Samuel Pepys' Diary

Samuel Pepys by John Hayls
Samuel Pepys by John Hayls. Wikimedia Commons version of National Portrait Gallery Original

In the seventeenth century a young man living in London wrote a diary of his life and thoughts. He was Samuel Pepys, and while he wrote entirely privately, he created a wonderfully insightful read and an important source on King Charles II's London, including the Great Fire. The diary wasn't published until decades later.

The Diary:

In 1659, a 27 year old civil servant made a New Year's Resolution: to keep a diary of his life, which was lived in London; he kept it for ten years before declining eyesight caused him to stop.

The civil servant was Samuel Pepys, who in that ten years rose from a junior position at the Exchequer to administrative head of the British Navy and a confidante of Charles II. Over the same period England, London and Samuel experienced the return of a king, a plague, a great fire and much more.

The Contents:

Starting on January 1st 1660, Pepys' diary records events of great importance – the plague, the great fire, the coronation – alongside details of his life and a wealth of observances about London. However, because Pepys was writing for himself and his own enjoyment, he felt no need to edit, lie or distort events to create certain impressions; he simply wrote honestly what he felt and what he saw, even when it cast him in a bad light. Pepys' diaries are not propaganda, but some of the most open accounts you can read.

Fortunately for later readers, Pepys' was a gifted writer, able to beautifully evoke situations in the written world, a man given to careful observation and the sort of person who lived an incident filled life; the diary benefits accordingly.

Stylistically, Pepys is an impressionist, running his thoughts together, cramming description after description and event after event into long, grand sentances. At the same time, there are many small sayings we all recognise: "And so to Bed." He was so candid it can be awkward to read, and I have felt a sense of embarrassment over intimate passages you wonder if he really wanted read.

Importance:

The Diary is famous for two reasons. For historians, it is an unparalleled insight into the lives, trends and thoughts abounding in seventeenth century London, a short-cut to empathy and the early modern mind. For casual readers, the diary is an exhilarating account of a bright life, with highs and lows, successes and failures, loves and flaws, expressed in great flourishes of words. It can be tricky, it can be emotional, and it's a source of joy for committed fans.

The 'Code':

While Pepys wrote names out fully, everything else was rendered in a form of shorthand common in the mid-seventeenth century. Unfortunately, when people first tried to transcribe the diaries in 1819 the shorthand had been forgotten and people thought the diaries were in code, one they worked on and cracked. Even more unfortunately, a guide to this shorthand was contained elsewhere in Pepys papers, but only discovered after. Wikimedia have a reproduction of text from the first page so you can see the handwriting and style.

However, the Diary did contain a layer of obfuscation beyond simple shorthand. In some passages of a particularly emotionally sensitive nature, Pepys mixed Spanish, French and Italian together to both disguise his exact meaning and better reflect his feelings.

Follow this link for examples, or read Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self for her full explanation.

Publication:

Pepys claimed he didn't write for a public audience, but by his death he evidently felt proud enough of the dairy to have had it bound and included amongst his three thousand volume library. The diary thus moved with the rest of the books to Cambridge after his death. It stayed unread until 1819 when, prompted by the commercial success of John Evelyn's diary, an attempt was made at translation. This took three years and led to the diary’s first publication, a shortened version, in 1825.

A new edition, done with the key, was produced in 1875-79 by Mynors Bright, a further revised edition in 1893-99 and the definitive version produced by Latham and Matthews between 1970-83.

Bryant on the Diary:

Arthur Bryant's description in the Encyclopedia Britannica is almost as glorious as the Diary itself:

"It is far more than an ordinary record of its writer's thoughts and actions; it is a supreme work of art, revealing on every page the capacity for selecting the small, as well as the large, essential that conveys the sense of life; and it is probably, after the Bible and James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, the best bedside book in the English language. One can open it on any page and lose oneself in the life of Charles II's London, and of this vigorous, curious, hardworking, pleasure-loving man." From 'Pepys, Samuel' in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved June 7, 2005, from the Britannica Premium Service. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=5597>

There are surely few reviews more glowing!

Modern Era

There has been at least one website devoted to bringing the diary into the digital age, by posting the entries up as if they had just been written, a ten year project which achieved some press and, hopefully, more fans of Pepys. There was certainly a devoted community, and the website is still going here having embarked on a second journey through the text. They have built a ready reference of terms and things that might need explaining, so is worth a bookmark even if you have a book.