24 February 2006

Things I love: Pepys's diary

One of my favorite things to read is the diary of Samuel Pepys. (His name, by the way, is pronounced “peeps”.) For most of the 1660s, Pepys recorded his life in minute and bracingly honest detail. Anyone who could write as directly as he did would make for an entertaining read, but Pepys also had the advantage of living a very interesting life: during the time he kept the diary, he was swiftly climbing the career ladder as an administrator for the Royal Navy. As such, he had access to many high officials--especially his patron, Lord Sandwich--and was privy to the goings-on of the royal court and the diplomatic corps. The 1660s, you’ll recall, was a time of great drama in London: the diary begins during the confusion of the Restoration, and later covers the Plague and the Great Fire. We are fortunate that an observer so acute as Pepys recorded his thoughts during this period.

Reading day by day through Pepys’s diary creates the illusion of living in another time. In its pages we confront the essential continuity of human experience across the centuries: joy, sorrow, confusion, rivalry, glee, love, death. Yet we also come to understand some of the strangeness that makes the past into “another country.”

One example of this juxtaposition comes in the entry for 6 February 1663, when Pepys hired a coachman to carry him home:
So home, and being called by a coachman who had a fare in him, he carried me beyond the Old Exchange, and there set down his fare, who would not pay him what was his due, because he carried a stranger with him, and so after wrangling he was fain to be content with 6d., and being vexed the coachman would not carry me home a great while, but set me down there for the other 6d., but with fair words he was willing to it, and so I came home and to my office, setting business in order, and so to supper and to bed, my mind being in disorder as to the greatness of this day’s business that I have done, but yet glad that my trouble therein is like to be over.
In reading this, we touch on the life of an anonymous coachman of seventeenth-century London--someone who would have been lost to posterity had not Pepys jotted down his notation. At the same time, we come to know Pepys a little better. We grasp immediately the ambivalence he feels: his mind was in disorder over the day's business (for which you'll have to read the whole entry), yet he was also glad to have it behind him.

Thinking of Pepys and the coachman reminds me of a comment I once read--from Harold Bloom, I think-- about the reader’s desire to experience as much of life as possible. Bloom said that he reads so much because he is hungry to experience many human lives within the span of his own. The diary of Pepys allows us to do this in fine style.

Pepys has been popular reading since his diaries were discovered in the nineteenth century. We today are doubly fortunate to have two wonderful ways to read it. The University of California Press hardcover edition is a beautiful example of the bookmaker’s craft. If you love books that are well-wrought physical objects, you will love these books: the typeface, the proportions of each volume and the words on the page, the system of annotations--all are delightful. Buying the whole diary would run to several hundred dollars, but any good university library will have a set.

Thanks to the tireless labors of Phil Gyford, we can also enjoy the diary (albeit in an earlier, less-perfect edition than the California one) online. Since it is set up in blog style, you can sip from the diary instead of trying to gulp it, and you can leave comments or annotations of your own.

Why not inject a tidbit of history into your daily reading diet? It's the only blog you'll find that was written in the seventeenth century!

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