5: The Diarist

5: The Diarist April 9, 2019

Podcast excerpt

Twenty-first century London sprawls over a thousand square miles of southern England, but for most of its history, London proper was packed into a single square mile – a district now known as The City. It had a single bridge, London Bridge, a twenty-arched catastrophe of stone and wood, and an easy target for cheap-shot nursery rhymes.

This was the pocket-sized London that Shakespeare had known. But even as I walked into The City and past the gorgeous south bank reconstruction of his Globe Theatre, it wasn’t Shakespeare I had in mind. Shakespeare’s the right guide for Scottish moors, Danish princes and Italian balconies, but he wrote very little about the city in which he lived and worked. For the best guide to pocket-sized London, we turn to Samuel Pepys.

Like most educated middle-class London males of his time, Pepys was a hard drinker, serial adulterer, fiddler, and Secretary of the Navy. Unlike most of his century-mates, Pepys (not pronounced “peppies,” but for reasons I can’t even guess at, “peeps”) kept a careful diary, a very personal one – without which we’d only know one of the above characteristics, and not really care much about that.

He began his diary on the first of January 1660, recording his thoughts and actions for nearly ten years thereafter without missing a single day. Pepys described navy business, revolutions, plagues, his extramarital affairs, and his bowel movements with equal enthusiasm – often in the same paragraph. “Pulled my wife’s nose in anger, then felt rather ashamed. Screwed the carpenter’s wife again in the afternoon. Army massed north of the Scottish border, Parliament’s future uncertain. Shat twice in good volume before bedtime” is less a paraphrase than you might hope.

Out of deep respect for his wife Elizabeth, Sam limited his adulterous affairs to twelve other women, sorry, thirteen, and went the extra mile by sparing Elizabeth knowledge of all but one.

We do get to hear in detail from his diary how she stumbled on the one. “Elizabeth, coming upstairs suddenly, found me with my main[1] in Deb’s cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it, and the girl also.”[2] Deb was their 17-year-old live-in servant. Look, I’m not offering Pepys’ Diary for moral instruction. But he was at a “wonderful loss,” at least, which I’m sure would count for something if only I knew what it meant.

There were many other ways in which he was good and kind and noble, which I’ll spare you. But more than any message, it’s the combination of who Pepys was during the diary years – a broke, newlywed clerk who climbed to the top of the British Admiralty – and the fact that those nine years included some of the most astonishing moments in English history: the restoration of the monarchy after Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great London Fire of 1666.[3] Sam Pepys was not only alive but center stage for all of these, a 17th century Forrest Gump, but with the intellect and literacy to find analogies to life even more compelling than a box of chocolates.

Add to those the fact that he wrote engagingly, perceptively and well, and you’ve got a unique historical treasure so irreplaceably precious that posterity would surely want to be damn careful not to lose or alter one damn word. (Hold that thought.) Now add the fact that Pepys lived near the Tower and walked along the Thames to his office in Greenwich for much of his career and… well, you might see why I’d be giddily obsessed with Pepys and his diary right about now.

[1] Euphemism for “winkie.”

[2] Entry for 25 Oct 1668.—Ed.

[3] Don’t let the names fool you. Neither the plague nor the fire was all that great. Quite the contrary, some would say.


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