Although diaries can be traced back to antiquity, the 17th century witnessed the real flowering of the diarist’s art.
Following the Civil War and the Restoration of King Charles II, a new philosophical movement emerged: the Age of Enlightenment also known as the Age of Reason. It was characterised by a new sense of individuality and a huge surge of interest in science, philosophy, exploration, politics and industry.
Keeping a detailed record of events facilitated both self-awareness and an understanding of the external world.
Two of the most famous diarists of this period – Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn – lived in London and witnessed major developments in thought, politics, science and some of the great historical events in Britain’s history. They were also friends and wrote about each other.
This article focuses on Samuel Pepys, probably the most famous diarist who ever lived.
Pepys had a relatively humble background. His father was a tailor of yeoman stock and his mother was a wash-maid. However, Pepys had opportunities to advance himself and made the most of them. Starting at Grammar School, he progressed through St Paul’s School and secured an exhibition to Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was a hard worker, reliable, efficient and clever. He was the ideal civil servant, eventually rising to the position of Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board after 1660. This was a key post in one of the most important government departments of the day which controlled Britain’s largest industrial concern – The Royal Dockyards.
But what makes him such a compelling writer?
Pepys’s personality has a lot to do with it, especially his humour and his zest for life. But, above all, it is his honesty – especially about himself. Pepys admits to things that most people would not wish anyone else to know. Secrets are an essential element of a diary. And Pepys’s peccadilloes were certainly not intended for publication.
The King’s Mistress Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine
Although married, Pepys describes various amorous adventures. One tells how, being in an ‘idle and wanton humour, he ‘plotted’ with Mrs Lane ‘to go over the water’, that is, to cross to the south bank of the Thames where he was able to satisfy both his gastronomic and sexual appetites.
It is clear that Pepys was fearful of discovery because he records other encounters in French. This seems rather strange as his wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of a French Huguenot and might have been expected to understand French.
Pepys records their stormy marriage which reached its nadir when Elizabeth discovered Pepys in flagrante with her maid, Deb Willett. There followed many furious sessions with Elizabeth waking Pepys up in the middle of the night: ‘and so to bed, where after half-an-hour’s slumber, she wakes me and cries out that she should never sleep more.’ Elizabeth continues this strategy of attrition until, finally, an exhausted Pepys agrees to dismiss Deb.
It is Pepys’s treatment of women – particularly his long-suffering wife – that is the least appealing aspect of his nature.
However, Pepys has a talent for observation which enthrals the reader and gives a valuable insight into contemporary life. He is fascinated by other people and describes apparently inconsequential details which create a vivid impression of the age in which he lived. We know what he ate – and he loved food. He describes: a strange and incomparable claret, a morning draught with a pickled herring, a good joint of meat and a visit to buy spices from two poor sailors.
Pepys also records various leisure pursuits. These included: playing at ninepins, watching prize-fighting swordsmen, a trip to the fair where he showed his wife ‘the monkeys dancing on the ropes’ and a cock-fight in Shoe-Lane which drew a ‘strange variety of people, from Parliament-men to the poorest prentices, bakers, brewers, butchers, draymen and whatnot’. He takes his wife to the Bear Garden to view a bull-baiting ‘and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs’. He also records a bonfire party, where he and the other guests are ‘mighty merry’ and ‘flinging our fireworks and burning one another and the people over the way.”
So much for health and safety and the humane treatment of animals!
Pepys loved clothes and describes what he wore in detail including: a black camlott coat with gold buttons’; a belt which cost 55s’; a silk suit ‘which cost me much money’ and a summer suit with ‘a flowered tabby vest and coloured camelott tunic’ with ‘gold lace at the hands’ which he deemed ‘too fine’ for daily wear and which ‘I was afeared to be seen in’.
However, his pleasure in food, fashion and women were sometimes overshadowed by fear. In 1665, Britain was struck by the Plague. It is estimated that, in London alone, nearly a quarter of the population died. The terror that everyone felt is reflected in Pepys’s diary.
For instance, he worries about buying two barrels of oysters from his usual London shop because they come from Colchester “where the plague hath been so much”. One of his frequent haunts is the oyster shop in Gracious Street and he describes the shop-keeper as “my fine woman of the shop, who is alive after all the plague – which now is the first observation or enquiry we make at London concerning everybody we knew before it.”
Pepys’s love of fashion was also affected by his fear of infection. During the Plague year, he mentions “my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.”
In the following year, Pepys’s account of the Great Fire of London reads almost like an account of the Blitz. He is incredibly busy, walking around town and helping to make provisions to block the fire. He finds that a most effective way of stopping its progress is for the men from the King’s dockyards to blow up houses. He travels on foot all over the City and records “our feet ready to burn, walking through the town on the hot coals”.
The Great Fire of London
One of the effects of the Great Fire was to destroy London’s financial district. This, together with the Plague, had a drastic effect on the Crown’s ability to raise funds to fight the Dutch and led to a third disaster in 1667 when the Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway, burned many ships in the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and towed away the King’s flagship.
The Dutch invasion caused as much terror – and was a far great blow to national pride – than the Plague. Pepys is unsparing of his criticism of those at court who, he believed, had led the King astray and distracted him from his duties.
Like other members of the Navy Board, Pepys races from place to place, attempting to co-ordinate defence. But it is a useless task. ‘Lord’, he exclaims in frustration, ‘to see how backwardly things move at this pinch.’
Dutch Attack on the Medway, June 1667
He is further infuriated when he reaches Gravesend ‘where I find the Duke of Albemarle just come, with a great many idle lords and gentlemen with their pistols and fooleries.’
Pepys’s view of the court – which was also shared by his friend John Evelyn – is beautifully encapsulated by an anecdote recounted to him by Sir Hugh Cholmley. Several days after the invasion, Cholmley tells Pepys ‘that the Court is as mad as ever and, that the night the Dutch burned our ships, the King did sup with my Lady Castlemayne at the Duchess of Monmouth, and there were all mad in hunting of a poor moth.’
Today, in what feels like a period of great uncertainty, a trip back in time can offer both respite and comfort. After reading Pepys’s accounts of fire, plague, and invasion, our own age resembles a haven of tranquillity.