(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Restoration gave English literature a new kind of prose, different from that practiced by John Milton, John Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, and other great stylists of the Renaissance. New discoveries in science and mathematics during the late seventeenth century demanded a written discourse that was free of the elaborate flourishes and figurative language that had marked the work of earlier writers; what was required was a prose that was notable for its clarity. The Royal Society required that its members report the proceedings and activities of the society in the plain, utilitarian, natural prose style best suited to the dissemination of scientific truths; the very public nature of the age gave rise to a written language that closely approximated the clear, urbane, elegant conversations that became a hallmark of the Restoration and the eighteenth century.

Like the deliberately public writings of his contemporaries, The Diary of Samuel Pepys is a model of uncluttered, simple, lyrical prose writing. Further, because Pepys wrote in Thomas Shelton’s system of shorthand, he was able to record the events of his life without fear of discovery or exposure, and the result is an autobiographical account notable as a straightforward, unself-conscious, exceedingly detailed narrative that chronicles both the public and the private lives of its writer.

Pepys, like the early epic poets, delighted in catalogs and lists. His Diary delights readers with its insistence on detailed listings—of the notables present at a dinner or fete, of the specific foods Pepys consumed at a late-night supper, of the beautiful women he ogled at the theater, of the excessive and expensive purchases made by his wife at a bazaar, of the separate items of clothing that constitute an outfit that Pepys wore to a special occasion, of the emotions Pepys felt at having to end an affair. Pepys enumerates his household expenses, the plays he has seen, his sister’s faults, and the friends with whom he socializes. He carefully documents historical events and personal encounters, family squabbles and political confrontations, births and deaths. These details—appealing or crude, minute or expansive, personal or public, comic or serious—draw readers into Pepys’s world and into the mind and life of a late seventeenth century English citizen.

A theme that unifies the varied sections of the Diary is the importance of a life properly lived. The Diary is a constant reminder of the Puritan virtues, a compendium of examples of Pepys’s ongoing attempts to master his soul and order his existence. Pepys smugly records his successes at moderation and contritely details his little falls from grace. Concerned with accountability and almost obsessed with thrift, he agonizes over the price of the telescopes and microscopes that his fascination with science has led him to purchase, and he complains about his wife’s spending habits. Disturbed at having indulged in expensive dancing lessons, Pepys records his attempts to silence his conscience by dropping a gift of fifteen shillings into the nearest poor box. Many entries in the Diary reveal that Pepys spent much time dealing with his accounts and other business matters—in fact, his descriptions of daily activities are often couched in the language of accounting. Puritan at heart that he was, Pepys frequently wrote about his gratitude to God for various benefits that came his way, his recognition of his moral errancies, and his feelings of repentance and attempts to live a better life. Overindulgence appears to be one of Pepys’s most dominant faults; his diary records his vows to spend less, eat less, refrain from chasing women, and avoid wine and strong drink.

As an account of the first nine years of the reign of Charles II, Pepys’s Diary has no equal. Pepys was privileged to be on board the ship that brought Charles Stuart back to England as the nation’s first monarch after the Commonwealth, and the Diary provides eyewitness descriptions of the royal arrival and also of the splendid coronation ceremonies. Major historical events—Charles’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza, the Dutch Wars, the succession of short-lived Whig-dominated Parliaments—are all carefully inventoried...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)