Pepys’s Place

Pat Rogers

  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol X: Companion and Vol XI: Index edited by Robert Latham
    Bell and Hyman, 626 pp, £19.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 7135 1993 2
  • The Diary of John Evelyn edited by John Bowle
    Oxford, 476 pp, £19.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 19 251011 8
  • The Brave Courtier: Sir William Temple by Richard Faber
    Faber, 187 pp, £15.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 571 11982 4

The completion of the new Pepys edition is certainly a publishing event, and thanks to the 350th anniversary of the diarist’s birth it has turned into a media event as well. But is it a literary event, exactly? When the first volume appeared in 1970, the editors laid some stress on their author’s ‘essentially artistic gift’, and suggested that the work was written as though ‘by an alter ego, by another man in the same skin, one who watched understandingly but rather detachedly the behaviour and motives of his fellow-lodger’. These words were penned by Robert Latham’s collaborator, William Matthews, who died in 1976. He was a scholar in the old style, not given to trendy assimilation of historic sources into the narratology of modern angst. But his effort to see the diary as something more than ‘full, objective reporting’, a bigger literary deal than just ‘a concomitant of Pepys’s delight in book-keeping’, points in the right direction. The work somehow retains its currency as ‘one of the great classics of literature’ (to stick with Matthews), without often being read or assessed as literature. Books such as Boswell’s Johnson and Macaulay’s History once gave rise to the same apparent category error, but they have long since received the full hermeneutic treatment. So far Pepys has survived intact, greater in the public imagination than his own words. The fulfilment of this outstanding scholarly enterprise makes one speculate how long he can preserve this state of innocence.

To explore this question we need to go a little into the mental space of diaries at large. But let it be admitted first that whatever else a journal may or may not be good for, it is a good subject for the attentions of an editor. By definition attuned to the private and familiar (and to perceiving them as familiar), the journal necessarily calls for the services of an explicator. When the diarist also deals with public life, and that life is as remote from us as the second Dutch War, then clearly the text will not be easy going for a reader without guides. Amazingly, everyone had to struggle on virtually unaided until Latham and Matthews came along. The previous standard edition by H.B. Wheatley appeared in ten volumes between 1893 and 1899, a date closer to the original publication in 1825 than to the present. It’s true that Wheatley delivered a much fuller text than his predecessors, omitting only ‘a few passages which cannot possibly be printed’ and at least signalising most of these gaps. But his footnotes are sketchy and often vague, his prelims do not extend beyond antiquarian jottings entitled ‘Particulars of the Life of Samuel Pepys’, and he does not bother about such matters as cross-references or literary allusions. In general, he does not gloss obsolete phrases or special usages: he simply explains obsolete things (‘metheglin ... A liquor made of honey and water, boiled and fermenting’). It is an editorial world where messages may need to be decoded, but the medium is felt to be more or less transparent.

Latham and Matthews need not have performed at a terribly distinguished level to leave this sort of feeble study-aid far behind. As the world knows, they have done very much more than that. The new edition was a long time in planning and execution, and it shows the benefit. Individual volumes have ample but not crushingly exhaustive footnotage, with maps, a glossary, a list of the major personages who enter Pepys’s life, and relatively few (but always apposite) illustrations. One gets to live with the conventions almost as an extension of the diarist’s obsessive personality. The information is dispersed in a Pepysian pattern: there is a rhythm of explanation to go with the shape of the journal. It helps, of course, that the separate volumes each relate to a single year. When the congruence partly breaks down in Volume IX, as the diary teeters uncertainly on into May 1669, the very dislocation in publishing form makes its point. The failure of Pepys to last out the decade (having started so precisely on cue in January 1660) dramatically underlines his fears of blindness. We get a sense of an ending because the volume does not close with its expected Decembrist rites. (This is not affected by the Old Style lapse of the year at 24 March. The following day for Pepys was not a human epoch, and certainly not the feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin: it was a quarter day, an administrative juncture when he had a good excuse for his favourite activity of ‘settling my papers’.) All this can be obscured when the volumes end at any old place, as they commonly do in earlier editions.

‘Obsessive’ is perhaps not quite the right word for Pepys’s character. It was dominated by a truly aesthetic sense of the beauty of everything in its place, rather than the moral obligation of a place for everything: Samuel Smiles set down his apophthegm in a book on Thrift, and Pepys wasn’t invariably good at that, on his own behalf. As the entry for ‘Finances’ in the Companion volume makes clear, his gains were in part a matter of good fortune. We are reminded in the same entry that Pepys ‘never sought to become a territorial magnate’, and that he never actually bought a house. His accumulative instincts were strong, but for delight in contemplating possessions rather than for personal security. His taste for fine objects often meant for him expense rather than investment: in The Hague (‘a most neat place in all respects. The houses so neat in all places and things as possible’), he found himself in a bookseller’s shop and ‘bought for the love of the binding three books’. One of them was the New Organon: it is tempting to guess at what Bacon would have thought of this Tom Folio style of book-selection. Assuredly Pepys was telling the truth when he remarked: ‘my delight is in the neatness of everything, and so cannot be pleased with anything unless it be very neat.’ On the very first page of the diary he is getting anxious about his wife’s irregular periods (one of the passages Wheatley could not bring himself to print); it is not fanciful to see the diary as a way of imposing stability upon the flux of experience. To make life diurnal, as the journal-writer does, is to arrest the seemingly inexorable flight of time: days are commanded to stand at attention for as long as the diarist chooses.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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