Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. P. Ker
Samuel Pepys (16331703)
[Samuel Pepys, 16331703, clerk of the Acts of the Navy Board (1660), and afterwards Secretary of the Admiralty till 1689, Fellow, and some time President, of the Royal Society, published in 1690 a short statement of the condition of the Navy for ten years pastMemoires relating to the State of the Royal Navy of England. His shorthand Diary (16601669), preserved in the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, was edited by Lord Braybrooke in 1825, about half of the original being suppressed. A fuller edition was published by the Rev. Mynors Bright (18751879); the first volumes of another by Mr. H. B. Wheatley appeared in 1893, representing the whole of the original MS., with some small exceptions.]
IT is as impossible as it is fortunately unnecessary to attempt to sum up the series of entries in Pepyss Diary. Where everything is particular, and all things are treated by the chronicler as if there were no differences of value among them, there can be no description of the chronicle; it may be copied or repeated, it cannot be described; the atoms of Pepyss impressions must be taken as he gives them or not at all. No one wishes to be told about Pepys; talk about Pepys is quotation from the Diary, and he talks best who remembers most, and has least to say about it in the way of commentary.
There is a possible misapprehension of Pepyss character, which may be removed by argument, if it is anywhere entertained. Pepys is so little reticent about his follies, blunders, and misfortunes that he may create in some minds the impression that he was a booby and a ridiculous person. The Diary in truth, with all its particularity and sincerity, is unjust to its author. The reader has to remind himself that it is microscopic, and that to get a just view of Pepys one ought not to know all about him. It may be difficult to understand where there was room for all his work, in the perpetual trade of morning draughts and suppers, plays in the afternoon, and the lute and the theorbo in the evening. But the secret of the Diary, if there be a secret in it, is that it was written by an industrious man of business, who did well for himself, and worked honestly for his office. The quickness with which the diarist takes hold of and notes down the waifs and the drifting vanities of hour after hour of his life, is not the cultivated or sophisticated interest of a man of letters engaged in collecting details of experience, documents to be worked up into a novel. It is something much simpler and more natural. When Pepyss spirits are brought down by his anxiety about his sight, the Diary stops; it went well as an accompaniment to successful activity and growing fortune; the shadow puts an end to it. Pepys does not begin as a collector of trifles or a perverse hoarder of things too small for ordinary minds to catch. That is not his work; his work is elsewhere. But his work goes so well, his life is so exhilarating a medley of serious business in the thick of great events, and of pleasure and good cheer, that he needs must make of it all he can by putting it into his note-books; it is too good to be lost. So to sleep, every day bringing in a fresh sense of the pleasure of my present life (Apr. 17, 1660). Without the Navy Office, however, and the acquaintance with great personages, and the growing balance in his favour at the end of each year, he would have had no spirit to keep account of the playhouses, or of his neighbours in church. Pepyss steadiness in the plague year, his speech in defence of the Board in 1668, and his Memoires of 1690 on the Navy, are to be remembered, if the Secretary of the Admiralty is to be judged aright.
The melancholy conclusion of the Diary in 1669 was followed within a few months by the death of Mrs. Pepys, and the Diary was never resumed. The monument of Pepyss later years is to be sought in his library, and in his letters. The letters have very little of the character of the Diary, except that they are an additional proof of Pepyss freedom from affectation, and of his appreciation of life. They seem to have had the power of drawing good answers. Sir Isaac Newton replies at length, to solve a problem in chances of the dice; and Lord Reay and Dr. Hickes send long letters on the second sight, Lord Reay collecting evidence of portents from the Highlands, and Dr. Hickes contributing notes from the mythology of the Elves.
It is difficult to make a selection from the Diary. The opening months are as good as anypartly because of the political suspense, greater in 165960 than in any other period of the Diary, partly because the fortunes of Pepys are then just beginning to be assured. In the beginning of 1660 he was in close relations with his cousin, My Lord, who made his fortune for him, at the same time that he helped to make the kings. He took some part in the serious political discussions of Harringtons Rota. Among all the passages in memoirs that keep for later generations something of the outward form of great occurrences, few are pleasanter than the account in this Diary of the rejoicings at the coming Restorationhow Pepys went to the coffee-house at Westminster, and sat in a room next the water, listening to Mr. Lock and Mr. Purcell at their music, brave Italian and Spanish songs, and a canon for eight voices which Mr. Lock had lately made on these words: Domine salvum fac Regem, an admirable thing. Here out of the window it was a most pleasant sight to see the City from one end to the other with a glory about it, so high was the light of the bonfires, and so thick round the City, and the bells rang everywhere (Feb. 21, 165960). Here Pepys looked out of the window, down and across the river at the glory, while Captain Taylor began a discourse of something that he had lately writ about Gavelkindharsh, after the songs of Apollo.
The account of the beginning of the Fire, and the pastoral of Epsom Downs, are unlike most of the entries in the Diary, as coming nearer to the common forms of literature, with definite themes of their own. To the same extent they fail to continue the ordinary manner of the Diary, its confusion and inconsequence. The Fire takes up the attention too exclusively for much digression, and the Sunday on the Downs appears to have influenced the writer so happily that even the sprained ankle is not permitted to spoil his enjoyment or his story. But while the more harmonious composition of those narratives is different from Pepyss ordinary random style, it is not less natural or more premeditated than the most incongruous passages: there is hardly to be found in the Diary any trace of literary ambition.