I’ve been wanting to read Samuel Pepys’s diaries for years and never got around to it. For those who don’t know Mr. Pepys, Samuel Pepys was born in London in 1633, he made a decision in 1659/1660 to start keeping a record of his day-to-day life, and made a diary entry every day for ten years. This has allowed historians to get a fantastic view into this era in history, from the view-point of a middle class London citizen, rather than from the view point of a historian or a royal record keeper. I’ve become fast friends with Mr. Pepys’s, so much so that after a few diary entries I began to think of him as someone I actually knew, I started to refer to him as simply Sam, and found myself building something of an attachment to him.
The thing about the diary is that it’s so human, so normal. Clothes and laws and monarchies and buildings have changed, but people haven’t. He’s just a bloke, going about his business and living his life. Sam was the son of a tailor. He was educated at St. Paul’s school in London and then Magdalene college. In 1655 he married his wife (more on that later) and then he landed the job that would see him rise to a very comfortable position.
Sam’s observations of human life, his sheer joy at finding he’s making a good living by working really hard, his exuberance with learning musical instruments and his happiness in decorating his home are massively endearing, but so are his faults – he gets drunk and then regrets it the next day, he feels bad when he’s upset someone, he goes to bed worried about whether he’s going to have enough money. When he does get to climb another step on the career and social ladder, he gossips about it with his wife, and shares his excitement in his diary. He’s proud of where he is, and he really loves his mum and dad.
As far as his wife, Elizabeth Pepys is concerned, she is a bit of a mystery. We only, obviously, see her through Sam’s eyes. She doesn’t get her own voice, she’s shadowy and unformed as a person, and a lot of the time you get the strong feeling that she’s more property than companion. They don’t have children, though they try to have children. We know she’s messy and drops her clothes on the floor because Sam kicks off at her for it. And we also know that he misses her when they are apart, but we don’t know about her passions, her thoughts, her favourite things because non of her letters survive, she becomes a face in an etching and these few lines in Pepys’s diaries. I’d like to know more about her.
One of my favourite things about the diary is the little windows into the food and drink of the time. It seems so much less regimented, Sam eats when there is food on offer, rather than sticking to set meal times, sometimes he eats barely more than a bit of bread and butter all day long and this isn’t seen as odd, no one’s telling him he should eat more. Other times he has elaborate meals. He complains quite a lot about badly cooked food. Oysters seem to have not only been a fairly staple food item for the people of Pepys’s time, but an exchangeable item: a barrel of oysters is given as a gift, and at one point, whilst dining important friends in one of the many pubs he visits, he sends for a barrel of oysters to share. I’m assuming it’s a reasonably small barrel. He regularly eats udders and cow tongue and a LOT of roast meat. It is no wonder that half of London had piles, there doesn’t seem to be a single vegetable consumed in the whole of the city in 1660. And of course, they don’t drink the filthy water, they drink beer and wine and then strong wine and then sometimes stronger wine. They must have all been hammered constantly. They all seem to start their day with a ‘morning drought’ and then pop in and out of pubs and clubs throughout the day as business is conducted before going to the pub for a few beers or a PINT OF WINE. They drink wine in pints! No wonder, again, that gout is so prevalent and kidney and urethra stones are big amongst the people.
Something else that struck a chord with me are the descriptions of death and particularly child mortality rates. Child death is so prevalent. There’s a tendency, looking back, to assume that because it was so prevalent, it was expected, the norm and wasn’t as devastating for the parents. It was. It has never been any different. I found the description of people whom Sam knew who had lost several babies in a row quite moving.
Thesis such a funny, interesting, poignant diary. I would recommend it to anyone, and I do.
My favourite bits:
- Any and all of the food and clothing descriptions
- Sam falling in a ditch because there’s no street lights
- Sam stepping in a pile of human turds in his own cellar, because the people next door keep climbing through a window to shit in there. Also, Sam seems to sneak in and out of pubs without even buying anything so he can crap in their privies.
- The descriptions of musical instruments and the entertainment scene, which seems to have been people getting together to sing.
I’ve already bought the next one. I can’t wait.