The Diary of Samuel Pepys is a unique document in the annals of English literature, perhaps of all literature. There are other fascinating day-to-day accounts of interesting and momentous times, and some of these were written by people of genius, but there is only one other autobiographical collection—the recently discovered journals of James Boswell—that combines fascinating subject matter and genius of composition with the intriguing story that is associated with the Diary of Pepys.
There is an important difference between Boswell and Pepys. Boswell, as his editors admit, was writing for posterity; Pepys was not. Pepys’s Diary was written for himself only, apparently for the sole purpose of allowing its author to savor once more, at the end of each day, the experiences of the preceding twenty-four hours. There is no evidence of revision of any kind, and the book was written in a shorthand that protected it from posterity for more than a hundred years after its author’s failing eyesight forced him to give up keeping his diary.
Pepys’s method of composition gives the Diary an immediacy that makes Boswell’s Journals appear sedulously organized. The coded shorthand allows for admissions of personal animosities and revelations of scandalous behavior that otherwise would not be found in the writings of a responsible public official. That Pepys was a responsible, high-ranking public official is the last factor that contributes to the importance of his work. Boswell was the scion of an important Scottish family and a member of the Scottish bar, but (aside from his Corsican experience) the only history in which he was involved was literary history. Pepys was involved with the history of a nation at a very important time.
The Diary is important in a number of ways. First, it is of great value as a document of the Restoration period. No writer of a historical novel based on the history of the time could possibly create a character familiar with as many important events as was the opportunistic busybody, Pepys. One of the most influential figures in bringing about the return of the Stuarts in 1660 was the former Cromwellian, Sir Edward Montague, who was assisted by his able cousin and protégé, Pepys. It was Sir Edward who commanded the fleet that sailed from Holland and returned triumphantly with the king. On board the flagship, kissing the king’s hand, firing a cannon to salute the new monarch (and burning an eye in the process), commenting on the plainness of the queen, taking charge of the king’s dog in the landing at Dover was, again, Pepys.
Later, made Clerk of the Acts of the Navy Board because of his assistance to the Stuarts (Sir...
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