Thursday, February 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Sam

PepysToday in 1633 Samuel Pepys (pronounced "peeps") was born. Well known for his diary, Pepys was a Londoner to the bone, rarely leaving the city, and a civil servant who helped shape England's navy. His diary, covering only six years of his life, was abandoned by him when he began to fear the loss of his sight - the work of keeping it up threatened blindness, and so he stopped and gave it to his college - Magdalen at Cambridge, where it remains to this day (and where I got to see it a couple of years ago!). As the College says,

Pepys's diary is not so much a record of events as a re-creation of them. Not all the passages are as picturesque as the famous set pieces in which he describes Charles II's coronation or the Great Fire of London, but there is no entry which does not, in some degree, display the same power of summoning back to life the events it relates.

Pepys's skill lay in his close observation and total recall of detail. It is the small touches that achieve the effect. Another is the freshness and flexibility of the language. Pepys writes quickly in shorthand and for himself alone. The words, often piled on top of each other without much respect for formal grammar, exactly reflect the impressions of the moment. Yet the most important explanation is, perhaps, that throughout the diary Pepys writes mainly as an observer of people. It is this that makes him the most human and accessible of diarists, and that gives the diary its special quality as a historical record.
Here's a sample (his first tweet for today):
I took them to Westminster Abbey, and there did show them all the tombs very finely, there being other company this day to see the tombs.
And here's the entry for 22 Feb in the "current" year of the diary (a hypertext, annotated version is here) (note on the date - if you follow the link you'll see it says 1668/1669 - this is because until 1752 the new year began on March 25 in England, slow to adopt the new calendar, so for Sam himself it was still 1668):
Up, and betimes to White Hall; but there the Duke of York is gone abroad a-hunting, and therefore after a little stay there I into London, with Sir H. Cholmly, talking all the way of Tangier matters, wherein I find him troubled from some reports lately from Norwood (who is his great enemy and I doubt an ill man), of some decay of the Mole, and a breach made therein by the sea to a great value. He set me down at the end of Leadenhall Street, and so I home, and after dinner, with my wife, in her morning-gown, and the two girls dressed, to Unthanke’s, where my wife dresses herself, having her gown this day laced, and a new petticoat; and so is indeed very fine. And in the evening I do carry them to White Hall, and there did without much trouble get into the playhouse, there in a good place among the Ladies of Honour, and myself also sat in the pit; and there by and by come the King and Queen, and they begun “Bartholomew Fayre.” But I like no play here so well as at the common playhouse; besides that, my eyes being very ill since last Sunday and this day se’nnight, with the light of the candles, I was in mighty pain to defend myself now from the light of the candles. After the play done, we met with W. Batelier and W. Hewer and Talbot Pepys, and they follow us in a hackney-coach: and we all stopped at Hercules’ Pillars; and there I did give them the best supper I could, and pretty merry; and so home between eleven and twelve at night, and so to bed, mightily well pleased with this day’s work.

Find the whole of Pepys' diary, day by day with hyperlinked annotations here, and in plain text here at Project Gutenberg (also downloadable, and in Kindle format, too).

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