Samuel Pepys 1633–-1703
English diarist, historian, and letter writer.
The following entry provides recent criticism of Pepys's works. For additional information on Pepys's career, see LC, Volume 11.
Pepys is recognized as one of the greatest diarists in the English language. As a highly placed civil servant and tireless observer of Restoration society, he recorded the events and character of his age. His Diary is therefore valued as a historical document of incomparable import. Strikingly candid and replete with anecdote and incident, the Diary is also esteemed as an original and finely crafted literary work.
Pepys was born in London in 1633 and remained a Londoner all his life. His father, John Pepys, was a tailor and the first cousin of Edward Mountagu, first Earl of Sandwich, who was to become Samuel's close friend and patron. Pepys began school in Huntingdonshire and was then sent to St. Paul's School in London. In 1649, during the English Civil War, he witnessed the beheading of Charles I. The next year he began attending Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he took his degree in March 1654. Almost nothing is known about his stay at the university except that he was once “scandalously overseene in drink”: a serious offense in the period of the Puritan-led Commonwealth. In 1655, at twenty-two, Pepys married fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Marchant de St. Michel, the penniless daughter of a Huguenot refugee of good family. The couple moved into Mountagu's lodgings in Whitehall Palace, where Pepys was working as secretary and domestic steward for his well-placed relative, who was about to be made General-at-Sea by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. In 1659 Pepys was made a minor clerk in the office of George Downing, a Teller of Receipt in the Exchequer, and he carried letters to Mountagu in the Baltic.
The year 1660 marked the beginning of an eventful period for Pepys, and it was on January 1 that Pepys began the Diary. In a brief preface to the first entry he noted: “My own private condition very handsome; and esteemed rich, but endeed [sic] very poor, besides my goods of my house and my office, which at present is somewhat uncertain.” Doubt and poverty, however, in time gave way to stability and wealth. On March 9 Pepys was made Admiral's secretary by Mountagu, and two months later he accompanied Mountagu's fleet to Holland to escort Charles II back to England for the Restoration. On June 28 Pepys resigned his clerkship in the Exchequer; the next day he was appointed Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board. During the next few years Pepys flourished: he took on the duties of justice of the peace, oversaw naval supply distribution, was appointed to the Tangier Committee, and was admitted as a Younger Brother of Trinity House, the principal maritime corporation. Pepys quickly mastered the duties of his new offices, moving steadily into positions of increasing authority. During the Second Dutch War of 1665-67, he served the Royal Navy faithfully, remaining at his post in London during the Great Plague of 1665 and helping save the Navy Office from destruction in the Great Fire of London in 1666. On May 31, 1669, Pepys closed the Diary for good, mistakenly believing himself on the verge of blindness.
Elizabeth Pepys died of a fever in November 1669, bringing to a close a stormy but essentially happy relationship that had lasted fifteen years. Pepys now threw himself into business with astonishing fervor. With the resignation of the Duke of York as Lord High Admiral of the Navy in 1673, Pepys was made Secretary to the Admiralty Commission. He was, in effect, administrative head of the naval department. Later in the year he was elected Member of Parliament for Castle Rising, Norfolk. He proved an active and effective legislator and a determined advocate for the navy. Through legislation and personal intervention, he put down the rampant corruption of the supply yards and won allowance for thirty new ships, thereby restoring the balance of sea power, which had tilted perilously in favor of France and the Netherlands. In 1679 Pepys was implicated in the supposed Popish Plot—in which, it was believed, Jesuit priests were planning to assassinate Charles II in order to bring his Roman Catholic brother to the throne—and he was detained in the Tower of London for nearly two months. The proceedings against him were abandoned when it became clear that the evidence against him had been fabricated by a malefactor. With the accession of the Duke of York as James II in 1685, Pepys was given a free hand to develop the Royal Navy as he saw fit. Pepys retired in 1689, shortly after James II was succeeded by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution. Free from the stresses of office, Pepys spent the remainder of his life writing the only work he saw published, Memoires relating to the State of the Royal Navy of England, and perfecting and arranging his considerable private library. He died on May 26, 1703 and was buried beside his wife in St. Olave's Church, London.
Although Pepys's writings include a history of Portugal and one of the English navy, correspondence, and many administrative papers, it is his Diary that distinguishes him as an author. Covering the period January 1, 1660 to May 31, 1669 the Diary is, according to William Matthews, who coedited the most complete edition of the text, “one of the principal source-books for many aspects of the history of its period. It is also a repertory of the familiar language of its time, and therefore an important source for historians of the English language. Most importantly, it is one of the great classics of literature.” Pepys conceived the Diary as a personal journal, but it also served as a chronicle of public affairs and the men and women behind them. Among the varied subjects it treats are church matters, navy business, court intrigues, political gossip, diplomatic efforts, the activities of the Royal Society, the proceedings of the Privy Council, and the progress of the Second Dutch War. Pepys graphically chronicled the two great London catastrophes of the 1660s—the 1665 Great Plague and the 1666 Fire—and the greatest spectacle of the age, the splendid coronation of Charles II. He aimed at objectivity in his reporting, apparently concealing nothing for the sake of decorum. Telling details are everywhere: a piercing hangover the morning after Charles II's coronation: “Waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night's drink, which I am very sorry for” (April 24, 1661); penny loaves charged at twopence during the Great Fire and a chimney-bound cat “with the hair burnt off the body and yet alive” (September 5, 1666); and the King and the Duke of York winking at each other at the council board (February 14, 1668). The entries, generally written within days of the events they describe, are markedly immediate in tone: a quality not evident in, for instance, the diary of Pepys's friend and correspondent John Evelyn, which was extensively revised and contains numerous afterthoughts, distortions, and (it seems likely) suppressions. Pepys wrote primarily in a modified version of the shorthand invented by Thomas Shelton in 1635, and he frequently interspersed Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Latin, and Greek phrases in descriptions of overtly erotic or particularly sensitive events.
The Diary is particularly valued by students of drama and music. Pepys was an insatiable playgoer—he considered his fondness for the theater practically an addiction and even took steps to “cure” himself of it—and commented freely on what he liked and disliked. He paid special attention to the acting, believing that a good performance could improve even a mediocre play, and made notes on theater architecture, scenery, lighting, and the general state, mood, and appearance of the audience. He saw new plays and revivals alike, commenting on some of the first performances Shakespeare's works since the playwright's own time, as well as many of the chief dramatists of the Restoration period. For some plays, in fact, Pepys's remarks are the only known contemporary criticism. Pepys also frequented musical performances. A musician himself—he sang, played the flageolet and was proficient with other woodwinds, practiced on strings, and even tried his hand at composition—he was a keen and knowledgeable music critic. His music criticism is therefore valued both for its insight and fullness and as a rare record of musical tastes not otherwise especially well documented.
The Diary was first published in 1825, in a severely abridged form entitled Memoirs of Samuel Pepys, Esq. F. R. S. A slightly abridged version was published in 1893-99. The full text of the Diary was not published until 1983, in eleven volumes.
When Pepys's journals were first published as Memoirs of Samuel Pepys, the volumes were received with practically unbridled enthusiasm. Francis Jeffrey, writing in the Edinburgh Review in 1825, claimed warmly: “[We] can scarcely say that we wish it a page shorter; and are of opinion, that there is very little of it which does not help us to understand the character of his times and his contemporaries, better than we should ever have done without it; and make us feel more assured that we comprehend the great historical events of the age, and the people who bore a part in them.” In addition to reaffirming the historical value of the Diary, subsequent commentators have studied it for what it reveals of the progress of Restoration drama and the state of English narrative technique in the late seventeenth century. Recent critics such as Ivan E. Taylor and John H. O’Neil have analyzed the complexity of Pepys's self-portrait, while others, including William H. Dougherty, have examined the Diary for evidence concerning the development of the English language. Modern critics have also investigated Pepys's motives in keeping a journal, his method of composition, and his intended audience, finding in the diarist's seemingly private expressions of his own particular tastes and interests echoes of the broader philosophical and cultural preoccupations of his day.