Subtitled, Extracts from the Diary, this is a selection of Pepys’s diary entries over the years from 1660 to 1669, when his eyesight deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer spend the time needed to write in secret by candlelight. There is a useful introduction by the editor, explaining the way he has approached the text, and providing some background history to the narrative contained in the diary.
The language is, of course, of its time and therefore not always easy to follow. English was still developing in the 17th century and conventions now familiar to us were not yet standard. Also, some words meant different things from our current understanding. One further obstruction to full understanding stems from the editor’s decision to stick to Pepys’s peculiar habit of describing his many sexual and amorous adventures in a mix of languages. Having had the text translated into English from its original shorthand, the failure to continue this translation in those passages containing French, Italian, Spanish, and Latin, sometimes all four within a single sentence, seems oddly coy. But perhaps this reticence reflects the sensitivities of the academic mind, who knows?
The fact that Pepys never intended, nor expected, the diary to be published allowed him to be relatively honest. I say ‘relatively’ because he was clearly not very self-aware and there are passages where today’s reader will be surprised by the callousness and indifference toward the suffering of others, sometimes at the hands of Pepys himself, evident on the page. On the other hand, he is honest enough to give details of his somewhat selfish attitude to his money, which is most probably an indication of the male point of view at the time. His attitude to his wife’s need for clothes in particular is illustrated by his frequent outlay of sums around £70.00 on a single garment for himself contrasted with his niggardly annual allowance of £20.00 for his wife’s entire wardrobe!
He lived in turbulent times, including the somewhat questionable restoration of the Monarchy through Charles II, a return of the Black Death, the Great Fire of London, and three wars against the Dutch. His role, a sort of equivalent to a modern-day civil service supremo, in dealing with Naval affairs, seems ill-defined and slightly chaotic, but he reports his disquiet over many of his fellow-workers and his appreciation of the compliments he received for his own work.
It’s clear he was sexually active, one might say over-active. And, although it is not made obvious in his accounts of his many affairs, the prevalent attitude to women as objects of desire for the enjoyment of men does seep through. It’s obvious he appreciated the services he received from the women he desired, but how willing or eager they were to participate is not entirely clear. He, of course, gives the impression they were all willing partners, but the attitude to sex at the time was one of a necessary compliance by women, especially when it involved a man of a higher social class, so it’s impossible to know how much of his activity was in reality a form of rape. Though he does generally report the delight of his paramours. Whether this is an accurate view or one filtered through the societal mores of the time and his own lack of self-awareness isn’t clear.
On the academic side, he gained a BA at university, and showed an interest in many scientific aspects of life at a time when such things were becoming more actively explored. Some of the devices and scientific theories of the time he understood, but others, while of interest, baffled him. He counted himself a mathematician and a good, if poorly disciplined, accountant.
The overall impression of the man is that he was in many ways typical of his times. Although he had serious doubts about the behaviour and extravagance of Charles II, he was delighted that the King knew his name and even deigned to converse with him from time to time. He mixed with nobility frequently both socially and professionally. He showed an appreciation of art, the theatre, literature, and architecture. And he was an accomplished musician, with a good knowledge of the music around at the time. So, something of a polymath, but with limited understanding in some areas. He was ambitious, fond of money and status, a social climber, and, apparently, a good orator and writer. Though, as we learn about him only from his own words and those he chose to record from conversations he had with others, we cannot depend on that assessment alone.
What this book does best, however, is to provide insights into the way people thought at the time, how they lived, what they valued, what deprivation some suffered. It was an uncertain age, when a person could fall from wealth to penury almost overnight, when the wrong thing said to the wrong person could result in imprisonment or even execution, when the gap between the poor and the wealthy was wide, a little like it is today.
The diary is one of many books used to educate the elites that now rule the UK, and its influence on their thinking is evident in the way some of them currently behave. The law of the jungle, barely disguised by the shallow veil of hypocrisy and religious adherence, still rules. The only difference today is the ready availability of fact and counter argument to those willing to seek it.
If anything, this is a book that should be read with a real awareness of the history that created it and that now may be used by the unscrupulous to manipulate young minds into a way of thinking that is decidedly antipathetic to the benefits of most people.
It made me laugh out loud at times, brought tears to my eyes at others, outraged me, entertained, educated, and informed me. If you risk reading it, I hope it does as much for you.
[Any review is a personal opinion. No reviewer can represent the view of anyone else. The best we can manage is an honest reaction to any given book.]