Samuel Pepys and his world
“I n the theatre, where I again saw ‘The Lost Lady’ which now pleases me better than before. And here where I sat back in a dark corner, a lady turned around and spat at me by mistake, as she did not see me. But when I saw she was a most beautiful young lady, it did not matter at all.” The year is 1661, the place is London, and the by-any-standard extraordinarily chivalrous writer is Samuel Pepys, nimble naval bureaucrat, enthusiastic theatergoer, and inveterate ladies’ man; this entry in his famous diary is made on January 28, and the voice is instantly recognizable: chatty, eager to please, and forever checking out the talent.
Written in shorthand, the diary covers the period from the Restoration of 1660 to May 1669 — when Pepys stopped because of fears for his eyesight — comprising some 1.3 million words and filling six leather-bound volumes. For more than a hundred years they sat in a corner of the book collection which he had donated to his old college in Cambridge. Parts of the diary, often sloppily transcribed, began to appear in the nineteenth century, culminating in 1893–99 with a great ten-volume edition, which for a long time was regarded as the authorized version. But the racy passages had been carefully omitted. So eventually Robert Latham of Magdalene College, Cambridge and William Matthews of the University of California, Los Angeles set to work on a complete edition; the task was fulfilled in 1977 and takes up 11 volumes, including an accompanying volume and an index.
This is hands-down the best book ever written on what it means to work for the government.
For a diarist, Pepys had the great advantage of living in interesting times, and his position as secretary to the Navy Board gave him an excellent vantage point from which to observe events. The nine-and-a-half years covered by the diary saw the Restoration of Charles ii, with Pepys on board the man-of-war that brought Charles back from continental exile almost losing his right eye “by holding my head too much over the gun” during the salutes. He witnessed the Plague, which killed off about 15 percent of London’s population, and the Great Fire that started accidentally in a bakery and left 100,000 people homeless. And he dissects the Medway disaster, in which the Dutch came up the Medway River in a daring raid, burned three English warships lying at anchor there, and towed the Royal Charles, one of the fleet’s principal ships, back to Holland in triumph.
Many have read highlights from the diary, either in their history books or in the one-volume popular edition. Great events are always exciting, but it is the diary’s all-inclusiveness, its vivid detail, and its tone that give it its unique charm. We see Pepys when he drills holes in the wall to see what goes on in his front office, when his neighbor’s toilet leaks into his cellar, and when his periwig accidentally catches fire. When he loses his brand new hat on the water, when he is being chased by large dogs, and when he has his portrait painted and develops a crick in his neck from holding the same position for so long. And, not to forget, when he emits a mighty “Cuds Zookes” at table, realizing that he has forgotten his lobsters in a coach, and sends his brother-in-law racing out to catch it, though, alas, in vain.
What we have here is the first literary self-portrait of upwardly mobile Bureaucratic Man, the kind of administrator a regime — any regime — needs to make things work. It is hands-down the best book ever written on what it means to work for the government: the pressures, conflicts, infighting, and temptations. What makes it especially useful is that — unlike modern books by government officials out to secure their place in history — this was written by Pepys entirely for his own enjoyment. (He only twice in confidence reveals that he is writing it, and instantly regrets it.) There is no façade which needs to be upheld, except for those moments of self-delusion of which all men are guilty. What Pepys offers is not deep metaphysical Hamlet-like introspection; but his own behavior frequently mystifies him, and he records things most people would cringe to commit to paper, even if reserved for their eyes only.
Underneath his urge to capture the moment in words lies a keen sense of the transitoriness of life. There is something deeply moving in seeing the fleeting moments of long-gone evenings of companionship and good cheer preserved, making them in fact appear infinitely more precious and fragile than all the usual why-are-we-here, where-do-we-go stuff.
As to the naughty parts, it is indeed remarkable that two of the greatest works in the English language are by two of the greatest libertines, Pepys and Boswell, the difference being that Boswell would jump on anything female with a pulse, while Pepys, at least, had certain standards: The girls had to be good-looking and not use cosmetic paint, or cross-dress, or swear. Though there are certain lapses, notably those encounters with Mrs. Lane at Prior’s Rhenish Wine House, where the good lady’s thighs turn out to be “monstrous fat. . . .”
At the start of the year 1660, when he embarks on the diary, Pepys is 27 years old. The days of the Commonwealth are numbered — Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard having shown himself unfit to govern, and the restored “Rump” parliament likewise — and soon the city is abuzz with anticipation of the return of Charles ii from exile.
From the very beginning, Pepys shows himself to be a level-headed observer. The celebrations at the prospect of the king’s return strike him as a bit excessive: “Great joy yesterday in London. And at night more bonfires than ever and ringing of bells and drinking of the Kings health upon their knees in the streets, which methinks is a little too much,” he notes on May 2, 1660. When the Bishop of Chichester makes an ingratiating sermon before Charles, Pepys finds the clergyman’s meddling in matters of state distasteful and later muses on how people will switch sympathies from one day to the next “through profit or fear.”
This is clearly no ardent royalist speaking, but a realist and moderate who wants to make the best of things during uncertain times in which everybody is moving frantically to reposition himself. In such an atmosphere, a man is continually required to prove his loyalty. Meeting an old schoolmate, Pepys fears the man may remember that he had “been a great Roundhead as a boy,” and had shouted on the day Charles i was beheaded that “were I to preach on him, my text would be the memory of the wicket shall rot.” Fortunately, his friend had left school before that most regrettable remark.
Pepys attains the position of Clerk of the Acts, i.e., secretary to the Navy Board, the Navy’s civilian oversight body, a sinecure he owes to the pure luck of his being a distant cousin of Edward Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich. The way to keep his job, he determines, is by making himself indispensable through hard work. This he sets about with great resolve. He studies his field in the minutest detail: He gets Captain Lambert of the Norwich to show him “every hole and corner of the ship,” while Richard Cooper, the one-eyed sailing master, instructs him in arithmetic, and the able but conceited shipwright Anthony Deane teaches him how to measure timber, an area of frequent fraud. “I see it is impossible for the King to have things done as cheap as other men,” he notes sagely.
Two of the greatest works in the English language are by two of the greatest libertines, Pepys and Boswell.
He goes on regular inspection tours and each day brings new evidence of efforts to rip off the king. On a trial run, all the guns of the new man-of-war Loyal London explode, which he marks down as another unfortunate example of “the Kings business being done ill.” Accordingly, he conducts rigorous trials of the materials, including hemp, a key expense in a sail navy. He pits Riga hemp against Dutch and English, and finds the Riga proves much the strongest, while the best dressing for it is Stockholm tar. He encourages workmen to speak up about faults in merchants’ goods, and he tries to scatter his own people, men of proven ability like Cooper, throughout the system.
Very importantly, for a man with a natural inclination to please, Pepys learns to say no: “He that cannot say no . . . is not fit for business. The last of which is a very great fault of mine, which I must amend in.” This means occasionally crossing friends, “but I care not. For it is my duty.”
Besides a chronic shortage of funds, the greatest problem besetting the navy at this time lay in its leadership. In Cromwell’s day, the English had been triumphant over the Dutch because Cromwell, needing to replace the captains who had sided with Charles i, had promoted many ship’s masters who had proved themselves to be good sailors — the so-called tarpaulins or “tarps,” named after the rough canvas coats sailors wore in bad weather. These reforms the new regime tried to roll back, with disastrous results. Aristocratic “gentlemen captains” often knew nothing of the sea, were impossible to control, being too well connected, and frequently behaved liked cowards: One, a Captain Talbot, is described coming into harbor after having sneaked out of an engagement with the Dutch “with his vessel in good condition, walking the deck with his silk morning gown and powdered hair.”
Thus Pepys quotes Lord Sandwich’s wife, who wishes the king had sent her husband to sea with the old tarp captains he had commanded formerly, “that would make the ships swim with blood.” On the tarp vs. gentleman-captains issue, Pepys clearly prefers the tarps: What he wants is “downright diligence, sobriety and seamanship.”
And at the very top, instead of attending to matters of state, the king spends his time pursuing his pleasures, dallying with his mistresses, notably the lovely Lady Castlemaine, who is well versed in the tricks of Pietro Aretino’s erotic writings. Pepys paints a devastating portrait of a king ruled not by his brain but by an entirely different part of his anatomy. “Where will it all end?” is Pepys’s constant refrain.
Operating in an environment like this requires great skill and tact, and very often requires telling superiors things they do not want to hear. At the same time, Pepys is careful not to make unnecessary enemies — or the wrong ones — and to avoid being caught in the clashes of powerful superiors. This sometimes involves keeping a low profile or staying out of certain areas altogether: “having a care not to be overbusy — and burn my fingers.” Getting ahead, of course, also involves a fair amount — make that a huge amount — of dissembling, especially to people like his archenemy Sir William Penn, Navy Commissioner and father of the Quaker leader-to-be.
“I did God forgive me promise him all my services and my love, though the rogue knows he deserves none from me, nor do I intend to show him any; but as he dissembles to me, so I must with him.” Pepys rattles on forever about the meanness of Penn’s table — “a bad, nasty supper,” “deadly foul” dishes — and the slatternliness of his household, the plainness of his ancient wife and of his deeply uncharming daughter —“ugly she is as heart could wish,” which does not, however prevent him from fondling her — yet he is detached enough to recognize Penn as “the ablest man in England” to take over the job of Navy Comptroller, should the position become vacant.
Among the interesting dilemmas Pepys must wrestle with is what to do when the man on whom he is wholly dependent — Lord Sandwich — allows himself through his infatuation “with a slut” to neglect his duties at court, while his enemies work overtime to undermine him. Does he tell Sandwich or not? Pepys fully realizes the risks of mixing in his boss’s private affairs, but eventually does tell him. And for months afterwards worries that Sandwich’s attitude to him has grown cooler and more distant. He must also deal with Sandwich’s incessant attempts to borrow money from him to finance his extravagant lifestyle, not to mention the indecent proposal he once sent to Pepys’s wife through an intermediary.
A particularly tricky and recurring problem lies in the area of bribes: Accepting bribes and gifts was built into the system, as government officers weren’t paid very much. Pepys certainly accepts bribes. For days he enthuses about “a pair of the noblest flagons in a fine leather case that ever I saw all days in my life.” He also gets five ducks from the timber merchant, and a Captain Grove sends him a side of pork, “which was the oddest present, sure, ever made to any man.” An especially hilarious passage has him carefully emptying a letter of money before reading it. “But I did not open it till I came to my office; and there I broke it open, not looking into it till all the money was out, that I might say I saw no money in the paper if I should ever be questioned about it. There was a piece in gold and four l in silver.” This surely constitutes casuistry of a very high order.
Accepting bribes, however, does not necessarily mean that he allows them to influence his decisions. In one case, he is determined to cross the tar merchant, Mr. Bowyers, despite a gift of a barrel of sturgeon. He even considers returning the sturgeon: “It may be I shall send back, for I will not have the King abused so abominably.” “May be” are probably the operative words here.
Work tends to gravitate to those who can handle it, and through his great capacity for it, and through his tact, Pepys ends up with a finger in every pie. On August 20, 1662, he notes with satisfaction “So that on all hands, by God’s blessing, I find myself a very rising man.”
But life shouldn’t be all work and no play. Pepys engages in some very recognizable yuppie behavior: An unabashed materialist, he wants to “increase his good name and esteem in the world and get money, which sweetens all things and whereof I am in much need.”
Significantly, he is a great believer in self-help manuals and get-rich books. His favorite book is Francis Bacon’s Faber Fortunae — every man the architect of his own fortune — which he never tires of reading on his inspection trips to the naval yards. Erasmus’s essay on the art of letter writing, “De conscribendis epistolis,” which he comes upon in somebody’s library, is equally useful, “Especially one letter to the Courtier most true and good — which made me once resolve to tear out the two leaves that it was writ in — but I forbore it,” one learns with relief.
Hugh Audley’s pamphlet “The Way to be Rich” teaches him that “they cannot thrive who take no care of their little expenses.” The puritan and the hedonist are forever battling for the upper hand in Pepys: He carefully counts his money, he frets when he overspends on trips to the theatre, and he regrets when his attention is diverted from his work. He constantly makes resolutions concerning plays, drink, and women, and he constantly tries to get around them.
Being young and rather full of himself, he is of course subject to all the usual petty jealousies of the careerist as to who has the most attractive corner office. When Sir John Mennes, the Comptroller of the Navy, wants to deprive him of his best lodging chamber and access to the terrace, Pepys, though realizing it is not worth a big fuss, observes broodingly that it “does wex me so much, that for all this evening and all night in my bed, so great a fool I am and little master of my passion that I could not sleep for the thoughts of my losing the leads and other things which in themselves are small and not worth half the trouble.” Again, he agonizes over this, as over so many things, for weeks.
Being presentable is important to a career-seeker. From Advice to a Son by Francis Osborne, yet another of his beloved self-help guides, Pepys has learned to “Weare your clothes neat, rather than coming short of others of like fortune . . . spare all other ways rather than prove defective in this.” Accordingly, on March 20, 1663, we see him emerging from a shop in Fleet Street with “a little sword with gilt handle, cost 23s and silk stockings the colour of my riding cloth suit, cost 15s and bought me a belt there too, cost 15s.” At this point, a modern film version along the lines of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette would kick into zz Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.”
Pepys is, however, aware of the dangers of appearing too flashy, at one point deciding not to wear his gold-lace sleeves at court. He has them removed, as they are a bit much and likely to arouse envy.
A born indoor architect, he takes huge pleasure in furnishing his dwellings, building up his library, and installing his new bookcases, which Simpson, the master-joiner at the Deptford dockyard, has constructed especially for him. He eagerly purchases prints to decorate his house — one of the earliest recordings of prints so used — and he looks forward with excitement to getting his wife’s oil portrait. “I am not myself almost . . . in considering the fine picture I shall be maister of.”
Naturally, he lays a fine table, and his parties are particularly memorable, with the participants singing — Pepys sings bass, plays the violin, the lute, and the recorder — and dancing and playing party games. On April 4, 1663, he records “We had a Fricasse of rabbets and chicken — a leg of mutton boiled — three carps in a dish — a great dish of a side of lamb — a dish of roasted pigeons — a dish of four lobsters — three tarts — a lamphrey pie, a most rare pie — a dish of anchoves — good wine of al sorts; and all things mighty noble and to my great content.”
A wine cellar is a must, and a hogshead containing four gallons of Malaga sack mixed with sherry is “the first great quantity of wine I ever bought.” Pepys predictably becomes furious when a servant forgets to lock the door with the result that half of it is suddenly gone.
A man on the move needs wheels, of course. His deliberations over getting his own coach, which he finally does in 1668, are as intense as those of a Washington hotshot entering a showroom to purchase his first bmw: screening the market, choosing the right model, and having it carefully varnished. Cruising with his wife on the Pall Mall with their two black horses, their “manes and tails tied with red ribbons” and their green reins makes him mighty proud: “The truth is, I did not see any coach more pretty, or more gay, than ours all day.”
But he also records when the ruddy thing breaks down, as the bolt that attaches the front wheels comes off and the horses run off with them, leaving him and his company behind in the dust.
For a fastidious man like Pepys, the seventeenth century cannot have been the easiest era to live in, with its filth, disease, and general slovenliness, as is rather bluntly demonstrated on October 23, 1660 when, wanting to install a window in the basement “and going down into my cellar to look, I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find Mr Turners house of office is full and comes into my cellar. Which does trouble me; but I will have it helped.”
Pepys is deeply unhappy about the mess left by workmen and plasterers, and equally so when there are no napkins and change of trenchers to be had. He refuses to show himself when he gets a spot on his new vest and throws a tantrum before his maid Jane when his clean clothes are “ill smoothed.” He gets angry at his wife for leaving her things around, in his passion kicking “the little fine Baskett which I bought her in Holland and broke it which troubled me after I had done it.”
From an antiquary he learns that “frogs and many other insects do often fall from the sky ready-formed.”
Conversely, few things afford him as much pleasure as “my house being quite clean from top to bottom” or when he has finished doing his accounts and everything tallies. Occasionally, this craving for order and neatness strikes him as verging on the irrational. At one point, having complained about a sloppy engraving job on his fancy new ruler for measuring timber, he notes, “My delight is in the neatness of everything, and so cannot be pleased with anything unless it is very neat. Which is a strange folly.”
The other distinguishing characteristic of Pepys is his inquisitiveness, his being “in all things curious.” His greatest disapproval/incomprehension is reserved for Mr. W. Stankes, a yeoman looking after the Pepys family property in Brampton, who has come to London yet cannot be tempted to see a play or visit Whitehall or the lions in the Tower menagerie. “I never could have thought there had been upon earth a man so little curious in the world as he is.”
Pepys’s own curiosity is unlimited and very much in keeping with the scientific spirit of the age, according to which everything should be measured, weighed, and dissected. From the antiquary Elias Ashmole he learns that “frogs and many other insects do often fall from the sky ready-formed”; and, of course, he becomes a member of the newly created Royal Society (at a later stage becoming its president). He also attends vivisections at the Surgeons’ Hall, where he “touches the body of a seaman hanged for robbery with my bare hand; it felt cold, but methought it was a very unpleasant sight.”
Medical experiments are of particular interest to him, as illness is something with which he has firsthand experience. Every year he celebrates the anniversary of his 1658 kidney-stone operation, from which he miraculously escaped alive; he stores the stone itself in a box specially constructed for the task. And he records his health with deep concern: his testicular pains, his colds, boils, hemorrhoids, and, notably, the fit of colic, starting Sept 22, 1662, which, according to the text notes, constitutes “one of the best-documented attacks of flatulence in history.”
Underlying Pepys’s intense bursts of energy is an acute awareness that everything can be lost in an instant, be it by illness, death or court intrigue; this, obviously, is doubly difficult for a natural planner and compulsive maker of lists. If anybody can be said to embody the carpe-diem spirit, it is Pepys. It is this realization that gives his hunt for wine, women, and song its slightly frantic character. At one point during the Plague he notes “I have never lived so merrily as I have done this Plague time,” bringing to mind the behavior of soldiers in World War ii London.
Which brings us to the women. Ah, the women: He often wonders at what he calls “the strange slavery that I stand in to beauty that I value nothing near it,” which causes him to follow total strangers in the street and make constant excuses for the king’s mistress, Lady Castermaine, “though I know she is a whore.” The main part of the restored passages pertains to Pepys’s love life and to his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth. As the daughter of a Huguenot refugee, Elizabeth has French blood in her — very French blood, judging from the memorial bust, in the style of the great Italian sculptor Bernini, which Pepys commissioned after her death, and which portrays her as if caught mid-conversation. He is intensely proud of her, and they share some wonderful moments of married bliss. He is also intensely jealous, particularly of her dancing master, Mr. Pembleton, who leers at her in church, and the volatile Captain Holmes in his “gold-laced suit,” who fights duels and hence must be handled with caution.
But his fondness for Elizabeth does not prevent him from treating her rather shabbily on occasion, and it certainly does not prevent his eye from roving. And not just his eye. The naughty passages are written in a mixture of Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish, a kind of private code. A typical one, in which he records taking liberties with his maid Mercer before going to bed, reads: “Apres ayant tocade les mamelles de Mercer, que eran ouverts, con grand plaisir,” which, if we be not much mistaken, translates something like “having touched Mercer’s breasts, which were out in the open, with great pleasure.”
Thus, Pepys shows himself to be a compulsive philanderer with a bevy of women friends scattered all over the city, and he lives in constant fear his wife will find out. Observing himself, he repeatedly wonders at his own lack of self-control in this regard. “I am not, as I ought to be, able to command myself in the pleasure of my eye,” he notes, and he speaks of the “folly of my mind, that cannot refrain from pleasure at a season, above all others in my life, requisite for me to show my utmost care in.”
As is bound to happen, one day his wife catches him up to no good with her household companion, Deborah Willett, whom he reluctantly finds himself forced to fire. But he soon seeks her out again and fondles her, after which he warns her to guard her honor and fear the Lord and not suffer any man to do with her as he has just done. Whereupon he slips her 20 shillings and instructs her to leave her future addresses with his bookseller.
Equally hilarious is the episode at the bookseller where he has gone to buy the French book L’Escolle des filles for his wife to translate so as to keep her occupied. After having turned a few pages, he is shocked by its contents and declares it the most “bawdy, lewd book that I ever saw — so that I was ashamed of reading in it.” Three weeks later he is back to buy it in “plain binding,” and the next morning we find him in his office eagerly reading in the volume, “which is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself of the villainy of the world.”
All this is recorded with such breathtaking hypocrisy that the reader has to surrender. And who can help loving a guy who, having pushed off a drunkard who has accosted his wife and realizing that the man is not defending himself, gives the bum an extra whack on the head?
Indeed, pepys shows himself throughout the diary to be somewhat less than heroic, as demonstrated in one of the several episodes involving large dogs. “On my way to Greenwich where going, I was set upon by a great dog, who got hold of my garters and might have done me hurt; but Lord, to see in what a maze I was, that having a sword about me, I never thought of it or had the heart to make use of it, but might for want of that courage have been worried.”
On other occasions, when he thinks there are robbers in the house, he lies petrified in his bed “thinking every running of a mouse really a thief.” And though normally skeptical of superstition, he confesses to being scared of his own pillow standing upright in the moonlight, having been told that the room at the inn in which he is staying is haunted.
But courage of a different sort — or perhaps it is the instinct for self-preservation — kicks in when Pepys is called as a witness in Parliament’s inquiry into the Medway disaster, the result of years of neglect during which England, through a lack of funds for a permanent battle fleet, had been forced to rely on a few measly squadrons at sea and on fortifications on land.
Though recording sleepless nights over the coming questions, his confidence in his own powers is plain: “And there to my chamber, busy all the evening; and then to supper and to bed — my head running all night upon our business in Parliament and what examinations we are likely to go under before they have done with us, which troubles me more than it should a wise man, and a man the best able to defend himself, I believe of our whole office, or any other I am apt to think.” He has come a long way from the early days when he worried he might only last a few months in his job.
In these proceedings Pepys plays a starring role, documenting in his great speech before the investigative committee how the constant warnings, pleadings, and reminders issued by his office were ignored or rebuffed, and ensuring that he alone among the members of the board comes through with his reputation for competence hugely increased: He is being “hailed as another Cicero,” he proudly records. He immediately gets cracking on a scheme for the reform of the office and its operating procedures, which the Duke of York, as Lord High Admiral, approves, removing only a single sentence.
Sadly, Pepys stopped writing his diary at the end of May 1669 at the age of 36, fearing that all this late-night writing by candlelight was making him go blind. He had tried wearing green spectacles and later a contraption with paper tubes to no avail. After a summer spent on a combined r&r/fact-finding mission to the Low Countries and France, his eyesight recovered, but from then on he restricted himself to writings of a purely professional nature, except for a brief and rather dull journal of a trip to Tangier in 1683.
Pepys went on to become Secretary to the Admiralty from 1673 to 1679, and in 1684 he became what today would be called secretary of state for the navy, a position he kept under James ii. Here he ceaselessly strove to transform the English navy into a permanent security guarantee and to counter the efforts of French minister Colbert to make France a sea power, and thereby laid the foundation for Britain’s later word dominance. But, loyal to his master, he resigned in 1689, after James had been brought down by the Glorious Revolution and William and Mary had acceded to the throne. This was the end of his holding public office. A wealthy man, he devoted himself to his music and library and various worthy causes.
But his diary continues to provide the best window on his times. People sometimes speak of an insuperable barrier between the past and the present. With Pepys, that barrier does not exist.
Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.