Historical Heroes: Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys has been an inspiration and source of knowledge to novelists and historians alike.
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Samuel Pepys began his diary in 1660 and continued to write it for ten years. His famous diary is the best resource we have on London in the 17th century and provides us with a fly-on-the-wall account of daily life in the period just following the Restoration of King Charles II. It includes passages not only on this unexpected about-turn from Cromwell’s protectorate, and the coronation of the King, but also on seminal events in the city of London such as The Plague and The Great Fire.

What is wonderful when reading a diary like this is that it is a personal recollection. Who could not empathize with Pepys when he tells you he had to go out for a pee after sitting through the lengthy coronation service;

But so great a noise, that I could make but little of the music; and indeed, it was lost to everybody. But I had so great a list to piss, that I went out a little while before the King had done all his ceremonies, and went round the Abbey to Westminster Hall, all the way within rails, and 10,000 people, with the ground covered with blue cloth — and scaffolds all the way.

Pepys is famous for his unbridled affairs which went on all through his marriage, and his personal life by his own admission was full of passions and opportunistic encounters. However, this masked a fierce intelligence and dedication to duty that led him to be one of Charles II’s leading lights in the affairs of the Navy – which, in an age when wars were fought at sea, was an enormous and impressive task.

As a novelist what I enjoy most about Pepys’ diary is the insight it gives us into the minutiae of day-to-day life. Pepys had opinions about nearly everyone he met, and there are nearly three thousand of them named in his diary. I appreciate especially that his interests include Kings and commoners; he is equally at home berating the King as he is the serving boy in his employ.

‘I see it is impossible for the King to have things done as cheap as other men.’

Charles II

Surely one of the most succinct impressions of the libertine Charles II. Having access to King and Parliament gives the reader an insider’s view and Pepys doesn’t steer away from court gossip, but rather seems to revel in it. Here, a passage about the King’s mistress Lady Castlemaine:

This afternoon walking with Sir H. Cholmly long in the gallery, he told me, among many other things, how Harry Killigrew is banished the Court lately, for saying that my Lady Castlemayne was a little lecherous girle when she was young … This she complained to the King of, and he sent to the Duke of York, whose servant he is, to turn him away. The Duke of York hath done it, but takes it ill of my Lady that he was not complained to first. She attended him to execute it, but ill blood is made by it.

The diary is a labour of love – nobody keeps a diary for that long without enjoying the writing of it, and Pepys must have had some intimation that he was writing his way through a momentous era of change. In fact the sort of things he was reading at the time only reinforce this idea that the world is being discovered anew, and more than three hundred years later we can revel in the new discoveries alongside Pepys.

As a reader Pepys had an intimate relationship with his bookseller, and his fame is due in part to his substantial and unique book collection, which he bequeathed to Magdalene College, Cambridge, on his death, and where it still resides. The fact we still have access to it provides a unique window into the habits of a 17th century reader.

Joshua Korton, based on the North side of St Paul’s Churchyard was Pepys’ regular bookseller. Books were clearly important to Pepys and he takes care of them, for on 1st January 1665 he arranged to have his old books recovered in new matching bindings. Pepys was a collector and paid attention to the design of his library, often buying scientific tomes which advertised his learning to friends and colleagues, though he didn’t always understand what he read!

Of pioneering scientist Robert Boyle. Pepys tells us in 1667,

 ‘I took boat at the Old Swan, and there up the river all alone as high as Putney almost, and then back again, all the way reading, and finishing Mr. Boyle’s book of Colours, which is so chymical, that I can understand but little of it, but understand enough to see that he is a most excellent man.’

Elizabeth Pepys

This is typical of Pepys. He has an insatiable curiosity for the new or the different and this is one of the things that makes the diary so entertaining, and such a brilliant portrait of the age. Pepys should not be dismissed as a mere dilettante however, as we also know he took a serious interest in science, becoming a fellow and then president of the Royal Society.

In his diary, new ideas from his reading rub up against the old traditions. For example, Pepys bought a book by Robert Hooke, discoverer of microscopy, and whilst reading this new scientific approach in bed, was also holding a hare’s foot, a superstitious charm against illness that he had received from a friend.

‘To my office till past 12, and then home to supper and to bed, being now mighty well, and truly I cannot but impute it to my fresh hare’s foote. Before I went to bed I sat up till two o’clock in my chamber reading of Mr. Hooke’s Microscopicall Observations, the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.’

Pepys was an enthusiast and collecting was a way to exchange ideas and provide access to higher strata of society. Book collectors were a select group – those who could afford it – and it was fashionable to issue invitations to view your collection as a way to encourage social interaction with the right kind of people. Often books would be exchanged or bartered, and Pepys took pride in the importance of his book collection, his legacy to his college.

It seems that books were a source of domestic pleasure too, for Pepys shared some of his love of literature with his wife Elizabeth.

‘my wife and I to read “Ovid’s Metamorphoses” which I brought her home from Paul’s Churchyard to-night, having called for it by the way, and so to bed’ (22 December 1662)

It is easy to conjure a vision of the couple sitting cosily by a fire in the Christmas atmosphere of Pepys’s house in Seething Lane. In fact, Pepys’s view of the women in his life was what you would expect – they were very much supporting characters in his story. Like all diarists, he is essentially egotistical in his presentation of events.

On Friday, January 9, 1663 Pepys destroyed many of his wife’s letters during an argument at home. This shows the depth of division between husband and wife as for both the written word was of great significance. Both were readers, and destruction of the written evidence of their past romance must have been deeply hurtful initially for Elizabeth, and then later to Pepys himself who admits his ‘troubled mind’ over the matter. One of the results of this row was that not a single line of Elizabeth’s writing has survived despite the fact that all Pepys’ library of books have been preserved, and all the volumes of Pepys’s Diary survive. Pepys tells us about Elizabeth’s daily activities; her shopping, her visits to the fortune teller, their bitter arguments over other women, and from these her life can be reconstructed.

What strikes the reader immediately about Pepys from his writing is how busy he was. Every day is filled with incident, or appointments with the notable and famous personalities of the day. As well as writing a diary, some of his correspondence survives, and if we add that to his diary output, he was putting pen to paper an astonishing number of times a day, and making decisions on-the-go that would affect many London citizens. Here – a letter to John Evelyn;

His Royal Highness hath commanded, that the Golden Hand and Prince William be imediatly sent to New Castle to fetch Coales for the poore of the Citty of London: I doe therefore entreat you that if they have any Dutch prisoners now onboard them as I am told they have you will please to thinke of some fitt place for the removal of them unto, and to cleare the shipps of them that we may in obedience to his Royal Highness’s comands see the said shipps imediatly proceed on the forenamed service: I am

Your affectionat Servant


Reading his diary I cannot help being by turns revolted at his misogyny and arrogance, but impressed by his curiosity, cheerfulness and energy. I hope many more people will take the time to read his diaries, and enjoy his unique portrait of the 17th century.

Deborah Swift is the author of three novels about the women in Pepys’ Diary. Pleasing Mr Pepys features Pepys’ wife Elizabeth and his maidservant Deb Willet with whom he had an affair.