Samuel Pepys

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Samuel Pepys (peeps), born on February 23, 1633, was a man of wide interests and varied affairs: an inveterate playgoer and a minor patron of the arts, a conscientious husband and householder, a responsible public official, and a friend (sometimes a self-acknowledged flatterer) of the great and the powerful. All this is known from his Diary, his own candid and unaffected portrayal of himself. Yet the Diary, as detailed and as thorough as it is for its own specified time, deals with only nine years (1660-1669) in a life that lasted a full seventy.

Although not much of importance had happened to Samuel Pepys before he began his famous project, his many affairs continued long after poor eyesight forced him to give up his record in 1669. Twice, in the period between the ending of the Diary and the quiet ending of his life in 1703, his fortunes fell and rose again. Although the full publication of the Diary in 1849 transformed him posthumously into a literary figure, it should be remembered that he was not—either to himself or to his contemporaries—primarily a man of letters. He was what would be called in modern terminology a career Admiralty official. He served twenty-eight years in the Admiralty Department, was twice secretary of the Admiralty, and was acknowledged, after the “Bloodless Revolution” ended his career in 1688, as the foremost authority on naval matters in all England.

His Admiralty career began significantly enough with the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660. His life up to that time had been a genteel struggle with poverty, for his family, though well connected, was, by his own admission, “never very considerable.” He had gone through Magdelene College, Cambridge University, as a scholarship student (receiving a B.A. in 1653 and an M.A. in 1660), had married in 1655 the fifteen-year-old daughter of a penniless French expatriate, and had lived for some time under the patronage of a wealthy cousin, Sir Edward Montagu. This nobleman, later the first earl of Sandwich, was a staunch supporter of Charles II and played no small part in the triumph of the royal cause. As his good fortune swelled with the resurgence of the Stuarts, so the good fortune of Samuel Pepys increased. Pepys’s first official appointment was to a minor position in the Exchequer, but on July 13, 1660, he moved to the Navy Office, becoming, later that same year, clerk of the privy seal and a justice of the peace.

This triumphal year is covered by the Diary. During the remaining eight years of that chronicle, the triumphs continued. Pepys’s finances improved. Able to afford books, he began the collection of his famous library (now preserved at Cambridge). His wife could dress in cautious finery, and he could, when his basically Puritan conscience allowed, indulge in his favorite delights, the theater and wine. His prestige increased as well; he was known to the king. The duke of York became his friend and his pupil in naval matters. By 1689 the lowly government clerk had become a prominent official, the unknown Cambridge scholar had become a respected practical authority, and the former Roundhead sympathizer had become a friend of royalty.

But, as Pepys well learned, one who attaches himself to the politically great and who enjoys their triumphs must also endure their defeats. Once the national relief at the removal of the Puritans had died away, the reaction against the policies of the two royal brothers—a reaction accelerated greatly by popular disapproval of their personal conduct and, particularly, of James’s avowed Catholicism—set in. The reaction had immediate repercussions; since there was much disapproval over the temporary Dutch naval supremacy, and the duke of York was closely associated with the navy, the Admiralty received much of the reactionary force. The first of a number of setbacks came even before the end of the Diary , but the honor of the Admiralty was saved by Pepys himself. In 1688, in an eloquent speech before the House...

(The entire section is 1,561 words.)