Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 883
The Diary of Samuel Pepys opens with an entry dated January 1, 1660. The author was twenty-seven years old and already well on his way to a lucrative career in the service of the English crown. “Blessed be God,” begins the entry, “ . . . I was in very good health.” Pepys continues with a brief description of his household—himself, his wife, Elizabeth, and a servant named Jane—and then goes on to note “the condition of the State.” These opening sentences are significant in that they contain many of the distinctive subjects discussed in the Diary. Pepys was clearly a moral and religious man—in a very general and philosophical way; his journal entries often begin with an invocation to God, and he records a considerable amount of soul-searching coupled with resolutions to live a better life. Almost as important to Pepys as his religion was his health, which is mentioned, discussed, and analyzed at regular intervals. The early trouble with his bladder left Pepys with an obsessive consciousness of the workings of his body, and his concern with various ailments is a notable feature of the Diary. Other topics of major interest to Pepys were his wife and their ongoing servant problems and the affairs of the government, to which he devoted so much of his time and energy.
The opening lines of the Diary are important not only for their content but also for their tone and language and for the order in which Pepys—a very methodical man—arranged the details he included. Pepys’s tone throughout the Diary is always calm and matter-of-fact, even when he reports unsettling or disturbing events. Thus it is that in a time of great political and social upheaval, he records dryly, “The officers of the army all forced to yield,” in reference to the fact that General George Monck, one of the architects of the Restoration process, was marching south with his men to take Whitehall from the Parliamentary generals. Yet the concise sentences do not make for dull reading. On the contrary, because Pepys so carefully chooses his words, the details that he records stand out in clear and precise relief against the urbane but utilitarian prose that he employs. The Diary reflects the importance to Pepys of certain aspects of his life, mentioned in order of significance—God, health, family and household, politics. Pepys was, of course, vastly interested in a number of other subjects, but those five mentioned early are the topics to which he returns over and over in his narrative.
Through the Diary, modern readers enter the life and mind of one of the most remarkable Englishmen of all time, a man typical of his era and representative of it in both his virtues and his flaws, a man who lived a recognizably and humanly average life during a century that history recognizes as one of England’s most turbulent. Therein lies one of the paradoxes of the Diary. Pepys records meals, sleepless nights, marital spats, lazy servants, colds and fevers, a pet dog, a sulking sister, new gloves and shoes, even (infrequent) baths as notable elements of a life that also included visits to the royal apartments, suppers with the aristocracy, speeches before Parliament, promotions and appointments to desirable posts, and friendships with the rich and famous. Pepys the private soul-searcher is also Pepys the avid theatergoer, Pepys the jealous husband is Pepys the philanderer, and Pepys the recorder of ailments is the same as Pepys the Royal Society man. Again and again, the Diary reveals the extent to which the private and the public met during the Restoration.
The Diary is especially valuable to historians for its evocative and vivid accounts of some of the most important events of the 1660’s: the return of Charles Stuart to England, his coronation as King Charles II, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, among others. Also of historical and literary importance are Pepys’s descriptions of theatrical performances. He comments on the architecture of the theaters, on the new practice of casting women in female roles, on stage machinery, on specific plays, on actors and actresses in various roles, on the audience. Although theater historians have long recognized Pepys’s Diary as a valuable source of information on the Restoration theater, social historians also owe Pepys a great debt. The Diary is a prime source of information on the elements of Restoration society and culture, music (one of Pepys’s passions), the decorative arts (furniture, silver, and china), architecture, painting, science and medicine, clothing, and books. Unlike Jonathan Swift’s fictional Gulliver, Pepys was not a naïve observer, and his Diary reveals his opinions, his preferences, his biases, and his analyses of his own actions as well as those of others.
In 1669, Pepys began to fear that he might go blind. He had long had trouble with his eyesight, possibly the result of close scrutiny of naval documents and accounts and even household records; he even records that the candlelight in the theaters “did almost kill” him. On May 31, 1669, Pepys penned the last entry in the Diary, remarking in his characteristic plain style his readiness for possible loss of sight, “for which . . . the good God prepare me!” The Diary ends as it begins—quietly, calmly, concisely.