I was interested in reading the diary of Samuel Pepys, a 17th-century businessman who helped turn the Royal Navy into the great institution it became, for a few different reasons. First, of course, it is One Of Those Things One Ought To Read. It’ s a classic. People quote from it, and read it in school, and so forth. And then, too, it’s Historically Important. He lived at a critical time in British history, and his personal diary tells us a lot about what people ate and wore and said to their servants. To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to read the complete eight-volume diaries, and I knew I’d never get around to it if I set myself that goal, so I thought I’d read the one-volume version, abridged by Roger Le Gallienne, and see how much Historical Importance I could glean from it.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with it.
Samuel Pepys is the most utterly charming rogue of a diarist it has ever been my good fortune to meet. And it does feel like meeting him, personally, possibly in his nightgown: he is so vividly alive, breathing on the page, completely sincere in his opinions, emotions, and desires. He is just the kind of person you’d like to know. He’s interested in everything: astronomy, mechanics, music, literature, farming, fashion, food, wine, medicine, politics, gossip — and he takes delight in it all. The word used most often in these diaries is pleasure. He sees pretty women with pleasure, he gets a new watch and consults it a hundred times the first day with childlike pleasure, he eats a good dinner with great pleasure, he takes pleasure in dancing and in seeing a good play, and in a hundred other tiny details of life. His is a nature of joy. Despite his obvious affection for his pretty French wife, he can’t keep from kissing every woman he meets, from the bookseller’s wife to the servant of the woman who rules paper for him. (This tendency is eventually his downfall, in a scene that is partly wrenching and partly extremely funny.)
And this irrepressible nature is surrounded by one of the most interesting times imaginable. “Went to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, first time it ever was played,” he says. He didn’t enjoy it much. He liked Hamlet better. He knew the King, Charles II, and Nell Gwynne; he lived through the Great Fire of London, and the Great Plague, and saw grass growing in the streets of London because no one was alive to keep it down. He saw ships burned in the Medway in a battle with the Dutch.
This diary is so bright! Every moment is crammed with life. He doesn’t leave a moment idle. He learned the recorder, the flageolet, the spinet, the harpsichord, dancing, drawing, singing. He bought books, and laid aside the ones that were of lesser quality because he didn’t have enough space in his bookcases — does that sound familiar? He bought a periwig, and found it full of nits, and had it returned for a better one; he was vain about clothes, and about how his wife was dressed. Samuel Pepys was so much himself that even today he leaps off the page to be introduced. He is witty, and also unintentionally funny; he lays himself naked, to himself, and now to our eyes as well.
One thing this book made me think of is that every person he mentions had a story like this. Every servant girl he kissed, every actor on stage, every sailor in the Navy had a life that was full of interest, full of anecdotes, full of days of business “and so to bed.” But those voices are lost. Only through this diary do we know the joyful, pleasure-loving Samuel Pepys. It’s our loss and our gain.
Teresa reassures me that I don’t need to feel guilty about reading an abridged version of the diaries — that many entries are repetitive, and a well-chosen abridgment is a perfectly good way to approach the work. I do plan to read Claire Tomalin’s biography, though: The Unequalled Self. Has anyone read the entire diary? As you can see, I loved what I read and couldn’t recommend it more highly. Should I venture on the other seven volumes?