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.

To our eyes, London in 1660 would seem a little city. Its western edge was marked by Goring House, where Buckingham Palace is now; building stopped short of modern-day Oxford Street to the north, and London had yet to expand substantially south of the Thames. The Tower of London was the easternmost point. The society of this little city had a kind of unity and, despite a rigid caste system, an intimacy; royalty and the upper aristocracy were conspicuous presences. The minute and insignificant details, the relaxed and unimpressed way in which he unflinchingly recorded the foibles and mannerisms and the wanderings in and out of the greatest of men, somehow combine to give an accurate impression of the rhythms and scale of Pepys's London. Every other great evocation of London is for some reason misleading; it is startling to look at early maps of the metropolis after reading Pope, or Blake, or De Quincey, or even Dickens, and see how quickly the town gave way to fields. Pepys's London, on the other hand, seems exactly the size it really was, and from that one can draw the correct conclusion that here we have a writer who can be trusted.

If the Diary is from one point of view an absolutely faithful account of a long-lost society, it is nevertheless not antiquarian in style or appeal. Repeatedly, Pepys strikes us as a great realist novelist, born centuries too early. In part this is down to the subject of the Diary—the story of a smart young man clambering up in society by means of his wits and charm. It is not at all a seventeenth-century subject but one for Thackeray or Balzac. Pepys's commitment to recording the totality of experience would not really be matched until Ulysses and the diaries of Virginia Woolf. A chronology could be drawn up of the moments when the English novel entered successive rooms in the ordinary bourgeois house: in the nineteenth century it ventured out of the drawing room into the kitchen, and then into the bedroom, and at the beginning of the twentieth century into the bathroom and the privy. It was a slow process of annexation. Pepys, long before, had gone everywhere, and had told us everything. Virginia Woolf wrote once in her diary that "if the British spoke openly about W.C's, & copulation, then they might be stirred by universal emotions." Yes, indeed, the reader of Pepys may conclude.

A passion for details, however insignificant or undignified, is what seems to take Pepys out of his time. There are many celebrated instances of this curious quality in him, and it is worth saying that in most cases the observations would have seemed grossly indecorous to his contemporaries. One of the Diary's most magnificent set pieces is the return of Charles II. Pepys was in one of the boats in the flotilla. "I went, and Mr. Mansell and one of the King's footmen, with a dog that the King loved (which shit in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are)." The incontinent dog is a brilliantly improper presence in an account of a great historical occasion, and exactly the sort of thing Gogol would use to great effect. The interesting thing about this passage, which occurs very early in the Diary, is that one can see a certain loss of nerve; Pepys was torn between his instincts and the literary dictates of the time. No one else would even have mentioned the dog, but Pepys drew a not very convincing moral from it in a nod to propriety. That nervousness quickly disappears before the wonderful confidence of the Diary, which lies in Pepys's certainty that his observations were diverting on their own terms.

The two sections of the Diary that readers always remember are the accounts of the Great Plague, in 1665, and the Great Fire, in 1666. The passages proceed by the novelist's technique of amassing tiny, exact observations; and like the greatest nineteenth-century novelists, Pepys always gives the sense that he could go on looking after most people would have preferred to close their eyes. Sometimes it could be Conrad writing—as when, for instance, Pepys walked through London at the height of the plague and wrote, "But now, how few people I see, and those walking like people that had taken leave of the world." The section on the Great Fire is a justly celebrated tour de force, and again, in its extraordinary and unprecedented technique, leaps the centuries into something that trembles on the verge of the high Dickensian manner. There is no distance at all between the following famous observation and the description of the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge:

Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off. Poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stair by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive 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.

From a seventeenth-century perspective, everything here is a deplorable breach of literary manners: the undignified interest in inessentials, the failure to assert any kind of moral about people's scrabbling after their possessions, and the eccentric, unpolished syntax ("till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down"). Not until Dickens would anyone else exploit the expressive potential of syntax like this, or demonstrate that the reader won't really feel the human horror of a catastrophe until he has been shown how the poor pathetic pigeons behaved.

It is worth stressing Pepys's astonishing modernity, since he has somehow acquired the reputation of a cozy read of mild, olde worlde charm. His brisk, vivid, clean style often surprises first-time readers: "But Lord, what a Hypocrite-like face she made to tell it me," he groaned about some boring anecdote Lady Batten told him. If that is not a modern sentence, it is certainly the sentence of a writer with a modern ambition—to write as men talk. His story, too, seems a modern one, and his preoccupations—lechery, food, money, and music—are much the same as ours; his technique and his way with a really funny story resemble Gogol's much more than any of his contemporaries'. Even more modern than Gogol is the story of Pepys's getting so drunk after the coronation that he was sick all over himself, which is exactly like listening to an account of some undergraduate debauchery.

Of course, it will not do to treat Pepys entirely as our contemporary, and sometimes one realizes with a jolt that he was not very much like us at all. On June 21, 1662, he apparently spent much of the day whipping his houseboy for drinking the whey of the milk, and signed off by complaining how tired his arm was when he went to bed. He was alarmingly attracted by public hangings. His interests in general seem so worldly that it is always astonishing when one realizes that Pepys, like everyone else in his day, took religion very seriously. And his life was lived in circumstances so different from ours that the stylistic modernity of the Diary is rather misleading; in particular, there is no conceivable way that any man of Pepys's time could have the same sanguine view of his health that a man today has. All his life Pepys celebrated the anniversary of a successful operation to remove a "stone" from his bowels. That he recorded the intimate details of his illnesses and his wife's appalling genital sores is evidence not of an obsession with illness but simply of the way people thought at a time when medicine had not advanced greatly beyond Aristotle.

The sense of someone like us, of a universal quality, in Pepys is really only half the story. The Diary is not just an intimate, observant record of an individual life but a grand political drama told by a significant player. Of great writers in English, Pepys is, after Disraeli and John Buchan, among the most important in this sense. His was a brilliant career: he reformed and rationalized the navy, and established the basis for the formidable fighting force of the next 250 years. There are telling glimpses of Pepys's ruthless professionalism in the Diary—his labors over accounting procedures, his contempt for any sign of slackness or incompetence whether in his junior clerks, in his superiors, or in the King (the running commentary on the King's embarrassing inability to rise to any formal occasion is on its own worth the price of admission). He must have been terrifying; when a subordinate started whining about staying late at the office, Pepys had no compunction in resorting to threats and blackmail, saying mildly how surprised he was, having always heard great things about the gentleman's assiduity when he was working for the late regicides.

Although Pepys's contemporaries would not have been surprised to learn that so important and influential a man had recorded the events of his life, they would have found it odd that what posterity values in his journal is trivial things. In that sense, perhaps, they would have been better readers of him than we are; they would have valued much in the Diary that we pass over.

Some writers' lives are so closely bound to a classic account that any modern biographer starts at a disadvantage. Biographers of Johnson, of Rousseau, of Berlioz, have to live with an impossible competitor. Pepys's life falls very firmly into this category, even though the Diary covers only nine years of it. If anyone can overcome this great difficulty, it is Claire Tomalin. For some reason Englishwomen are unrivaled in the field; Hilary Spurling, Diana Souhami, Victoria Glendinning, and many others may look at the genre and be reminded of what Quintilian said about the Romans and satire: "Satura quidem tota nostra est."

From the archives:

"A Writer Who Is Good for You" (January 1998)
Lee Siegel reviews biographies of Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin and David Nokes.

No more elaborate recommendation is needed than Tomalin's name. In her previous biographies she has set out the lives of some very disparate figures with unfailing patience and an imaginative sympathy that verges on the uncanny; her lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Katherine Mansfield, the actress Mrs. Jordan, are all unforgettable, and her last biography, a life of Jane Austen, was a breathtaking feat. Any life of Austen must be written on terrifyingly slender evidence, like a life of Shakespeare; this one gave readers the dizzying impression of standing behind Austen's desk, observing her at the moment of creation.

Tomalin's Samuel Pepys faces the opposite problem. We know pretty well what Pepys was doing every day from 1660 to 1669, and everything confirms that his account is not just accurate and truthful in almost every respect but guilty of very few omissions. Subsequently, too, Pepys was so prominent a figure that an enormous body of evidence about his life and career survives. All this gives a biographer enough material for a work like Arthur Bryant's three-volume biography from the 1930s—the sort of heart-sinking groaner that might as well begin with the sentence "Call me magisterial." Claire Tomalin's life, on the other hand, is a magnificent triumph. Her research has been not just scrupulously thorough but dazzlingly imaginative.

The single most impressive thing about this fresh, serious book is that after finishing it, one suddenly reflects that at no moment did one ask the question that ought, surely, to hang over any biography of Pepys: "What is this really adding to what the Diary tells us?" It is impossible to believe that a biographer could expect to do anything more than fill in the events of Pepys's life up to 1660 and generally summarize and concur with his account of 1660 to 1669 (which is the part of his life any reader will be most interested in). The later events must be told, but after the death of his wife, Elizabeth, most of what we know about him involves his work, with only occasional tantalizing glimpses of the familiar unbuttoned personality.

The brilliance of Tomalin's previous biographies has lain in their unfailingly tactful and plausible speculations on sometimes very limited evidence. Indeed, one starts to think that what fascinates and tempts her most is gaps and absences—what her subjects have not spoken and will not speak about. The pre- and post-Diary phases of Pepys's life, which obviously require such speculation, are brilliantly believable in this book, particularly when Tomalin feels her way toward an idea of what Pepys's relations were like with his post-1670 companion, Mary Skinner, and draws the outlines of Skinner's character. It was the longest relationship of Pepys's life, but we know almost nothing about it. Tomalin puts together a few scraps of evidence, tentatively and imaginatively explores the implications, and then stops, admitting the impropriety of venturing any further. It is supremely respectful and convincing.

That fascination and expert resourcefulness in dealing with gaps, with the unspoken, with the unrecorded, yields an absolutely stunning stretch when we come to the great challenge for the biographer: the years of the Diary itself. She draws back from narrative and instead supplies a very satisfying blend of biography, literary analysis, and expansion of the ideas, assumptions, and beliefs in the Diary. There is a series of perceptive insights into the way Pepys structured a story; there are isolated explorations of the way Pepys wrote about the King and other individual actors, and returned to themes, such as jealousy, illness, and marriage; there are proper, serious arguments with Pepys's habitual behavior of the sort in which every reader will occasionally indulge. But the most inspired passages in this biography are explorations of absences. In particular, Tomalin is drawn to contemplate the unheard voices of Pepys's women; the letters Elizabeth wrote, which are lost, are held up to us like shining Christmas parcels, never to be opened. In one wonderful chapter the lives of three overlooked women, all named Jane, are assembled from just enough scattered fragments to reconstruct their voices, and to provide what a biographer ought to long for—a new perspective from which to observe and consider the subject's behavior. In a bold, angry flight of the imagination, Tomalin sees exactly what Pepys must have looked like to these shadowy and transient players in the drama of his life. One of them was a clever and confident servant, condemned to a constrained existence; she and another Jane were unwelcome recipients of Pepys's sexual attention. Most readers of the Diary lazily go along with Pepys's version of himself as an amateurish fumbler, always comically frustrated in his attempts at seduction. But in these portraits and in another, that of Betty Michell, Tomalin coldly refuses this cheerful image, and constructs the situation from the woman's point of view. She grimly recounts how Betty Michell helplessly endured Pepys's insistent assaults; she had no alternative if so powerful and influential a man insisted, and both she and her husband must have known that their lives might depend on Pepys's continuing good will. Tomalin has shored up just enough ground on which to stand and look at the man with someone else's eyes. It is a prodigious feat of sympathy, and of clear, cold analysis.

Here, and throughout this biography, we get the exhilarating sense that we were mistaken after all. Pepys did not, in fact, tell us everything, despite appearances. An ordinarily accomplished biographer might aim as high as stripping Pepys of his cozy fireside reputation and showing us a young man on the make, with anxieties and ordinary human worries—and Tomalin does all this extremely well. But it takes an exceptional biographer to go so confidently beyond the apparent totality of daily experience presented in Pepys's Diary.