Magazine

Who was the man behind the diaries, Samuel Pepys?

  • 22 July 2010
  • From the section Magazine

It is 350 years since one of the UK's most famous diarists put pen to paper. But what was Samuel Pepys really like? And why did this modest clerk become so celebrated?

A new home for a new man in a new age - on 11 July 1660, a clerk, obscure but already on the way up, was moving into a house.

His new home, in Seething Lane near the Tower of London, came with his new job at the Navy Board.

Samuel Pepys had been lucky. His patron had been involved with the restoration of the monarch, Charles II, from the start, and was able to gather favours for himself and his retainers.

Five days earlier, Pepys and his colleagues took possession of the Navy Office, and he worried about getting the patent for his new job, saw his tailor about a new velvet coat, visited two inns, and ended the day singing extempore with a friend: "...and I find by use that we are able to sing a bass and a treble pretty well".

But soon afterwards, Pepys got the sort of surprise that often lurks in new homes: "Going down into my cellar I put my foot into a great heap of turds [from his neighbour's toilet]... which doth trouble me."

Well, it would. And we know about it, because that year Pepys had started a diary. And the ordinary clerk started to turn into an extraordinary writer.

"When people ask me why did Pepys keep a diary, I haven't got a ready answer," says Richard Luckett, keeper of Pepys's Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

But perhaps the knowledge that a great change was coming sparked the decision. At the beginning of 1660 when Pepys started it, no-one even knew if the King would be restored.

Samuel Pepys (left) and Graham Fawcett
There are parallels between then and now, says writer Graham Fawcett

But, says Dr Luckett, "Pepys knew that something was going to happen.

"And you can be the world's most wonderful diarist, but what's the point if nothing happens?"

There followed the age of the Restoration of the Merry Monarch, Charles II, and his rascally court, the Great Plague and Great Fire, and the terror of Dutch warships sailing up the Thames.

And for nine years Pepys recorded it, mixing historic events with domestic routines, scientific discoveries with slap-and-tickle.

'Kinship with us'

On 13 October 1660 he witnessed the hanging, drawing and quartering of the regicide Thomas Harrison, and then "set up shelfes in my study" in the afternoon.

It is the little details that make readers think they could easily relate to him. "He is a man of his time, but there are things about him that make us think he has a kinship with us," says Quintin Colville, curator of naval history at the National Maritime Museum.

There is a temptation to think that, had Pepys lived today, he would be a famous blogger or a master of Twitter. But in fact, he did nothing to publicise his diary.

There is no sign that he wanted people to read his brutally frank personal thoughts - certainly not his contemporaries. It was left among his books at his death but, mostly in shorthand, went unremarked for a century.

He peppered it with criticism of the King and other high-ups and his own colleagues, and he admitted to some rather questionable conduct.

Of his wife's companion, he wrote "I have a good mind to have the maidenhead of this girl", despite the anguish his pestering of her inflicted on the whole household.

After the disastrous naval defeat of England in the Second Dutch War, Pepys joined in the scapegoating of another naval official.

"I all this while showing him no respect, but rather against him, for which God forgive me! for I mean no hurt to him," Pepys confided to the diary, "but... it is necessary I should be so in behalf of the office."

Brings to life

It is impossible to know if he expected the diary ever to be read. "I think he left it to posterity and chance," says Richard Luckett.

Samuel Pepys's bust by Karin Jonzen
Pepys's bust can be found in London's Seething Lane, where he lived and worked

Now we can read it all. And readers love him for it - how he brings to life everything from the Great Fire of London to his latest evening's boozing with his fellow clerks, his first "cupp" of the new drink, tea; his constant arguments with his wife and his Carry-on capers, seemingly with almost every woman in sight.

"He has the sort of curiosity that illuminates everything it shines on," says the National Maritime Museum's Quintin Colville. "He's a lover of music, he's a lover of sex, he's a lover of administration, he's a lover of literature, he's a lover of science."

Pepys's bust today stands in Seething Lane, opposite the skull-adorned gate of St Olave Hart Street, the parish church of the Navy Office.

It is a church that Pepys fondly referred to as "our own church", and he and his wife Elizabeth are buried under the Communion Table.

In November a motet for 40 singers will be performed at the church, specially composed by Benjamin Till to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the diary.

A series of talks has also been given there to mark the anniversary and the lecturer, broadcaster and writer Graham Fawcett, says he was keen to draw parallels between Pepys's era and modern day.

In comparing the months of June and July in 1660 to those in 2010, Mr Fawcett recalled Pepys working out the month's pay the King had promised to the crews of the 30 ships who brought him back from Holland.

"And it comes to £6,538.... I wish we had the money," Pepys wrote.

Holding up a newspaper headline "Queen to run out of money" Fawcett commented on Pepys's lament: "It has a strangely Mother Hubbard ring to it, in these days of 40% cuts."

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