Saturday, February 23, 2013

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 the entry for 23 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 1659/1660 - 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 1659):
Thursday, my birthday, now twenty-seven years.

A pretty fair morning, I rose and after writing a while in my study I went forth. To my office, where I told Mr. Hawly of my thoughts to go out of town to-morrow. Hither Mr. Fuller comes to me and my Uncle Thomas too, thence I took them to drink, and so put off my uncle. So with Mr. Fuller home to my house, where he dined with me, and he told my wife and me a great many stories of his adversities, since these troubles, in being forced to travel in the Catholic countries, &c. He shewed me his bills, but I had not money to pay him. We parted, and I to Whitehall, where I was to see my horse which Mr. Garthwayt lends me to-morrow. So home, where Mr. Pierce comes to me about appointing time and place where and when to meet tomorrow. So to Westminster Hall, where, after the House rose, I met with Mr. Crew, who told me that my Lord was chosen by 73 voices, to be one of the Council of State. Mr. Pierpoint had the most, 101, and himself the next, too. He brought me in the coach home. He and Mr. Anslow being in it. I back to the Hall, and at Mrs. Michell’s shop staid talking a great while with her and my Chaplain, Mr. Mumford, and drank a pot or two of ale on a wager that Mr. Prin is not of the Council. Home and wrote to my Lord the news of the choice of the Council by the post, and so to bed.

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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