service may prove altogether insufficient to rid you of them. Say you are jealous of that quick, vivacious, pretty lady who bears your name. When she is mixed up with that horrid dancing-master, you may keep away from church altogether, because it represents quite other things than religion. Then there are those queer organs, the eyes, and the strange, misleading pleasure of them, so apt to be incompatible with devotion or even with decorous attention. People may be looking at you, or you think they are, as in that inimitable episode of the periwig: ‘I found that my coming in a perriwigg did not prove so strange to the world, as I was afeard it would, for I thought that all the church would presently have cast their eyes all upon me, but I found no such thing.’ And you are constantly looking at other people. For there are shoals of them about you, and their clothes and their manners and the odd composure of their faces and their behavior toward each other offer such an entrancing feast for vision that the mind can hardly fix itself upon the religious ceremony at all.

There are the pious people, or those who appear so. We regard them with respect and a trifle of wonder. To be sure, they are apt to be somewhat elderly ladies, and the diversions of this world having palled, piety may come more easily. And yet — and yet — can it be quite genuine? ‘The three sisters of the Thornbury’s, very fine, and the most zealous people that ever I saw in my life, even to admiration, if it were true zeal.’ Of course, after the great fire devotion was natural. A visitation of God like that makes everybody think of Him and of other possible fires even more dangerous and disagreeable. Church, under such circumstances, becomes not only an obligation but a relief: ‘I to church, where our parson made a melancholy but good sermon; and many and most in the church cried, specially the women.’

But the pious people, though edifying, somehow do not hold the attention, which naturally strays to more agreeable objects. The young eager faces, gleaming and sparkling with the joy and light of this world, are so much more attractive. ‘And there heard a silly sermon, but sat where we saw one of the prettiest little boys with the prettiest mouth that ever I saw in my life.’ And such queer things happen in church, too, things quite shattering to gravity, if your eyes are wide-awake and watchful for them. What would you think to see a new-married couple sitting in a pew hung with mourning for the mother of the bride? Odd lack of tact, was n’t it? And when your mind was all set for solemnity, to see the minister pull off his surplice as if it had been a nightshirt, before all the congregation, and then go up into the pulpit to preach, might destroy all the flavor of his sermon.

But incontestably the charm of church is the ladies, and if you want us to edify, they should be entirely kept out of it. No doubt heaven swarms with delicate angels, and no doubt we shall enjoy their society, if we ever get there. Meantime, there are these exquisite creatures on earth, right here, and really it is impossible to keep one’s eyes and thoughts off them. Sometimes it is a mere matter of æsthetic contemplation. For example, there is the fair Butler, ‘who indeed is a most perfect beauty still and one I do very much admire myself for my choice of her for a beauty, she having the best lower part of her face that ever I saw all the days of my life.’ Sometimes, regrettable to relate, these dainty faces are so engaging, so provoking, that one loses one’s head entirely, and leaves church and heaven and all to follow them. There is that lady who lives in a house near Tower Hill. Pepys simply ‘dogs’ her home, and thinks her one of the prettiest women he ever saw. Then there is the gay, piquant adventure of the coy maiden and the pins: ‘Stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again — which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design.’ And meantime, the preacher? Ah, we had forgotten all about him!


Still, the preachers too were immensely curious and entertaining as well as profitable. Some were prominent celebrities, notable divines and theologians. Pepys went out of his way to hear them, sometimes a long way out of it, and then commented on all their peculiarities with his usual startling, delightful freedom. Dr. Fuller was most learned and in conversation most delightful, as a commentator on the worthies of England most inspiring; but he preached but a poor dry sermon and ‘I am afeard my former high esteem of his preaching was more out of opinion than judgment.’ On the other hand, the famous young Stillingfleet does an admirable piece of work, and is heartily commended. And there are bishops; but bishops prove to be amazingly like other people. One of them preaches before the King; but the discourse is full of abject flattery and Pepys does not like it and says so. Again, there is the bishop who arrives while worship is going on and is expected to take part in it. As he is ‘rigging himself,’ in Pepys’s phrase, he tells his man to find out where they are in the service. The man listens, and hears, but cannot place it for the life of him, and no more can the bishop. As Pepys expressed it to friends afterwards, ‘the man said they were about something of saving their souls, but could not tell whereabouts in the prayers that was.’ And the bishop was much amused, and so was Pepys; but I do not know that it was particularly edifying.

There were minor preachers, too, men with neither great names nor great stations, and long ago buried and forgotten. But Pepys is just as keenly interested in them, and portrays them perhaps with even more vivacious touches, so that the reader is as interested in them as he is. Respect for the cloth? Oh, yes, he feels it; but may it not be overdone a little? For instance: ‘a learned man used to say, that if a minister of the word and an angell should meet him together, he would salute the minister first; which methought was a little too high.’ Well, perhaps it was. And, after all, these ministers are queer. Or rather, they are not queer, but just like everybody else. Only it is queer they should be.

Some are square, plain hypocrites. There is Mr. Messum who preaches such an eloquent sermon about the duty of giving a good example, ‘which I fear he himself was most guilty of not doing.’ There is Dr. Jacomb, who is an adept at getting the ladies to supply him with dainties, and confesses with cunning gravity that he heard more of the Common Prayer while he was waiting in the vestry than he had done for twenty years. Others again are good enough, estimable and useful in their way, but so deplorably heavy. Might they not have been even more useful in some other, plainer walk of life? There is our own rector, Mr. Mills, who, to be sure, spoke well of Pepys in later days, and Pepys thought well enough of him. Still he did make ‘an unnecessary sermon upon Original Sin, neither understood by himself nor the people.’ Yet it must not be supposed that Pepys decried the profession entirely. There were plenty of honest, earnest, high-minded men in it, and he recognized this at all times. Even a somewhat dull man might be stirred into good preaching, like Meriton, who ‘hath a strange knack of a grave, serious delivery, which is very agreeable.’ And there were many others like Dr. Crew, who could make ‘a very pretty, neat, sober, honest sermon; and delivered it very readily, decently, and gravely, beyond his years.’

Pepys was attentive to the substance of the sermons also—much more than one might look for when there were apt to be so many pretty faces about him. To be sure, with the sermons as with the plays, there was the too high expectation and the consequent disappointment. Great things had been told of Mr. Alsopp, and Pepys went to hear him very eagerly, a good man, no doubt, and evidently a clever man, ‘but as all things else did not come up to my expectations.’ Which is the quaint, deceiving way life has, when you let your imagination work upon it. And many, many sermons were dull. Oh, how many dull sermons there have been since the beginning of the world! And many were silly, pointless, and pretentious, made much more to show the ingenuity and scholarship of the preacher than to feed the hungry flock. But there were also others that were weighty and solemn and profitable and edifying, and Pepys recognizes it heartily and rejoices in them and even occasionally appears to derive some benefit. There is Mr. Floyd, who ‘made a most excellent good sermon, of our duty to imitate the lives and practice of Christ and the saints departed.’ There is Mr. Fullword, of the almost unbelievably felicitous cognomen, who preached ‘a very good and seraphic sermon, too good for an ordinary congregation.’ And there is Mr. Gifford, whose discourse especially received the Secretary’s exquisitely Philistine approval: ‘A very excellent and persuasive, good and moral sermon. Shewed, like a wise man, that righteousness is a surer moral way of being rich, than sin and villainy.’

But with sermons, as with plays and poems and music, what counts is not any abstract value of Pepys’s opinion, but the charming and vivid freshness of it, the absolute sincerity with which it is set down, whether favorable, or unfavorable, without regard to position or reputation or distinction or prestige. One of Mr. Mills’s sermons is ‘pungent.’ What Pepys says is pungent always, even when one disagrees with it most entirely. With what force and directness does he dispose of another of Mr. Mills’s efforts: ‘There proving the equity with what justice God would lay our sins upon his Son, he did make such a sermon (among other things pleading, from God’s universal sovereignty over all his creatures, the power he has of commanding what he would of his Son by the same rule as that he might have made us all and the whole world from the beginning to have been in hell, arguing from the power the potter has over his clay), that I could have wished he had let it alone.’

As this analysis shows, Pepys was fond of theological discussion and interested in it. He was by no means a profound or logical speculative thinker; but his acute and ready wit delighted in controversy and especially delighted to watch others battling with thorny difficulties. With the compromising instinct of the practical man he deplored quarrels over doctrines and forms. When the Court and the city differ about bishops, his comment is, ‘the more the pity that differences must still be.’ But he likes to see a knotty point dissected; for instance, as to whether there could possibly be room in the Ark for all the live stock which Noah had accumulated. He likes to read Church history. He likes even to read sermons; reads Five Sermons of Five Several Styles and declares frankly that, contrary to the design of the book, he thinks the Presbyterian and the Independent styles are the best.

It may be said that, on the whole, Pepys inclined to a traditional and orthodox view of things. In theology, as in politics, he liked the world to go on as it had gone: it was a fairly comfortable world for him. He seldom indulges in pessimistic observations about the general government of the universe, and is disposed to accept the ways of Providence as fatal and perhaps good enough, if somewhat inexplicable. He mocks occasionally, in a quiet way, as when he points out that June 12, 1661, was kept as both fast and feast: ‘the Bishops not being ready enough to keep the fast for foul weather before fair weather came; and so they were forced to keep it between both.’ He criticizes occasionally, as when he expresses agreement with the view that the higher prelates are more zealous to increase their own estates than to relieve the poor. And there was one very dark or very daring day when he and Lord Sandwich got together and held all sorts of wild discourse, particularly as to religion, ‘wherein he is, I perceive, wholly sceptical, as well as I,’ a declaration supplemented a little later by the even bolder comment: ‘so I see that religion, be it what it will, is but a humour, and so the esteem of it passeth as other things do.’

But this was at the very beginning of the Diary, and hardly expresses a permanent state of mind. An established religion was a good thing, a desirable thing, a necessary thing, possibly for the other world, certainly for this. There are a lot of points a man might argue about forever; but it is far better to take for granted what your fathers handed down to you: ‘There is room to cavill, if a man would use no faith to the tradition of the Church in which he is born, which I think to be as good an argument as most is brought for many things, and it may be for that among others.’ A large portion of humanity gets along with it, at any rate.


As to the more emotional aspects of the spiritual life, Pepys is perhaps no more enlightening than as to the intellectual; but he is equally alive, always alert and inquiring and ready to receive facts and investigate them and give an opinion — or withhold it. The cruder and more fantastic forms of popular superstition do not appeal to him much, except as matters of scientific curiosity. He reads Glanvill’s book on Witches, and finds it well writ, but not very convincing. He discusses some of the extensive crop of prophetic anticipations of the great fire, together with the usual dismal foretellings of greater disasters to follow, and concludes the evening by laughing at the prophecies of Lilly, the astrologer. In his later years he makes rather extensive inquiry into the question of second-sight, amasses a considerable amount of testimony and sifts it with shrewdness, even his favorable conclusion being based on the acute remark that those who claimed to possess second-sight were far from being benefited by it.

As to omens and auguries and special interpositions of Providence, he proclaims a decided skepticism, though I have some doubt whether the attitude always held. To suppose that good weather came merely to suit the King’s coronation and then at once gave way to thunder and lightning strikes him as too preposterous for notice. In ghosts and apparitions he was always fearfully interested. The appearance of the Devil in Wiltshire, promenading the streets and beating a drum, excites his curiosity amazingly; yet his musical instinct protests against a devil who could not pick up a tune. Long years after he spends eager hours on his trip to Tangier discussing the question of spirits, and he and Dr. Ken even get into hot dispute about it. But the aptest case of Pepys and ghosts is the bit of self-confession as to one evening devoted to them: ‘After supper we fell to talk of spirits and apparitions, whereupon many pretty, particular stories were told, so as to make me almost afeard to lie alone, but for shame I could not help it; and so to bed; and, being sleepy, fell soon to rest, and so rested well.’

On the minor phases of superstition, charms, amulets, philters, dainty bits of folklore, Pepys has a good deal to say, and his own concern with them is, as always, the point of interest. The seventeenth century had by no means outgrown such things, was indeed full of them. There is that charming incident of the learned Burton and the spider wrapped up in a walnut-shell as an antidote for ague. He had heard of the matter from his mother and thought it nothing but an old woman’s nostrum. But one day, turning over old authors, he came upon the very same thing in that venerable worthy, Dioscorides, and ever after he entertained a better opinion of amulets. Pepys was curious, at any rate, whatever his more settled opinion may have been. The neglect of proper ceremonial rites made him uneasy, as when the clergyman omitted the sign of the Cross at a christening, ‘to my and all our trouble.’ He liked to gather up odd ends of rhyme that might have some mysterious curative property, and exhibits a choice collection of such on one page of the Diary, for example this for cramp: —

Cramp be thou faintless,
As our Lady was sinless,
When she bare Jesus.

Above all, there is the excellent magic of the hare’s foot. Pepys procures one and carries it in his pocket. It may be all fancy. ‘It is a strange thing how fancy works’; but I have carried the hare’s foot as a preservative against wind, and ‘I never had a fit of the collique since I wore it.’ There is the fact, explain it how you may. And, for that matter, there are men in the twentieth century carrying hares’ feet and luck-pieces, though they may not say much about it.

Do men in the twentieth century make solemn, elaborate vows to resist temptation, to break up bad habits, to forswear drink and women and general wrongdoing? Or does Pepys in this also diverge slightly from the average type of common humanity? Do you make such vows, and write them down formally, and establish penalties for neglect, and invoke punishment from Almighty God if you fail to keep your resolutions? Was this a common custom in the seventeenth century? I somehow cannot quite imagine Shakespeare binding himself in such a fashion, or that gay, gilded, laughing John Fletcher, or the quaint, severe, austere, superbly human old poet Donne? Yet it would not surprise me a bit if a lot of men had done it and were doing it now. The world, the flesh, and the devil are such desperate nuisances, and if a vow or anything else will help to get rid of them, why not try it? Yes, I imagine some of your neighbors make such vows, if you do not, and read them over and recur to them as Pepys did, and get some good of them too. Only I doubt if many women do it. That seems to me more a man’s resort than a woman’s. A woman sins and stops more by natural instinct than does the fantastic imagination of a man, and a woman would see through the sham of such a thing more quickly and laugh at it. In any case, those who favor the practice would naturally not advertise it, and that is why I cried out with delight when I ran across just such a vow as Pepys’s, made by a man of an entirely different type, a shrewd, skeptical, cynical self-analyst, Benjamin Constant. Does not the following, written in English by Constant, in 1788, throw a priceless light on the whole business of Pepys’s solemn obligations?

By all that is deemed honorable and sacred, by the value I set upon the esteem of my acquaintance, by the gratitude I owe my father, by the advantages of birth, fortune and education, which distinguish a gentleman from a rogue, a gambler and a blackguard, by the rights I have to the friendship of Isabella and the share I have in it, I hereby pledge myself, never to play at any chance-game, nor at any game, unless forced by a lady, from this present date to the 1st of jany, 1793: which promise if I break, I confess myself a rascal, a liar, and a villain, and will tamely submit to be called so by every man that meets me.

Note the delicious ‘unless forced to it by a lady.’ Is not that perfect Pepys?

Unfortunately, Pepys gives us no such elaborate sample of a vow written out in full detail. If he had appreciated our keen interest, no doubt he would have done so. As it is, the vows were for himself, not for us. But he refers to them at all periods of the Diary, meditates upon them, alters them, renews them, with all depth of sincerity and all solemnity of conviction. ‘ Home and to my office till 12 at night making my solemn vowes for the next year, which I trust in the Lord I shall keep, but I fear I have a little too severely bound myself in some things and in too many, for I fear I may forget some.’ That is making a sufficiently serious business of it, is n’t it? And to Pepys it was a serious business. Take this one as to the theatre: ‘I am not able to conquer myself as to going to plays till I come to some new vowe concerning it, and that I am now come, that is to say, that I will not see above one in a month at any of the publique theatres till the sum of 50s be spent, and then none before New Year’s Day next, unless that I do become worth £1,000 sooner than then, and then am free to come to some other terms.’

As to the substance of the vows, they covered pretty much anything a man would want to do and ought not, from the major sins to the minor vices, drink, the theatre, women, anything. As to the penalty, it was good hard cash in the poor-box. And that made the sinner think twice. Yet there were some temptations so sweet and bewitching that one yielded to them deliberately — if the price was not more than the dainties came to: ‘though by my vowe it costs me 12d. a kiss after the first, yet I did adventure upon a couple.’ Oh, the gay, the delicate, the fascinating conscience of the man!

As to the keeping of the vows, it certainly was a ponderous matter. You had to read them over: there was no other way. It was an excellent occupation for the Lord’s Day, and Sunday evening Pepys was apt to settle himself to a serious perusal, to impress and re-impress upon his flighty spirit the demands of virtue and of business, so that he might go forth on the Monday morning prepared to fight the good fight. In the tranquillity of those remote Sabbath evenings it all seemed so simple and so dazzlingly profitable. Why should a man run after wine and woman, when the satisfaction was so fleeting and the benefits of abstinence so evident? ‘And all I do impute almost wholly to my late temperance, since my making of my vowes against wine and plays, which keeps me most happily and contentfully to my business, which God continue.’

To be sure, the temptations would come again, when you got out into the wide world, with laughter and clinking glasses and bright eyes all about you. But if you did triumph over it all, what a triumph it was, and what a sense of peace and contentment when you came home to a domestic evening and a quiet sleep! What a satisfaction there was in the feeling that you were going to triumph as you had in the past, even if there was a rather odd mixture in your experiences: ‘But, Lord! to consider how my natural desire is to pleasure, which God be praised that he has given me the power by my late oaths to curb so well as I have done, and will do again after two or three plays more.’ How heartily Pepys would have sympathized with the charming remark of the high priest Calchas, in ‘La Belle Hélène’: ‘Si j’avais suivi ma vocation, j’aurais été homme de plaisir.

The prettiest point of all in the keeping of Pepys’s vows is the tricks he plays with himself, tricks such as you and I have played since we were five years old. You bind yourself in the closest manner by your vows, and then you immediately begin to seek loopholes and evasions by which you can get out of them. This is a broken day, anyway, says Pepys: vows don’t count, and you can do what you please. Wine? Oh, no wine; but burnt wine is different, burnt wine is not included, I can drink burnt wine: ‘but it is an evasion which will not serve me now hot weather is coming, that I cannot pretend as indeed I really have done, that I drank it for cold, but I will leave it off, and it is but seldom, as when I am in women’s company.’ You remember Benjamin Constant might play when he was forced by a lady.

Also, there are the delightful compromises. Only so many times at the theatre? But Mrs. Pepys has an allowance also, and she has not used all hers: what if we were to beg one of her? And she agrees, of course; ‘so my vowe is not broke at all, it costing me no more money than it would have done upon her, had she gone both her times that were due to her.’ Can’t you imagine the scene? Pepys invoking his ingenious casuistry, and Mrs. Pepys, perfectly indifferent to his arguments and his scruples both, smiling a little, queer, contented smile at the devious mental processes of her beloved lord?

But sometimes vows are broken, straight and square, with no evasion or compromise whatever. Some unseen play lures too facile footsteps, some unkissed mouth whispers momentary oblivion. And those solemn obligations are blown to all the winds of heaven. And repentance comes afterward, and a dark, dreary hour: Why did I do it, why, why? ‘So against my judgment and conscience (which God forgive, for my very heart knows that I offend God in breaking my vows herein) to the Opera.’ Did it pay, Pepys, did it pay?

The only remedy is to make more vows and more, and read them over, and stick to them when one can, and when one cannot, pay one’s forfeit, and sigh and hope for better things: ‘Though there was good singing and dancing, yet no fancy in the play, but something that made it less contenting was my conscience that I ought not to have gone by my vow, and, besides, my business commanded me elsewhere. But, however, as soon as I came home I did pay my crown to the poor’s box, according to my vow, and so no harm as to that is done, but only business lost and money lost, and my old habit of pleasure wakened, which I will keep down the more hereafter, for I thank God these pleasures are not sweet to me now in the very enjoying of them.’ So we go on, like Sisyphus of respectable memory, rolling the same old weary stone up the same old weary hill, only to see it roll back again, the one consoling difference being that with Sisyphus the iteration was immortal, whereas Pepys and you and I get to an end of it sometime, for this world at any rate.

By all which it becomes very evident that, whatever numerous sins Pepys may have been guilty of, he was not a man without a conscience. On the contrary, that same haunting, clinging, persistent little devil, — or angel, — conscience, was always at his elbow, taunting him with something he had done, or reminding him of something he had n’t. done, and generally doing its best to take all the sweet out of life. In other words, Pepys presents an entirely different type from Aaron Burr, though the diaries of the two men have such striking points of resemblance. If Burr had a conscience in youth, it was largely atrophied before he came to the Diary. Perhaps his grandfather, Jonathan Edwards, absorbed all there was in the family. Spirits like Burr flit from one pleasure to another, from one pair of soft red lips to another, and there is no more scar left on the conscience than on the lips. God made us with these passions. If we indulge them, it is God’s affair, not ours. Why worry?

Not so Pepys. With his type life is nothing but sinning and repenting, not only as to broken vows but as to many things, pleasant sinning and anguished repenting, without end or limit. And the tangle of mixed motives and considerations — of moral scruples and practical scruples and quick darting gleams of sensitive, sensual ecstasy — in which he ties himself up is fascinating beyond expression. Take this little blend of religious reserve and adulterous indulgence: ‘So walked home, about eight at night, it being a little moonshine and fair weather, and so into the garden, and, with Mercer, sang till my wife put me in mind of its being a fast day; and so I was sorry for it, and stopped, and home to cards awhile, and had opportunity para baiser Mercer several times, and so to bed.’ Or again, how ravishingly human is the mixture in the story of the visit of Mrs. Penn’s pretty maid. ‘So I carried her some paper and kissed her, leading her by the hand to the garden door and there let her go. But, Lord! to see how much I was put out of order by this surprisal, and how much I could have subjected my mind to have treated and been found with this wench, and how afterwards I was troubled to think what if she should tell this and whether I had spoke or done anything that might be unfit for her to tell. But I think there was nothing more passed than just what I here write.’ So Sisyphus goes on rolling.


There are persons who, when they are overwhelmed by these conflicts and struggles, seek divine aid to help them out. What use did Pepys make of prayer, and what did he think of it? When his aged aunt, as is the fashion of aged aunts, points out to him the efficacy of the prayers solicited for him at the time of his operation for the stone, he agrees, but rather casually: ‘which I also in complaisance did own; but, God forgive me, my mind was otherwise.’ The proper external forms of prayer are duly observed. Family worship is a regular practice in the household, so much so that on several occasions the master regrets that his return home in a slightly intoxicated condition makes it expedient to violate the custom, for fear of infringing due decorum — an omission which causes some scandal. All this is rather perfunctory. But when the great catastrophe of Deb. Willet comes, we have seen that the distress of it drives Pepys to his knees: ‘I did this night promise to my wife never to go to bed without calling upon God upon my knees by prayer, and I begun this night, and hope I shall never forget to do the like all my life; for I do find that it is much the best for my soul and body to live pleasing to God and my poor wife, and will ease me of much care as well as much expense,’

Always shrewd, you see, always practical, always with a canny, careful instinct for the saving of expense, even in matters of God. God was a universal institution to turn to when you wanted something. He was an obscure, terrible, overmastering institution, which blasted you and blighted you, when, as so often, you did those things which you ought not: ‘It is a cold, which God Almighty in justice did give me while I sat lewdly sporting with Mrs. Lane the other day with the broken window in my neck.’ It may seem strange that God should bother with the fantastic tricks of such petty creatures, but He does, and we should bear ourselves conformably — if we could.

So much for the dire hours of need and terror. But in general it cannot be said that Pepys was spiritually obsessed by the essentials of religion. God is frequently and reverently mentioned in the Diary. He is mentioned still more frequently in the later correspondence, and the testimony as to Pepys’s dying moments shows that he passed away decorously, as a good Christian should. But through the Diary, at any rate, considering the general frankness in treating all subjects, there is singularly little reference to a future life, though the writer of course took it for granted. There is no suggestion whatever of the abiding, haunting sense of God, longing for God, thirst for God, which inspire every page of Amiel or of the Imitation. Pepys simply knew nothing about these matters. He was a healthy, practical man of the world, largely and constantly occupied with getting and spending, eating and drinking, loving and hating, and music. God belonged to another order of things altogether, to church and Sunday and your best clothes and ministers and death and heaven — all things to be treated with immense respect and to be avoided and postponed as much as possible, while you hurried to do what had to be done here.

Perhaps it will be thought that, in discussing a busy, active, external, material life, I have given too much space to God altogether. It is because the vast, brooding consciousness of God alone gives such a life all its significance — and all its emptiness, and because I believe the busy, active, external, material life of America today, so much the life personified by the great Diarist, needs God more than anything else to save it. How the need is to be satisfied is another question, and one that can never be answered from the Diary of Pepys.