The world of Samuel Pepys. There is nothing quite like his account of Restoration England. Sex. Sundays, and scandals; fires, plagues, and office politics; naval disasters and marital discords- his diary told all and spared no one, including himself…
The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 brought in the Age of reason, the Age of Science, and the Age of Skepticism. Appropriately, it also brought in the Age of Bureaucracy. In the War Office, Treasury and Foreign Office there emerged a new breed of undersecretary who, in functions, powers, and authority, was comparable with the permanent secretaries of the modern British civil service.
One of the greatest of these undersecretaties was Samuel Pepys, a poor relation of Admiral Edward Montagu, later Earl of Sandwich, who in 1660 secured him the post of Clerk of the Acts to the King’s Ships. Accepting the office as a sinecure, he made it his life, and when he resigned in 1689 as secretary of the Admirality Commission, he had established a method and a routine that were to survive into the days of Nelson.
But this great civil servant would be no better remembered than his colleague at the War Office, William Blathwayt, or the Secretary to the Treasury, Henry Guy, if it were not for his personal diary, which he kept in shorthand from 1660 to 1669.
This diary, bound in six stout volumes, was bequeathed with his other books and papers to his alma mater, Magdalene College, Cambridge. In 1825, Lord Baybrooke, brother to then master of Magdalene, published a volume of extracts amounting to about a quarter of the diary. The instant success of tis ventureled to a further edition in 1849. Sine Baybrooke had been far from explicit about his omissions, the public was led to conclude that this was all, but in the 1870’s the Reverend Mynors Bright, a fellow of Magdalene, made a new transcription, which was re-edited by the Victorian antiquary Henry Wheatley and published in eight volumes between 1893 and 1896.
Henceforth Wheately’s was the standard edition and was reprinted many times. But it had serious faults. Though it included the greater part of the diary at last, it was carelessly edited from a careless transcript, and Wheatley deliberately omitted several passages dealing with Pepy’s sexual adventures, which he assured his readers could never possibly be printed. Autres temps, autres amours, and shortly after World War II the English historian Robert Latham was commissioned to publish a new edition of the diary in its entirety, from a completely new transcript made by William Matthews of the University of California. The first three volumes, covering the years from 1660 to 1663, were a triumph of the editors art, acclaimed, when they first appeared.
There is nothing in English literature quite like this diary. It is crammed with information of all kinds on seventeenth-century life: on sanitation, naval architecture, food, reading habits, book prices, the theater, hospitality, master-servant and husband-wife relations, and so on. It has been surprisingly neglected by historians and cultural anthropologists. Although the disciples of English literature have dredged it to the depths for material on the contemporary theater, for which Pepys had a profound weakness, no one has yet used it, except in an occasionalunsystematic way, to illustrate attitudes toward such things as religion and the state.