Surely there has never been such an observant, first hand record of a particular period in English history, as that written by Samuel Pepys in his diaries.
Not only a historical record, but personal day to day observations and accounts written spontaneously in short-hand and covering some of the most important events of the period. His recorded observations are so fresh that we can almost feel the horror and danger of the Plague of 1665, the terrible heat of the Great Fire of London the following year- that destroyed a great deal of central London including much of St Paul's Cathedral-, (and when, for save keeping he buried his wines and 'parmezan' cheeses in the garden). We feel the strong wind of the 'Great storme' of the 24th January, 1666,
'so strong a wind, that in the fields we many times could not carry our bodies against it, but was driven backward. It was dangerous to walk in the streets, the bricks and tiles falling from the houses, that the whole streets were covered with them- and whole chimneys, nay, whole houses in two or three places, blown down...'
Through his writings we see King Charles II playing tennis, we hear the snoring of the old Lord Chancellor during the Privy Council meetings. On the 7th June, 1665 we experience with Pepys the hottest day he ever felt in his life. With him we behold the awesome death of his brother. Through his diaries we share his life, and through him we have not only an excellent, eye-witness account of that period, but an open, very vital and virile portrait of the diarist himself.
Although he wrote for himself, he was so honest and meticulous that he often seemed naively unaware of how much he was also revealing his personal weaknesses. The thoughtless way in which he treated his wife, Elizabeth, his many affairs, (referred to under a veil of an amusing and curious mixture of English, Latin, French, Italian and Spanish) his parsimony and selfishness. But as he was a great lover of life, and as his gift to posterity is so immense, naturally he is far more endeared to and admired historically, than ever ostracised.
Samuel Pepys was a civil servant, rising to become Secretary to the Admiralty and member of Parliament in 1673. He was in command of the organisation of the Navy during the Dutch War of 1672-74.
As from 31st May, 1669, at 34 years of age, he had considerable responsibility, but due to what he imagined was a serious eye-sight problem, he abandoned his more personal diary writing and thereafter only made such notes for official use. But had he never kept personal diaries at all, he would still have been recorded in history for his valuable naval work.
Toward the end of his life he built up an impressive library of books collected from all over Europe. These as well as the six volumes of his leather bound diaries were bequeathed to Magdalene College, Cambridge, on condition that they would remain entirely intact and unchanged. This seems to suggest that he must already have been aware of how important they were for posterity. They are still preserved in the same bookcases he had specially made by dockyard carpenters, and they will always serve to bring back to life this man in his environment of the mid XVII century.
More extracts respecting his way of writing and any incidental errors.
20 June, 1665.
Thanksgiving day for Victory over the Dutch. 'Up, and to the office, where very busy alone all the morning till church time; and there heard a mean sorry sermon of Mr. Mills. Then to the Dolphin Taverne, where all we officers of the Navy met with the Comissioners of the Ordnance by agreement- where good musique, at my direction. Our club came to 34s a man - nine of us. Thence after dinner I to Whitehall with Sir W. Berkely in his coach. And so I walked to Herberts and there spent a little time avec la mosa, sin hazer algo con ella que kiss and tocar ses mamelles, que me haza hazer la cosa a mi mismo con gran plasir. Thence by water to Foxhall, and there walked an hour alone, observing the several humours of citizens that were there this holiday, pulling of cherries and God knows what.
1st February, 1667.
Up, and to the office, where I was all the morning doing business. At noon home to dinner; and after dinner down by the water, though it was thick misty and raining day, and walked to Deptford from Redriffe and there to Bagwells by appointment- where the moher erat within expecting mi venida. And did sensa alguna difficulty monter los degres and lie, comme jo desired it upon lo lectum; and there I did la cosa con much voluptas. By and by su marido came in, and there, without any notice taken by him, we discoursed of our business of getting him the new ship building by Mr Deane, which I shall do for him.
Extracts from his notes on the Great Fire of London: 2nd September, 1666:
'...And among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were both loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down..'
'.... So near the fire as we could for smoke; and all over the Thames, with one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops- this is very true- so as houses were burned by these drops and flakes of fire, three or four, nay five or six houses, one from another...'
'.... Thence homeward, having passed through Cheapside and Newgate Market, all burned. And I took up (which I keep by me) a piece of glass of Mercer's Chapel in the street, where much more was, so melted and buckled with the heat of the fire, like parchment. I also did see a poor catt taken out of a hole in the chimney joyning to the wall of the Exchange, with the hair all burned off the body and yet alive...'
And a final discovery of 'misconduct'..
25 October, 1668. Lord's Day
'At night W. Batelier comes and sups with us; and after supper, to have my head combed by Deb, which occasioned the greatest sorrow to me that ever I knew in this world; for my wife, coming up suddenly, did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed, I was with my main in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it, and the girl also; and I endeavoured to put it off, but my wife was struck mute and grew angry, and as her voice came to her, grew quite out of order; and I do say little, but to bed; and my wife said little also, but could not sleep all night; but about 2 in the morning waked me and cried, and fell to tell me as a great secret that she was a Roman Catholic and had received the Holy Sacrament; which troubled me but I took no notice of it, but she went on from one thing to the other, till at last it appeared plainly her trouble was at what she saw; but yet I did not know how much she saw and therefore said nothing to her. But after her much crying and reproaching me with inconstancy and preferring a sorry girl before her, I did give her no provocations but did promise all fair usage of her, and love, and foreswore any hurt that I did with her- till at last she seemed to be at ease again.'
Text (source- The Illustrated Pepys, with thanks) transposed images-
(portrait of SP, painting of Great Fire of London) © Mirino (PW) March, 2010