The Diary of Samuel Pepys

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?

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30 Responses to The Diary of Samuel Pepys

  1. Mel u says:

    Your excellent post brought back some very good memories-I read the full diary about 8 or so ago-it was one of the great reading experiences of my life-I think the time spent reading the full diary will well repay itself-I have also been to the Pepys Museum in London-I had a nice conversation with the curator who was, I think, shocked that I had read the full diary-that and the full published journals of Boswell are among very top reading experiences of my life-

    I still have a full set of the diaries and want to reread them now!

  2. Jenny says:

    Aw, I love Samuel Pepys! I have the first several volumes of his diaries, and he absolutely charms me. I love it how he’ll break into French for a few words, and then switch back to English. My sister and I do that ALL THE TIME. :P

  3. Eva says:

    This sounds like fun! It’s always intimidated me, but maybe I’ll go for the abridged version instead. :D

  4. bybee says:

    What Eva said. And: I loved your review.

  5. adevotedreader says:

    I’ve only read an abridged version, but enjoyed it so much that the entire diaries are on my To read some day list!

    I don’t know if you’ve seen Stage Beauty?- if not I’d recommend it, it features Hugh Bonneville as Pepys and is a focused on the theatrical world as women begin to take to the stage.

  6. Jeane says:

    Maybe I should read the abridged version! I tried the original many many years ago and just got stuck. I think I was really too young to appreciate it at the time. It does sound very interesting (and even fun).

    • Jenny says:

      The abridged version really got to a lot of the good parts and was terrific fun. I laughed aloud many times. Try it again and see what you think!

  7. Thanks for your wonderful review. I bought the 3 volume Everyman editon in London thirty years ago as a student, but never got round to reading them. I really must get them off the shelf one of these days.

  8. Lesley says:

    I have read bits and pieces and loved what I have read. This is actually one that I would love to listen to as an audiobook just to hear the language and descriptions of London.

    Did you know that you can also read it online? There is a website set up that makes daily entries from the diary, in its entirety: http://www.pepysdiary.com/ – the site began several years ago and is now up to December 1666.

    • Teresa says:

      Lesley, I actually tried reading the diary online, and it was that experience that led me to think that the 8 volume set might not be so great. I subscribed for a year perhaps but found I wasn’t getting anything much out of it. It was either a boring year for Pepys, or the diary doesn’t work so well one entry at a time. I have read other sections, such as the part about the fire, and enjoyed them very much.

      There’s something similar for Orwell diaries. When I subscribed, he was mostly recording the number of eggs his chickens laid every day.

  9. softdrink says:

    I’ve always wanted to read this (I love London), but it never seems to be a book I think of when I’m at the bookstore. Thanks for putting it back on my radar.

  10. Danielle says:

    You know I have to admit I have never wanted to read Pepys diary, but after reading your post, I am adding it to my wishlist. Why did I assume this would be one dry read? Just goes to show you how off preconceptions can be. Thanks for the great review.

    • Jenny says:

      Not dry in the least! In fact, I think I read that it was only recently published in full because so many people thought it was too indecent!

  11. rebeccareid says:

    I first say Pepys name in 84, Charing Cross Road recently and then, if I’m not mistaken, he was mentioned that Guernsey book. This sounds so great! I’m glad it was a good experience and I’m with the others on saying maybe I’ll go for the abridged version so I won’t be so intimidated!

  12. I just read a Robert Louis Stevenson magazine essay on Pepys that was a great match of writer and subject. Stevenson – with generous help from Pepys – made the diary, as a whole, sound so exciting. So do you.

    • Jenny says:

      How kind. The RLS essay was in the beginning of my edition, and it is truly marvelous. I love RLS’s essays, and this one was a corker.

  13. Pingback: APFOL: December 27-January 2 « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

  14. Kathy says:

    Have you ever heard of The Journal of Mrs. Pepys: Portrait of a Marriage by Sara George? I’ve not read Samuel Pepys’ diary (abridged or otherwise), but The Journal was an enjoyable read, and as much as you liked Samuel’s version, I bet it would be pretty interesting as a companion piece.

  15. Pingback: The Diary of Samuel Pepys | andrewgodsell

  16. Pingback: APFOL: December 27-January 2 - Here There Be Books

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