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.

Late in life, long after the period of the diary, Pepys was attacked by highwaymen on a coach-trip to Chelsea. He was forced to give up his valuables, which turned out to include a gold pencil, a silver ruler, a magnifying glass and five mathematical instruments. The inventory reads like a cross between the contents of Gulliver’s fob (he hung on to his perspective glass when frisked by the Lilliputians), and the items in Clarissa’s reticule. The instruments remind us that Pepys, the amateur who became President of the Royal Society, learnt basic mathematics as an adult, and retained a kind of mature student’s vanity in his accomplishment. The magnifying glass obviously relates to his defective close sight, which caused him to give up the diary. Yet though his condition has been diagnosed as hypermetropia, the focal distance of his own scrutiny of the world is remarkably close – compared to Evelyn, for instance. And the gold pencil fetishises his passion for the written word: it is paradoxically his compulsive note-taking which has raised him above the level of an administrative doodler, a minute-taker, a higher pen-pusher.

Here is the great unuttered conundrum behind the opulence of the new edition. Since Wheatley, we have learnt an immense amount concerning the Pepys who existed outside the diary. He has been the subject of numerous biographical assessments: the author of the diary is pretty well ‘the man in the making’ of Sir Arthur Bryant’s three-volume life – that is, a sort of apprentice Pepys only. Richard Ollard’s Pepys (1974) is less strangely proportioned from this point of view, but again there is a deliberate attempt to set the familiar Pepys in a context of broader aspiration and achievement. Much of the new Companion volume rehearses the findings of recent scholarship, and once more the effect is to suggest that posterity has been barking up a single branch in the grand outspreading oak of a career. True, but it isn’t Pepys’s career which matters, except to the administrative historian. He is the master of a form which denies the teleology of outward progress, which relegates consequence in favour of subsequence, which intensifies the moment at the expense of wider development.

All this comes back to the diary form itself. It is a most peculiar mode in several respects. It licenses the crudest repetition: what would be battology in any other place becomes a confirmation of the ongoing pattern. So the formulaic turns (‘Up, and to the office’: ‘and then to supper and to bed’) serve more than a temporal function: they also calibrate the story, and show us in which direction the graph of Pepys’s consciousness is shifting. And then there’s the extraordinary potency of dates in a diary – the modern expression ‘to date’ (=‘go out on a date’) derives from a whole history of semantic frequentation, in which OED locates senses like ‘to refer or assign to a certain date’, ‘to reckon chronologically’, ‘to put an end to’ or ‘to assign a time or duration to’. But the primary sense of this verb is ‘to affix the date to (a writing etc)’. To date anything, in a letter or a journal, is a way of relating yourself to any event covered under this rubric. The modern ‘date’ is an engagement made binding by its proleptic fixity in time. And to assign a specific date to any event is to limit the possibilities of interpretation, to give it a kind of pedigree within the succession of other events.

There is an interesting passage early in Boswell where he quotes a letter from Johnson in 1743: the subject was a proposed Parliamentary history which Edward Cave and Johnson had mooted. This paragraph then follows regarding ‘our Historical Design’:

I think the insertion of the exact dates of the most important events in the margin or of so many events as may enable the reader to regulate the order of facts with sufficient exactness the proper medium between a Journal which has regard only to time, and a history which ranges facts according to their dependence on one another, and postpones or anticipates according to the convenience of the narration. I think our work ought to partake of the Spirit of History which is contrary to minute exactness, and of the regularity of a Journal which is inconsistent with spirit. For this reason I neither admit numbers or dates nor reject them.

Now Johnson is thinking of a work such as the Journal of the House of Commons rather than a private diary. Nevertheless, he describes a major branching in narratological styles. The novel, as evolving in England under the influence of Fielding and Sterne, became the mode par excellence for postponing and anticipating. One of the reasons that epistolatory fiction went out of the window was its seemingly naive confinement to a linear time-scale. The long narrative forms, in historiography as well as fiction, tended to prefer techniques of simultaneous rather than successive action: of the synchronic against the diachronic, and of the anatomy in place of temporal exposition. Not until the 20th century does the journal again become an important model for narration. Meanwhile diaries themselves have sometimes in recent years aspired to the condition of timelessness, perversely, and in a case like Gide’s merge into reminiscence, meditation or tract.

There is one more peculiarity about the form. It is, after all, a non-communicative medium. Some diarists may have had their eye on posterity, or concealed some ulterior motive like Boswell’s. But at the same time (and both Pepys and Boswell bear this out) the diary has to achieve its rhetorical aims with an audience of one. So the usual ways of describing discourse don’t quite work. In terms of Austinian speech-acts, you can’t do very much with a passage like this, or at least not in the usual way:

At night set myself to write down these three days’ diary; and while I am about it, I hear the noise of the chambers and other things of the Fireworkes, which are now playing upon the Thames before the King. And I wish myself with them, being sorry not to see them

No doubt there are statements of a sort here, but they’re all tautologous or redundant – their function is not to disclose information to others, but to remind Pepys and seal the facts up. When you get beyond their propositional status, all the remarks turn out to be self-communing, self-consoling, self-warning, self-promising, self-cajoling. The illocutionary act takes place in a wholly reflexive context: a diary is like semaphoring into a mirror, and the gestures which would mean one thing to an outside observer have a privileged and private significance within this context. (The date itself, as I have suggested, becoming an important signifier in its own right.)

Then there is the effect of the shorthand itself. The edition is a little too reticent on this aspect of Pepys. Matthews devoted a few pages to the topic in the first volume, but the Companion is disappointingly silent on the whole issue. The need for speed and efficiency in administrative matters may have impelled Pepys in the direction of Shelton’s system. But it is important to realise that the growing interest in stenography goes with the efflorescence of language systems, and especially the ambition to arrive at a universal tongue through an understanding of the ‘real character’ of language. That phrase comes in the title of a deeply representative book by John Wilkins. It is altogether fitting that a leading figure in the Royal Society should have been preoccupied by such inquiries. One recalls that in the Grand Academy of Lagado the mechanical operation of words figures more largely than experiments with mice – or with dogs. Pepys was surrounded by virtuosi such as Wilkes, Hooke and Boyle: he picked up only a few crumbs of hard science, but it would be natural for him to seek in his own secret expressive medium some of the demystifying, deconstructive functions of the new scientific styles of thought. In his biography Ollard writes convincingly of the effect of the training in logic and disputation which Pepys would have received at Cambridge: ‘It was an educational device that must have been congenial to a person, like Pepys, of quick intellectual reflexes and of an aggressively competitive nature.’ Equally the diagrammatic and reductive nature of the shorthand symbol must have appealed to one with a clear brain, a capacity to range things in orders of priority, a talent for suppression.

It is interesting to compare the transcript in the new edition with that made by Mynors Bright and used in the Wheatley edition. Surprisingly little emerges by way of significant departure: Matthews provides a more lively-looking syntax by means of a rapid sprinkling of minor stops, and generally by punctuating a little more freely. Compare the transcriptions of the entry for 5 January 1666 – first, the version by Bright in Wheatley’s edition:

5th. I with my Lord Bruncker and Mrs Williams by coach with four horses to London, to my Lord’s house in Covent-Guarden. But, Lord! what staring to see a nobleman’s coach come to town. And porters every where bow to us; and such begging of beggars! And a delightfull thing it is to see the towne full of people again as now it is; and shops begin to open, though in many places seven or eight together, and more, all shut; but yet the towne is full, compared to what it used to be. I mean the City end; for Covent-Guarden and Westminster are yet very empty of people ...

And now Matthews’s text for the new edition:

5. I, with my Lord Brouncker and Mrs Williams, by coach with four horses to London, to my Lord’s house in Covent Guarden. But Lord, what staring to see a nobleman’s coach come to town – and porters everywhere to bow to us, and such begging of beggars. And a delightful thing it is to see the town full of people again, as now it is, and shops begin to open, though in many places, seven or eight together, and more, all shut; but yet the town is full compared to what it used to be – I mean the City-end, for Covent Gu[a]rden and Westminster are yet very empty of people ...

The verbal departures are very slight indeed: but Matthews makes strategic use of the dash, and his avoidance of exclamatory marks gives the highly Pepysian expression about the beggars a more idiomatic, Fuller-like quality. To read Bright’s transcript is to enter the world of 19th-century antiquarian reconstruction, whereas Matthews is at once more literal and more authentically literary – he lets the stops stop the flow of sense where appropriate. The truth is that you can’t punctuate shorthand exactly as you would longhand. Even with a system like Shelton’s ‘tachygraphy’, with parts of symbols for individual letters, the brain receives impressions in different spacing, and thus different mental sets, from those provoked in normal reading. The instinct Matthews displays to combine sentences, as in this passage, is a sound one: shorthand gets somewhere faster, without a syntax of telegraphese, and there is no need for a break in the rhythm quite so often.

At the end of this same entry, we encounter one of Wheatley’s silent bowdlerisations: ‘So home, and to my papers for lacke of company, but by and by comes little Mrs Tooker and sat and supped with me, and I kept her very late talking and making her comb my head, and did what I will with her. So late to bed.’ Here is the new edition: ‘ ... but by and by comes little Mrs Tooker sat and supped with me, and I kept her very late, talking and making her comb my head; and did what I will with her and tena grande plaisir con ella, tocando sa cosa con mi cosa, and hazendo la cosa par cette moyen. So late to bed.’ Pepys’s little language is an odd Franco-Spanish concoction, absolutely transparent once the shorthand (garbled in such passages) is decoded. There is an oddity too in the parallel with Boswell, who employed the identical system of shorthand for secrets within his secret journal, which called for the use of a cipher. Boswell was much more self-conscious about his methods: when he started his grand tour, he contemplated writing in French, and on other occasions he debated whether to use the past or the present tense. By comparison Pepys’s linguistic aberrations have an innocent air.

It has been pointed out by David Nokes that the Companion is distinctly reticent about sex. In this it reflects the new edition as a whole: the facts are there, but not dwelt on (good) or ever really analysed (dubious). Not only is there no entry for Sex (as Nokes again observes, ‘Health – A Psychoanalyst’s View’ is the nearest, and of course that is not the only way of processing the data), but there is a tendency to smooth over this side of Pepys. There is a brief entry for ‘Weddings’, none for marriage. Sex has been personalised, distanced from the primal instincts of the age and made a matter of the hero’s own upbringing, bladder disorders and fear of going blind. The single phrase suggesting a wider frame of reference for considering his sexuality is the limp speculation: ‘Perhaps the remnant of the Puritan in him had to be deceived.’ Likewise there is no mention in the interesting entry for ‘Language’ of the macaronic dirty-talk.

Yet surely forbidden allusions are a clue to Pepys, the whole man and not just the sexual agent. As with the bawdy in Elizabethan comedy, the smut carries a charge of wit along with its shock potential. In the passage for 5 January just quoted, there’s the verbal patterning playing around ‘la cosa’. Elsewhere Pepys talks of ‘ma chose’, and boasts that he ‘pouvait avoir done any cose cum elle’ (the key words won’t be found in the Large Glossary, otherwise a notable aid in reading the text). Pepys is constantly writing pour la petite histoire, and now his footnotes to great events have acquired smaller footnotes to bite them. Pepys’s descent into the little language has a fondling air in itself, as though he were caressing his peccadillos and his slight affairs – a small chose but my own. The feeble way in which the language is disguised – ‘did hazer ella con sua hand para tocar mi thing’ – renders a defenceless, pleading note to these compulsive antics. At least Boswell admits to the human need in his urge for girls: ‘And then I solaced my existence with them, one after the other, according to their seniority. I was quite raised, as the phrase is ... enjoying high debauchery after my sober winter.’

To be fair to the Companion, Pepys is a poor candidate for the family, sex and marriage treatment insofar as he has only a wife and then an extended family (splendidly tracked by the editor into the vistas of the past): no scope for discussion of swaddling or wetnurses. In most respects the volume is all one would have hoped. Richard Luckett has two of the most interesting assignments, ‘Language’ and ‘Music’: both are handled with the highest competence, and the latter entry does full justice to Pepys’s abiding passion with a fascinating survey of Restoration music. Music, be it noted, not just musical life: Luckett is a valuable new brand of commentator on Pepys who realises that the diary contains within itself the foundations of substantive history rather than simply gossip. Here there is an excellent discussion of the use of tablature as against staff notation, and the ways in which this custom may have limited Pepys’s musical accomplishments. Rupert Hall is authoritative on ‘Science’ and ‘The Royal Society’: again, it would be possible to treat some of this material in a wider ideological context, as has been done by Michael Hunter in Science and Society in Restoration England (1981), with its impressive analysis of the scientific community at local and national level. Some of the diplomatic history seems faintly old-fashioned, and maybe we needed an entry on the United Provinces, per se, to go with ‘The Dutch Wars’ – it’s an unfortunate fact that Dutch politics invade all domestic issues sooner or later. Against that, there is a huge range of information in the short biographic entries: the article on Pepys’s patron Sandwich easily surpasses former reference sources, notably the bitty narrative in DNB by John Knox Laughton.

It is pretty much of a set exercise to compare and contrast Pepys with Evelyn, and the appearance of John Bowle’s selection from the other great diary (over four hundred pages, still not a third of the whole) requires me to weigh solid pudding against empty praise. Few trumpets have sounded for Evelyn, yet he is the more interesting mind, the more cultivated sensibility and the more finished as a writer. It is true we don’t get the Pepysian indiscretions, the comic self-exposure or the racy linguistic verve (‘though I had a month’s mind I had not the boldness to go to her,’ says Pepys of a pretty Dutch girl: as Luckett’s glossary shows, the phrase has deep roots in proverbial consciousness, a trick Pepys shares with Shakespeare). What Evelyn has got might be described as staying power: he knew le plaisir de vivre in Caroline England, and he survived to squint through Newton’s Opticks, to witness Blenheim and the Great Storm of 1703. Bowle suggests he was something of a prig, but his puritanical attitudes were mainly reserved for ‘the celebrated follies of Bartholomew faire’, the growing habit of women other than prostitutes to paint themselves, and such flimflams. Against this can be set a good deal of wit, any number of jokes (Pepys never has anything quite like ‘The Curate preach’d on his former Subject, like a Country parson, that tooke no great paines’), and a fine sense of absurdity: at St Denis, ‘the story on it is a Bacchanalia and sacrifice to Priapus, a very holy thing, and fit for a Cloyster.’ At Pisa, he remarks that you expect the campanile to fall down any minute, though its’s true he supposed this was because it had been built ‘exceedingly declining by a rare adresse of the immortal Architect’.

At the centre of Evelyn’s talents lies an abundant curiosity, less self-regarding than that of Pepys. In Rome he visits the Sistine Chapel and describes the roof and the sacristy: he also witnesses the Papal cavalcade of Innocent X. Pepys would have told us about a pretty girl in the next row, and their secret telepathy: Evelyn enumerates the constituents of the scene. Both men give a picture of the Russian ambassador in 1662: Pepys cavorts in and out of his own account, whilst Evelyn keeps his eye on the astonishing retinue. A more famous point of conjunction occurs with the outbreak of the fire in September 1666. Evelyn gives us a chronicle, and for all the strong sense of first-hand observation, there is at the same time a feeling for the momentous historical significance of the events: ‘ô the miserable and calamitous speectacle, such as happly the whole world had not seene the like since the foundation of it, nor to be out don, ’til the universal Conflagration of it.’ Pepys goes for the immediately graphic, such as the poor pigeons ‘loath to leave their houses’. This difference may be attributable in large measure to differing modes of composition – Pepys writing up his diary promptly, where Evelyn composed at leisure and at retrospect. But there are bigger differences in education and outlook. Pepys is to a remarkable degree unlatinate, whereas quotations and echoes flood through the chamber of Evelyn’s mind. Evelyn could never have invented Pepys’s marvellously useful verb ‘to unbespeak’ (which the Large Glossary defines as to rescind an invitation). Equally Pepys could not have composed the great passages in Evelyn, above all the enormously touching laments for the deaths of his children. These passages, 27 January 1658, 8 March and 28 August 1685, deserve to rank among the classical pages in English prose. There is nothing in Donne or Thomas Browne more simply affecting or more eloquent than these Kindertotenlieder: ‘After this I caused the body to be Cofin’d in Lead, and reposited him that night, about 8 a clock in the Church of Deptford ... intending (God willing) to have him transported with my owne body ... and to my bones and mingle my dust with my Fathers, etc: if God be so gracious to me; and make me as fit for him, as this blessed child was: Here ends the joy of my life, and for which I go even mourning to the grave.’

Bowle already has a standard edition to work on, that by E.S. de Beer (1955). His introduction is pleasant, though he miscalculates Evelyn’s age at a crucial stage; the selection judicious, and probably well justified in omitting most of the religious passages. There is a good index, but the notes are few and perfunctory, and might have been omitted: if a reader needs to be told that ‘Braineford’ is Brentford and ‘Ports’ are gates, then it is hard to see why we should be spared explanation of mysterious personages such as the artist ‘F: Couenberg’, archaic words like ‘Magazine’ (for arsenal), or arcane expressions like ‘jeu de Goblets’. The editor doesn’t help us with ‘Praevaricators’ at Oxford, and when Evelyn says of one of Charles II’s harem that ‘she was first made a Misse as they cald these unhappy creatures,’ we could do with some of de Beer’s brisk factual reminders to curb our imagination. Part of the material has been carelessly taken over: Evelyn mentions a place named ‘Ensham’, and it appears thus in the index. What de Beer pointed out was that this is an error for Enstone, caused by a confusion with Eynsham. So the non-existent place is needlessly preserved.

Details of this kind apart, it is very good to have Evelyn made so much more accessible in this way. The same could be said of Sir Richard Faber’s sympathetic book on Sir William Temple, which is particularly well written and agreeably unfussy in its approach to a slightly pernickety man. It is not a formal biography, rather a series of essays on aspects of Temple, the diplomat, the writer and so forth. Faber manages to make some tedious passages of diplomacy readable-about, if not exactly enthralling: his sense of a dandified, fastidious aesthete in Temple’s make-up provides a welcome corrective to earlier pictures of a priggish old buffer. Rightly Faber questions the recent view of Temple, set out in Swiftian scholarship, which would make Temple’s undeniable influence on his protégé quite impossible to account for. The book is likely to be overshadowed by the Pepysian festivities on all sides. A pity, but hardly something that could have been avoided. Faber offers us gentle revaluation of a marginal figure: the Latham edition gives us Pepys and his diary as we have never properly had them up till now. At last we have the work signed, sealed, packaged and comprehensively indexed, and the fresh task will be to reclaim it from the packagers. For the first time Pepys can become fully lisible.