Tuesday, January 05, 2010


An age of uncertainty

I continue to read in Pepys's Diary, with occasional forays into other autobiographical writing, for leavening purposes. Volumes VI and VII proved fearsome and heartbreaking, the former because of its chronicle of the Great Plague (in 1665 roughly a quarter of everyone in London died - these mostly poor people, since the Court and anyone who had money enough fled for the country) and the latter with Pepys's eyewitness account of the Great Fire (in early September of 1666 fire broke out in a bakery, and over the next four days destroyed much of the city). During the plague year, Pepys made his will and then made hay while the sun shone, both by making money as quickly as he could and also by increasing the frequency of his various amorous associations. The following year, the English were at war with the Dutch and Pepys's office was suffering from a plague of a different nature - a desperate lack of funds with which to victual the Navy - and he had to defend himself and his colleagues before the King and various angry naval commanders, with account books at hand. Then, at the height of uncertainty about the course of the war, the Great Fire broke out. Pepys evacuated his goods and people safely and then found that Seething Lane, where he lived and worked for the Navy, was spared, because firebreaks were created by blowing up adjacent buildings with gunpowder.

The fire was a shocking spectacle. Pepys's diary entries for the next month tell of his nightmares: "...much terrified in the nights nowadays, with dreams of fire and falling down of houses." (Volume VII p.287) He mentioned these dreams several more times, and he also dreamed of some of his books which went missing in the evacuation and return home. He seemed more sanguine about the plague - being careful in his daily actions but also accepting it, and preparing for it, should it come his way: "...how to put my things and estate in order, in case it should please God to call me away - which God dispose of to his own glory." (Volume VI p.125)

Not surprisingly, the whole Diary has become more and more engrossing the further into it I read. The cast of characters become distinct personalities and we know what to expect from them, in Pepys's opinion, when their names appear in his pages. And we come to know what to expect from Pepys himself. To be honest, one thing I've struggled with in reading this, is whether or not I even like Pepys, as a person. In some ways he is very delightful, honest and hard-working, a good servant to the King and his country, known for his plain dealing, a true book lover, a musician. I read about this, and I come to admire him. Then during an argument he gives his wife a black eye. And later beats an unruly servant until his own arm hurts. And dallies with numerous women not his wife, often several times in one day. And yet. He constantly tries to hold himself accountable to himself (and presumably to God), by writing his code of conduct down and mostly keeping to it. He knows when he has done wrong, by his own moral standards and the standards of the day. Which, granted, were fairly corrupt. He transcribed a colleague's view of life at the Court of Charles II, at this time: "...of all places, if there be hell, it is here - no faith, no truth, no love, nor any agreement between man and wife, nor friends." (Volume VII p.228-229) I've been browsing in the contemporary account of the Court, the Memoirs of the Life of Count de Gramont, and it's one long gossipy back-stabbing rogue's tale. How to be good, in this atmosphere, with these examples before you?

I am not required to like Pepys, I know. And he was not required to be good. I also know that most people are a strange combination of the despicable and the admirable - and they often choose what side to show the world, while hiding the other. Pepys didn't have to write any of these terrible things down. I wonder why he did. Do most diarists do so? Perhaps this is one of the major points of the diary - he presents himself entire.

Not to change the subject, and actually I'm not, but in Ronald Blythe's column this week, he speaks of diaries and their writers, himself among them. And he quotes Reverend James Hervey, who told himself: "Compile a secret history of your heart and conduct." The good, the bad, and the ugly. 350 years ago this week Pepy's began his diary. And by reading it now, all these years later, I am realizing anew how little human nature changes, come plague and fire.

I'll end this overly-long post by saying that I've finally located a decent copy of Volume VIII, and the check is in the mail, as the saying goes. Until such time as it arrives, I am keeping myself busy with Volume X, the Companion, a book-length encyclopaedia of all things mentioned in the Diary, sort of extended footnotes. And also a book I found on my own shelves with the wonderful title Samuel Pepys' Penny Merriments: Being a Collection of Chapbooks, full of Histories, Jests, Magic, Amorous Tales of Courtship, Marriage and Infidelity, Accounts of Rogues and Fools, together with Comments on the Times, selected and edited by Roger Thompson (Columbia 1977), a collection of 80 extracts from the 115 street-corner chapbooks Pepys collected and had bound together in a volume in his library.

That long subtitle could be for the Diary itself, it sums it up so well.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?