Tales from an author

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Have been enjoying reading some diaries on WordPress recently. A year ago today I published a book about Samuel Pepys and his diaries – here is the introduction to that book, setting out my enthusiasm for Pepys.

The position of Samuel Pepys as the author of the world’s most celebrated diary is rather surprising. During his lifetime, Pepys’ reputation stemmed from his work as a naval administrator, who became a politician. His literary output appeared to be limited to a single book, about the navy. Pepys’ main journal, from the 1660s, runs to about 1,300,000 words, following which he kept five short diaries, at intervals across the next two decades. The diaries were left in obscurity until the nineteenth century. Their eventual publication revealed Pepys as an exceptionally skilled recorder of political events, and also everyday life. Pepys’ record of contemporary events has become an important source for historians seeking an understanding of life in London during the seventeenth century.
Samuel Pepys died in 1703, and his library, including the diaries, was inherited by a nephew, John Jackson. The library was moved to Magdelene College, at Cambridge University, during 1724, the year after the death of Jackson. A century passed, however, before the shorthand diary from the 1660s was transcribed by John Smith, a student at the college. Smith had to painstakingly work out the shorthand from scratch, as the presence in Pepys’ library of a guide to the relevant method (the delightfully named tachygraphy) was overlooked. A relatively short selection from Pepys’ diary, edited by Lord Braybrooke, was published in 1825 by Henry Colburn (the man who issued Benjamin Disraeli’s debut novel, Vivian Grey, to a rather baffled readership the following year). Three further editions of Braybrooke’s version of the diary were to be published, each of these being slightly expanded. The first published edition of Pepys’ later journal of a trip to Tangier arrived in 1841.
A new transcription of Pepys’ 1660s diary, by Mynors Bright, appeared in six volumes, comprising about eighty per cent of the full text, between 1875 and 1879. Following the death of Bright in 1883, a further version of his transcription, edited by H B Wheatley, was published in ten volumes between 1893 and 1899. Wheatley’s edition represented about ninety per cent of the diary, with most of the omissions being made in line with what was considered decent in nineteenth century Britain.
It has only been in recent years, three centuries after the author’s death, that readers have been able to enjoy the full range of the diaries of Samuel Pepys. The entire 1660s journal was finally published as The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A New and Complete Transcription, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, running to eleven volumes, including extensive commentary, between 1970 and 1983. Matthews died in 1976, before this labour of love was completed. Latham also published The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary, which arrived in 1978, with about one twelfth of the 1660s text being accompanied by contemporary paintings and drawings. Latham subsequently edited The Shorter Pepys, which appeared in 1985, as a single volume condensation of the edition he worked on with Matthews, containing about a third of the text of the diary. The index to this selection was compiled by C S Knighton, who joined Latham in publishing Pepys’ Brook House Journal, during 1995, the year in which Latham died. Latham’s one volume edition of the 1660s journal was reissued in 2003 as The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A Selection, and provides the most accessible version of the main diary. Knighton subsequently acted as the editor of Pepys’s Later Diaries, which was published in 2004, bringing together the five journals that Pepys wrote after the diary of the 1660s.

The present book would not be possible without the enormous work of predecessors who have transcribed, and edited, the diaries of Samuel Pepys, or written about his life. Besides the people already mentioned here, particular thanks are due to Phil Gyford, whose The Diary of Samuel Pepys website has illuminating comments from experts and enthusiasts. The Samuel Pepys Diary website, run by Duncan Grey, is also excellent. Another good Internet home is the Diary of Samuel Pepys section of Wikisource. The standard biography is Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin (published in 2002), while I also recommend Pepys: A Biography by Richard Ollard (1974).

In contrast to the massive, and scholarly, editions produced by others, the aim of the current work is to provide the essence of Samuel Pepys’ amazing diaries, and the life from which they sprung, in a short book. Highlights from the diaries are combined with biographical commentary. I have decided against simple transcription of the diary entries as originally written by Pepys, seeking instead to offer a clear text, for the convenience of a contemporary reader. Pepys wrote the 1660s diary in shorthand, and often abbreviated names in each of his journals, but in this edition names are shown in full where they are clear from Pepys’ text. Spelling has been regularised and modernised, while words obviously omitted in error by Pepys have been silently added. Text in round brackets is from Pepys, while words in square brackets are editorial insertions. The dating of entries uses a consistent format. Most of the entries selected for this book are reproduced in full, but some have been reduced. Pepys’ lengthy narratives have been broken down into manageable paragraphs. One of the most notable – some would say appealing, others may be appalled – facets of the 1660s diary is the frankness with which Pepys writes about his sex life. Pepys tended to use a macaronic language when describing his dalliances with women. The cunning, multi-lingual, code of Pepys has been, loosely, translated into English in the following narrative.

I follow in the footsteps of Pepys as somebody who writes a regular diary. I also share Pepys’ interest in government administration and politics, having ploughed those fields, as a civil servant, local government officer, and political activist. Three hundred and twenty four years after the opening of Pepys’ journal, I started to keep my diary on the first day of 1984. Two years later I read a commentary on Pepys’ work, in A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon (published 1984). This was followed in 1988 by my reading numerous passages by Pepys in The Faber Book of Diaries, edited by Simon Brett (published 1987). Having enjoyed these introductions to Pepys, I planned to read more of his diary, but must admit that for many years I was daunted by the length of the work. After all, the drastic edit that is Latham’s single volume edition has a text that runs to over a thousand pages. I acquired a copy of Latham’s 2003 version of Pepys’ diary four years after its appearance, and began reading it early in 2008. Across several months, on most days, I enjoyed the routine of reading a few of Pepys’ diary entries, normally late in the evening, as supper was followed by bed. Meanwhile I wrote a short profile of Pepys, published in the book Legends of British History. That essay has served as the starting point for this book, in which I expand upon an enthusiasm for Samuel Pepys – and his diaries.


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