Mighty Merry

E.S. Turner

  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Eleven Volumes, including Companion and Index edited by R.C. Latham and W. Matthews
    HarperCollins, 267 pp, £8.99, February 1995, ISBN 0 00 499021 8

Anyone who has ever settled down to read The Holy Bible in Pitman’s Shorthand, or even Three Men in a Boat in the same form, will have a mild idea of the task which faced the Cambridge graduate John Smith (a sizar, married with one child) when in 1819 he was hired to decipher the six volumes of Samuel Pepys’s diary on which Magdalene College had sat for over a century. Smith did not know the system of shorthand the diarist had used, but he was a resourceful, if prickly, worker and toiled at the task for three years, leaving out only the passages he marked as ‘Obj.’ (objectionable). The richer by £200, he then followed his father into the Church. We would do well to remember the Reverend John Smith in a year which sees the first publication in paperback of the work on which he did the initial drudgery. This entire version, infinitely corrected, is the transcription first published in 1971 by R.C. Latham and W. Matthews (designated thus on the cover, but becoming Robert Latham and William Matthews on the title-page). If some books are classifiable as blockbusters, these 11 stout volumes are more of a Thames barrage. The last two of them, the Companion and Index, were the sole responsibility of Robert Latham, who died this year (Professor Matthews died in 1975).

It is easy to imagine how Samuel Pepys, in our own times, would have been minced by the media. Deborah Willet, Mrs Bagwell and all the jades he did ce qu’il voudrait avec, con gran plaisir, would have picked up their rewards at Wapping. The broadsheets would have wondered whether it was right for an administrator responsible for the safety of the realm to be destroyed for his sexual peccadilloes, and perhaps suggested that a lively carnality was a necessary dynamic of greatness. What seems extraordinary at this remove is that Pepys was never exposed during his lifetime. His diary could easily have been seized during the iniquitous goings-on of the Popish Plot, when he was imprisoned for six weeks on a false charge of selling Naval secrets to the French. As Robert Latham says, ‘his enemies would have been only too delighted to open to the world this Pandora’s box.’ The diarist’s shorthand was proof only against the eyes of his wife; Shelton’s system on which it was based was familiar to many of his contemporaries, and there would have been no need to call in the crack cryptographer-divine, Dr John Wallis (later a friend of Pepys). Not only did the diary asperse the honour of high officials and the competence of sea-captains, but it recklessly logged the indulgences of ‘a sad, vicious, negligent court’. Why Pepys risked being stood in the pillory, or having his nose slit, by keeping such a self-incriminating archive is hard to fathom, and it inevitably raises the question of why he needed to keep a diary in the first place. Was it an exercise in sheer vanity? Was it the compulsion of a born record-keeper? Was it a bid for posthumous fame? Was it the basis for an autobiography? Was it a deliberate confessional? Did he have a secret desire to be found out? Was it done out of sheer devilry, or fun? Was there even an element of that ineffable bombast which drove Rousseau to say, of his Confessions: ‘Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand and loudly proclaim “Thus have I acted, these were my thoughts, such was I” ’?

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