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October 18, 2017

The Last of Pepys's Diary

On this day in 1669, Samuel Pepys regretfully made the final entry in his nine-and-a-half-year diary, citing his deteriorating eyes as cause. Begun when he was a struggling young civil servant, Pepys's diary covers the beginnings of his rise to wealth and influence in Restoration England. It is praised not just as a priceless historical document but for a range of character, anecdote and detail that is Dickensian in scope, and just as readable. We learn the devices and dirty linen of those at court; of running from the Black Death and being singed by the Great Fire; of who wore this latest fashion to that popular play; of the best pub for anchovies or assignations; of the small, perfect things only a born storyteller would notice: "I staid up till the bell-man came by with his bell just under my window as I was writing this very line, and cried, 'Past one of the clock, and a cold, and frosty, windy morning.'"

Pepys may be at his most engaging -- and graphic -- when trying to describe and puzzle out his flirting and philandering. Here the diary shifts suddenly from the large canvas of Court and City to a more familiar domestic drama, in which Pepys plays many roles. We might find him in fond recall of how his young wife "used to make coal fires and wash my foul clothes with her own hand for me, poor wretch! in our little room at Lord Sandwich's; for which I ought forever to love and admire her, and do." Or in remorse, and "most absolutely resolved, if ever I can maister this bout, never to give her occasion while I live of more trouble of this or any other kind, there being no curse in the world so great as this of the difference between myself and her." Or, after another late night, doing the two-step:
    ... and so, by water home, and there my wife mighty angry for my absence, and fell mightily out, but not being certain of any thing, but thinks only that Pierce or Knepp was there, and did ask me, and, I perceive, the boy, many questions. But I did answer her; and so, after much ado, did go to bed and lie quiet all the night; but [she] had another bout with me in the morning, but I did make shift to quiet her, but yet she was not fully satisfied, poor wretch! in her mind, and thinks much of my taking so much pleasure from her; which, indeed, is a fault, though I did not design or foresee it when I went.
This is a March, 1669 entry; Pepys stopped his diary in May, and Mrs. Pepys died of fever later that year, aged twenty-nine. Whether their relationship remained a turmoil, we do not discover. From Pepys's last, May 31st entry:
    And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journall, I being not able to do it any longer.... I must forbear; and therefore resolve from this time forward to have it kept by my people in longhand, and must therefore be contented to set down no more then is fit for them and all the world to know; or if there be anything ... I must endeavour to keep a margin in my book open, to add here and there a note in short-hand with my own hand. And so I betake myself to that course which [is] almost as much as to see myself go into my grave -- for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me.
No such journal records were maintained, either in servants' longhand or Pepys's private code. Pepys lived for another quarter-century, but he did not remarry.

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