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, 0 00 499021 8
Show More
Show More

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” ’?

If one were forced, at gun-point, to choose the most memorable entry, it would have to be that for 13 October 1660. Pepys, then a young clerk to the Navy Board, begins the day by calling routinely upon his cousin and master, the Earl of Sandwich, but his lord is not yet up. So what’s to do? ‘I went out to Charing cross, to sec Major-Generall Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered – which was done there – he looking as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition’ It was powerful street theatre: the regicide’s head and heart were held up to ‘shouts of joy’. Having witnessed this affirmation of Stuart power. Pepys went back to ‘my Lord’s’, collected two colleagues and bought them oysters at the Sun tavern. ‘After that I went by water home, where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine Baskett which I bought her in Holland and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it. Within all the afternoon, setting up shelfes in my study. At night to bed.’ And there it was, a day in the life of a young man on the make: business, spectacle, a good tuck-in, a row with the wife and a spot of do-it-yourself. The diarist’s more sensitive feelings were not to the fore that night. Instead of writing something like, ‘But Lord, what a world is this, when a major-generall is cut up like a bullock at Smith field,’ he merely commented that he had now seen a king beheaded and that king avenged. Many other sights were to drive him to anger or disgust, but in this entry he was being studiously hard-boiled, as if with an eye to leaving a crisp morsel for the historian.

In his 1974 biography of Pepys, Richard Ollard said that there clings to him ‘an irresistible air of bedroom farce’, with ‘furtive lecheries so vivaciously pursued’. The earlier multi-volume life by Sir Arthur Bryant had done much to rescue him from his popular reputation of Slippery Sam, ‘Old Peepy’, a mixture of Charles Pooler and Paul Pry, a natural target for clerihews (‘Sam Pepys, Gives one the crepys’) and the wags of 1066 and All That. If the diary had been seized and burned by the hangman his reputation need never have suffered, though he might well have been seriously undervalued by history. The later Pepys, the ‘saviour of the Navy’, was a powerful and cultivated figure, well able to command the applause of listening senates and to despise the threats of pain and ruin hurled at him. The diary is so full of lying in bed late, making ‘mighty merry’, compulsive theatre-going, dallying and gallivanting, quarrelling with wife and servants, nipping off to look at a baboon or a bearded woman, that we overlook the way in which all the time he is gathering in his hands the strings of power, sometimes rising at four in the morning for that purpose. As he himself explained, when there are so many lazy people the diligent man becomes necessary, for they can do nothing without him. But he also said: ‘Most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it with any pleasure.’ Pepys did not make that mistake. He rose to what would now be rated a three-ulcer job, but knew how to live with it.

The episodes which John Smith found objectionable have gradually been revealed. Lord Braybrooke, who edited the first transcript, issued a ‘considerably enlarged’ edition in 1848 which excluded only passages ‘of so indelicate I nature that no one with a well-regulated mind will regret their loss’. Since then, the parts which the Dictionary of National Biography said ‘cannot possibly be printed’ have become familiar. The lingual disguise, in French, Spanish, Latin and even Greek, could have fooled few. It was perhaps that Pepys, as an Englishman, felt instinctively that amorous behaviour was best described in the tongue of less reputable lands. ‘For God’s sake, if you sin, take pleasure in it’ was not his maxim; he often expressed shame and vowed never to repeat his folly. Unendearingly, he was humbug enough to be highly censorious of the behaviour of his social superiors. He deplored loose talk at official meetings and was much shocked to hear a Lady Robinson say, of one of a batch of prisoners: ‘I could break a commandment with him.’ He resented a Navy Commissioner’s ‘maid and whore’ being placed in his church pew. Yet the hypocrite had moral courage of a strange kind, as when he fired off a grand remonstrance to the Earl of Sandwich, who had retreated to a species of love-nest in Chelsea, urging him to think of his honour and reputation. Perhaps it was moral courage which drove Pepys to set down so many of his weaknesses on paper. At least he did not sprinkle his diary with the letter ‘M’, the incidence of which in Dr Johnson’s diaries has lately driven scholars to extremes of speculation.

Pepys was fortunate, as is the reader, that his nine-year record covered the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London and the Dutch invasion of the Medway. Even as the pest-carts trundle through the city and the crones with white wands (the ‘searchers’) strip the corpses to check the cause of death, even as the grass grows in Whitehall and the river traffic disappears, Pepys discovers opportunities to be ‘mighty merry’. He could have fled to Oxford with the Court, but there was a war on and somebody had to run the Navy. It would seem to have been a season when servant girls were best left untumbled, but Pepys never lets up, perhaps driven by the knowledge that ‘a man cannot depend on living two days to an end.’ He tells the tale of the maidservant, falling sick of the plague, who is shut away in an outhouse with a nurse while her employers are in ‘great strait’ over who will bury her; she escapes and is hunted down on the common, where she is thrust, already stinking mightily, into a pest-coach; and an inquisitive gallant who twitches aside the curtain of the coach, as it heads for the pest-house, suffers near-terminal terror. Amid it all Pepys finds time to worry about the future of the periwig industry, since nobody will dare to buy hair which may have been cut from plague victims. Good for Pepys, the historian; an article in the Companion volume says that Dryden and Milton left us only six lines about the plague between them.

It is hard to read the diary for the years 1665 to 1667 without being reminded of the major alarms of our own century. Some of us still around were lucky to survive a pestilence which, in sheer dimensions, outmatched the bubonic horror. In 1918-19 the pandemic of Spanish influenza, attacking in three waves, from continent to continent, wiped out more lives than had been lost on all the battlefields of the First World War. A Pepys abroad in London could have watched the ‘searchers’ evacuating six corpses from a single house in Camberwell, eight from a house in Stoke Newington. On Armistice Day a thousand Londoners suffocated in their beds. The population had already endured insults worse than the sound of Dutch guns in the Medway – namely, raids by dirigible and flying machine. For a parallel to the Great Fire, Londoners had only to wait for Hitler’s Blitz. However, in sheer intensity, duration and terror, the fire of 1666 was in a special class and it makes a splendid Pepysian set-piece. Enveloping the whole sky, ‘a most horrid, malicious bloody flame’ lit up a panic migration from street to street, from church to burning church; and while the well-off ferried their chests and virginals downstream, and singed pigeons plopped from the air, the thud of explosions marked the tardy creation of firebreaks. During the four-day ordeal Pepys, his property unscathed, enjoyed at least one ‘extraordinary good dinner’, before burying his wine and ‘parmazan’ cheese. When it was over, he was hard put to get hold of a clean shirt. Still licking its wounds, the capital faced the invasion flap of 1667, which had much in common with that of 1940; on both occasions the populace realised that their ground defences against a determined army were worthless. The Dutch raid on the Medway and the seizure of the Royal Charles were an exquisite disgrace for a nation accustomed to inflicting humiliation of this kind on Spaniards and Frenchmen (this time it was Protestants against Protestants). Since there were not enough fire-ships to throw against the enemy, sound vessels with rich cargoes were sunk in the tideway. Like all citizens of substance, Pepys scattered or buried his valuables, but neither he nor his peers forswore all their amusements: there was a touch of ‘And the thought of England’s shame/Nearly put me off my game.’ The fleet, long unpaid, was mutinying and honest tars were even pro posing to join the Dutch; treason was being talked in the streets (in 1940 there were laws against spreading ‘alarm and despondency’). On the day news came of the Dutch bombardment of Landguard Fort, Pepys had a nasty moment when Betty Martin, a purser’s wife, accused him of having got her with child; but it was a false alarm. In a bad year he had moments of ‘infinite delight’ reading Boyle’s ‘Hydrostatickes’.

The simple unadorned language of the diary is one of its lively assets. Professor Matthews reminds us that in letters to his scholarly friends Pepys sometimes spoke ‘like a whale’ – that is, in an inflated, blubbery prose akin to that of his higher officialese, of which we are given an intimidating example. Freed of any urge to be literary, Matthews says, Pepys was ‘as much a nonpareil as are Chaucer and Shakespeare’. He was unique in that ‘no one else has ever composed so brilliant and so full an account of an actual man as he actually was. And that must be because he was not only a great man but because he was also a great writer.’ But Lord, what a surprise it is to learn that Sydney Smith thought the diary nonsense and Creevey ‘almost trash’. And did not Coleridge accuse the diarist of ‘marasmus of the reason and imagination’, and much else?

The complete diary, wrapped in its scholarly croûte, may be too much for those who have doubted whether it is essential to publish all Macaulay’s thank-you letters and every trades man’s bill of Dickens, but Pepys addicts will rejoice to have all the evidence put before them. A page without footnotes is so rare as to come as a shock. The editors disdain, however, to translate the lingua franca of the bawdy bits. As the compères of burlesque shows used to say, ‘We are all men and women of the world here.’ We can easily work out what a ‘cataplasme on the Codd’ was. But we must be grateful for a wide range of helpful information fully acceptable to the well-regulated mind. Mrs Pepys, it seems, was not being as vulgar as one might think in calling her husband a ‘pricklouse’: she was merely reminding him that he came from a family of tailors. We learn that the diarist, even in his lowlier days and despite his trade origins, was entitled as a ‘gentleman of quality’ to a salute of seven guns – always supposing that number happened to be loaded – and was very gratified to receive any bangs that were going. Why all those Navy wives had to be saluted with seven or nine guns aboard Lewes on an ‘exceeding merry’ occasion is not clear. Gunpowder was plentiful, admittedly; Pepys had to beat a houseboy severely for filling his pockets with the stuff and causing an explosion, to his own detriment – but that was just part of the servant problem. Some footnotes are heart-warming: we learn that it was rare for musicians to be moved up to drown the overlong last speeches of condemned men, that burglary was a non-clergiable offence and that by law a hackney carriage which had been used to carry a plague victim had to be aired for five to six days afterwards. Robert Latham’s massive Companion is a blend of dictionary, gazetteer and glossary, interspersed with admirable summaries by fellow authorities on the Dutch wars, the Plague, the Fire and so on. Under ‘Health’ is a dissertation by a psychoanalyst, in the best tradition of ‘A Doctor Writes’, on Pepys’s promiscuity, debating whether he was driven by fear of impotence after that heroic operation for the stone, by subsequent brushes with death, or by fear of blindness. An entry on Elizabeth Pepys suggests that her chronic gynaecological troubles may have caused her husband to stray. So much for health. Volume I contains Latham’s excellent account of earlier editions of the diary. This reveals that in a Mid-Victorian transcription by the Reverend Mynors Bright, a classical scholar, ‘Queen of Sweden’ appeared as ‘Queen of Sheba’ and ‘my late Lord Jones’ as ‘my late landlord Jones’. If some day it turns out that there were errors in the Latham-Matthews transcription they are unlikely to be hilarious ones. And if there are any printers’ errors in these well-produced volumes they defy detection. Here we have a work of highest quality, well worth a salute of 11 guns.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences