I have been interested in Pepys since high school. In 12th grade my interest in literature really began, and we read of the diarist a bit. Pepys with his roving eye for life. I’ve done Claire Tomalin’s brisk and arch (though what is archness anymore? Only the ethos, as Roger Olsen might say, is left) biography, in fits (I do wonder if her Jane Austen is any good). Then I got Everyman’s Pepys for a few dollars. Since it is the period of my Cambridge Platonists, since it is the kind of detail and color I relish, since it wasn’t theological, I went for it. So I want to say first who Pepys was and second why that makes his diary interesting.
Pepys was a man of low origins who managed to go to university. He developed a stone in his bladder early in life, and as a result was sickly. But he underwent an operation—Claire Tomalin goes to the manuals of the time and describes it in unrelenting detail—with success, and his life changed as a result. He sprang into healthy living with energy, got a diary, and fell to work. Pepys was a regular churchgoer but by no means an obviously regenerate man. His greatest expressions of piety, in the diary, come after he has cast up his accounts and finds himself growing richer, thanks be to God. But he is funny because it is his piety: he finds he is squandering his substance on riotous living, sack and oysters and daily play-going. He then takes vows which he writes and on the Lord ’s Day assiduously reads over, and sticks to, and so prospers. He is a curious man, observing not only events but how he feels. When he fights with his wife he records how he feels about it. Elsewhere he reflects on how good his collection of plate has gotten, how lucky a man such as himself is to have such good plate, is marvelously pleased.
What his diary gives, written in shorthand, preserved, later decoded and translated and published long after he died, is his activities and thoughts, his observations, reflections and reactions to things. He lives through the plague and the great fire. He starts his journal shortly before the Restoration, is on the ship that brings Charles II back to England, and he is from time to time witnesses to the manners and life at court. Because he works for the navy, he has contact with parliament and many of the leading persons in London. He also is associated with the Royal Society, and witnesses some of the early experiments in blood transfusion. His roving eye is especially attracted to pretty women, whom he sometimes stalks and takes predatory liberties with. I do not say you should read him for that, but unless you get up to those things yourself, where will you learn about them but in literature? You also learn about his spiritual state, and I think there are quite a few things to reflect on here. He is a glib fellow. Went to Midsummer Night’s Dream and thought it was trash. Went to The Tempest—some old play by Shakespeare. He’s rather more fond of Restoration drama, though he saw Bartholomew Fair several times with some relish, and he specially admired Dryden. He chronicles in the plague and fire his concerns for his money, as well as for his fellow man. At one point, he describes several weeks of being eaten by intense jealousy. He has gotten his wife a dancing teacher (Pepys was very fond of music and played several instruments, sang and composed) and rather suspects she may be behaving in ways he himself is wont to. It is interesting because of how he reflects on his own hypocrisy, his helplessness undergoing jealousy, how it interrupts his business and overpowers him. He knows he has the slenderest control of his passions, and he maintains this by counterbalancing them, his avarice being reined in by his love of pleasure and comfort, and vanity in turn keeping this love of pleasure and comfort from sinking him, and greed again pulling him early into the office and late. He is an interesting human being, and through the book you can better appreciate how and why, which is why his extraordinary diary is taught in proper literature classes.
So if you’re ever looking for a book of a compendious and chronological sort on the scale of Boswell’s Johnson, then Pepys Diary is an option. Everyman’s Pepys, from what I gather reading Tomalin, has some reductions to spare the reader some of his more unsavory recorded events, so you get enough of the chap, but not too much. It also has clever illustrations done by E. H. Shepard, and the entertainment, instruction, points of reflection and insight are simply worth a whole mountain of other books.
Sample: August 10th 1663: After dinner I went to Greatorex’s, whom I found in his garden, and set him to work upon my ruler, to engrave an almanac and other things upon the brasses of it, which a little before night he did; but the latter part he slubbered over, that I must get him to do it over better or else I shall not fancy my rule. Which is such a folly that I am come to now, that whereas before my delight was in multitude of books and spending money in that and buying away of other things, now that I am become a better husband and have left off buying, now my delight is in the neatness of everything, and so cannot be pleased with anything unless it be very neat, which is a strange folly.