The Diary of Samuel Pepys
‘There never was a man nearer being an artist who yet was not one.” –Robert Louis Stevenson
The Diary of Samuel Pepys is a without comparison in the vast compendium of historical nonfiction. According to Pepys Librarian at Magdalene College, Cambridge, Robert Latham, “His
Diary is one of the principal sources for many aspects of the history of its period.”
Found nearly 150 years after they were written, they laid bound in six leather volumes amidst the
3000 books Pepys left to the College. In 1825, Lord Braybrooke was the first to publish a
selection from the original short-hand notes. Other decoded copies were made over the next 100
years. This was because ...view middle of the document...
In 1660, Pepys began writing his journal, and continued until failing eyesight forced him to give
it up in 1669. His entries contain details of his daily private and professional life but also reveal
first-hand accounts of some of the most dramatic English historical events, including the Great
Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Restoration of Charles II, and the Dutch
It was the stout good sense of Samuel Pepys that occasioned him being appointed by Charles II
as Surveyor General of the Navy Board. Pepys’ blunt realism then inspired important naval
reforms, among them the creation of the Royal Hospital for seamen at Greenwich. This Royal
Navy would later dominate the seas, with Pepysian common sense and work ethic helping to sow
the seeds for British sea power in the 18th century. Pepys’ “blunt realism” in both personal and
professional matters is exemplified in his diary entries.
Pepys’ description of The Great Plague, also known as the “black death” (bubonic plague) is
harrowing. Since the poorer areas of London were very crowded and unhygienic, the plague
quickly spread through the population. On June 17, 1665, Pepys writes:
"It stroke me very deep this afternoon, going with a hackney-coach from my Lord Treasurer's
down Holborne - the coachman I found to drive easily and easily; at last stood still, and came
down hardly able to stand; and told me that he was suddenly stroke very sick and almost blind.
So I light and went into another coach, with a sad heart for the poor man and trouble for myself,
lest he should have been stroke with the plague - being at that end of the town that I took him up.
But God have mercy upon us all."
Later in life, Samuel Pepys was a notable man. First a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1684, he
then became its President. He was a friend and correspondent of Isaac Newton, John Evelyn,
Edmund Gibson, Dr. Wallis, Vincent Sloane and even Dryden.
He was a patron of the arts, and even composed many delightful songs and. His flair for gossip
and detail reveals a portrait of the times that rivals the most swashbuckling and romantic
historical novels. Pepys was a widely cultivated man, taking an interest in books, music, theatre,
and science. He and his wife took flageolet lessons from the master Thomas Greeting and paid
for their dancing lessons.
Interestingly, Pepys calls Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “the most insipid
ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” Of the theme of the same play, contemporary Italian
critic, Benedetto Croce, wrote, “love is sincere, yet deceives and is deceived; it imagines itself to
be firm and constant, and turns out to be fragile and fleeting.” We are left to wonder if Pepys’
honest yet harsh critique of one of Shakespeare’s most well-liked plays struck a nerve in him
given his frequent and salacious acts of infidelity.
In his diary, Pepys describes another beloved Shakespearean play, Twelfth Night, as “silly.”