The Diary of Samuel Pepys Essays and Criticism
by Samuel Pepys

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The Narrator's Conflicting Obsessions

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Pepys was first and foremost a man of passion and when he devoted his energies towards something, he always gave everything. Although his various obsessions would serve him well professionally, they would sometimes lead to other obsessions against his will, and he would find himself going back and forth in his vows and his actions.

In The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Pepys makes mention of three vices that he attempts to give up: extramarital affairs, drinking, and going to plays. These sometimes lead to or are caused by other obsessions, most notably wealth and morality— although he does not view these two in his narrative as obsessions.

Pepys is a Puritan by nature, and is formed with a resolve that he can do anything to improve his character. The first vice he attempts to give up is drinking wine. The first mention of it comes on January 26, 1662: ‘‘But thanks be to God, since my leaving drinking of wine, I do find myself much better and do mind my business better, and do spend less money, and less time in idle company.’’ Out of all of his oaths, this is the one that lasts the longest. After breaking his oath briefly on December 30, 1662, by ‘‘drinking five or six glasses of wine,’’ he decides to ‘‘begin my oath again.’’

However, when he does drink, it helps him indulge another of his vices—women. Pepys’s biggest weakness is women and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t keep his vow to stay away from extramarital affairs. There are countless instances in the narrative where Pepys talks about women with which he has either minor or major affairs. Oftentimes, Pepys relies on the influence of alcohol to seduce his prey, as when he takes Mrs. Lane ‘‘to my Lord’s, and did give her a bottle of wine in the garden.’’ After this, Pepys and Mrs. Lane go to Pepys’s house where he is ‘‘exceedingly free in dallying with her, and she not unfree to take it.’’

Occasionally, Pepys gets disgusted with himself, as on June 29, 1663, when he notes that while his wife has been out of town he has made ‘‘a bad use of my fancy with whatever woman I have a mind to, which I am ashamed of, and shall endeavour to do so no more.’’ However, as Stephen Coote notes in Samuel Pepys: A Life, ‘‘Pepys was far from being the sort of man who could work hard all day then spend the evening in monastic quietude.’’

On other occasions Pepys projects his guilty feelings onto his wife. He assumes that she is having Pages from Pepys’s original diary an affair, first of all with her dance instructor, and lastly with a man she meets in the country. On May 16, 1663, Pepys admits that ‘‘I do not find honesty enough in my own mind but that upon a small temptation I could be false to her.’’ In other words, he has sinned himself. ‘‘He goes on to say that he, ‘‘therefore ought not to expect more justice from her, but God pardon both my sin and my folly herein.’’ If Elizabeth has had an affair at this point, Pepys is so guilty that he is willing to dismiss it.

Pepys’s work itself leads to the cultivation of certain vices. This is a practice that starts early. When Pepys accompanies his Lord, the Earl of Sandwich, on the journey to bring back Charles II, the young Pepys is taken aback by his responsibility and status. As part of Pepys’s duties as secretary to the Admiral on the voyage, Pepys writes letters ‘‘in the King’s name,’’ for Charles II to sign, and even ‘‘sups’’ with the returning sovereign. Best of all, for his troubles as secretary, he receives, on May 28, 1660, ‘‘in the Captain’s cabin, for my share, sixty ducats.’’

This is the first of many such secret payments that Pepys will receive in his career and it whets his appetite for more. Money rules his life from this point on and although he grows to be very rich, he is nevertheless loathe to part with it. On August 18, 1660, after his new Clerk of the Acts position has started bringing in more money, Pepys is...

(The entire section is 9,428 words.)