Samuel Pepys and The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys was a diarist, naval administrator and Member of Parliament. On 1 January 1660 (the year of the Restoration), Pepys began his now-famous diary when he was living in Westminster in conditions of hardship. Enterprising and meticulous, his fortunes began to rise, and he secured preferment within the Navy Office. He went on to become an efficient civil servant and bureaucrat, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a man-about-town, and a figure in court circles. His attractive personality drew the attention of the monarch, Charles II, as well as his brother, King James II.

It was the publication of Evelyn’s Memoirs in 1818 which led to the rediscovery of the manuscript version of the work for which Pepys is now known across the English- speaking world. Pepys had left to the library of Magdalene College, Cambridge, six volumes of encoded diaries, along with a sizeable legacy of contemporary pamphlets, ballads, and manuscripts. The diaries were approximately deciphered by a Cambridge undergraduate John Smith and published in 1815.

The Diary covered the period of Pepys’s life from the beginning of 1660 until 1669 when he was compelled to abandon his work due to the onset of blindness. In the Diary, most of the one-and-a-quarter-million words were written in shorthand, which was still an arcane branch of learning during the time. But it is hardly surprising that Pepys, a man of scientific curiosity, should have studied Thomas Shelton’s Tutor to Tachygrapliy or Short-writing, while an undergraduate at Cambridge.

In his Diary, Pepys described with great honesty, the Restoration, including the coronation of King Charles II, the horrors of the plague, and the Great Fire of London. The Diary was meant for his eye alone. And it was consequently written with unusual candor, often providing information about his private life. It is a great humanist document, on the one hand, informed by the intellectual currents of his age; it is also a revelation about Pepys as a private individual, an epicurean who loved life and was unapologetic about his behavior or attitudes. The Diary is eminently readable, filled with contemporary gossip and rumors, the social rituals, administrative hassles, the ‘entertainments’ available in London. It is a complete documentation of the various aspects of the everyday life of a seventeenth-century intellectual.

From a historical perspective, the importance of the Diary can hardly be rivaled. The colorful and combustible decade is seen through the eyes of an ambitious, self-interested and enthusiastic young man who embodied the youthful attributes of the Restoration era. On the personal front, the Diary is an excellent achievement of the literature of privacy, often intimate and unique. Pepys is outspoken about his views, and the whole document is wonderfully energized by the diarist’s frank admission of his failings and his continually shifting attention, a mind which was ‘with the child to see any strange thing’. The enduring popularity of Pepys’s Diary continued through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reaching out to the reading public. It is a fully annotated edition by Latham and Matthews, consisting of eleven volumes, which was completed in 1983, a masterpiece of lively scholarship.