Saturday, February 13, 2010


One last visit with Samuel Pepys

I still have Volume X of the complete Diary on my bedside table. Volume X is the Companion: an alphabetical listing with definitions, often long, of people, places, ideas, themes, and general what-have-you mentioned in the Diary itself. It makes fascinating reading, being an extensive fleshing-out of things the footnotes often just touched upon. What was a sack-possett? Who were the Houblons? Where was Fish Street? And why should we care? Well, it does what a good Companion ought to do - it makes us care, by turning its side-lights on the minutiae of the times.

I've had at least one of these green hardcover volumes on my bedside table for months now, and I am loath to finally return the last one to the hall bookcase to reunite with its set. But I must, other books are pushing it aside. Now that my time with Pepys has drawn to a close, I do want, as I said earlier, to note a few things that stayed with me regarding his life as a booklover. He mentions books, his booksellers, his library, the viewing and reading of many plays, and his frank opinions of particular books throughout the Diary, and often I found myself wishing he had written more on those topics alone. Permit me a few highlights.

Pepys as a literary critic:

"(Cicero) ...pleased me exceedingly; and more I discern therein then ever I thought was to be found in him. But I perceive it was my ignorance, and that he is as good a writer as ever I read in my life." (Volume III p.107)

"(A Midsummer Night's Dream) ...the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life." (Volume III p.208)

"...reading Duchess of Malfy, the play, which is pretty good - ..." (Volume VII p.358)

"...Hydrostatickes, which is a most excellent book as ever I read; and I will take much pains to understand him through if I can, the doctrine being very useful." (Volume VIII p.258; Robert Boyle's book Hydrostatical Paradoxes 1666)

"(Hydrostatickes again) ...which the more I read and understand, the more I admire as a most excellent piece of philosophy." (Volume VIII p.351; okay, now I am curious)

"...The Merry Wifes of Windsor, which did not please me at all - in no part of it..." (Volume VIII p.386)

"...The Feign Innocence or Sir Martin Marr-all....the most entire piece of Mirth, a complete Farce from one end to the other, that certainly was ever writ. I never laughed so in all my life; I laughed till my head (ached) all the evening and night with my laughing, and at the very good wit therein, not fooling." (Volume VIII p.387; Dryden's adaptation of Molière's L'Etourdi)

"...Hydrostatickes, which are of infinite delight." (Volume VIII p.400; okay, very curious)

"...reading a little of L'escolle des Filles, which is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world." (Volume IX p.58-59; Paris 1655; a bawdy book, and what a lovely justification for reading it, and he did in fact burn the book the very next day, so it "might not be among my books to my shame...")

"...and so to my bookseller's and there looked for Montaigne's essays, which I heard by my Lord Arlington and Lord Blany so much commended... (Volume IX p.120-121; I do so wish he had recorded his opinion of it)

"...there kissed bookseller's wife and bought Legend..." (Volume IX p.161; the book was Legends Aurea, a collection of lives of the saints, printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1527, PL 2040; oh, the irony)

"...The Silent Woman; the best comedy, I think, that was ever wrote;..." (Volume IX p.310)

"...The Duchesse of Malfy, a sorry play;..." (Volume IX p.375; a revised opinion, apparently)

The Companion tells us that Pepys recorded having read around 125 books during the Diary period. By the time the Diary closes, he owned at least 500 books. At the end of his life, 3000. Over and over, he notes that books are one of his great delights. This is what most endeared me to him, I must say.

Pepys as a booklover:

" books new-bound...and much pleased I am now with my study, it being methinks a beautiful sight." (Volume VI p. 33)

"...much pleased today with thoughts of gilding the backs of all my books alike in my new presses." (Volume VII p.266; a press is a cupboard, i.e. bookcase)

"The truth is, I have bought a great many books lately, to a great value; but I think to (buy) no more till Christmas next, and these that I have will so fill my two presses, that I must be forced to give away some to make room for them, it being my design to have no more at any time for my proper library then to fill them." (Volume IX p.18; he's writing this in January, and I'm thinking, Umm, good luck with that)

"...all the morning setting my books in order in my presses for the fallowing year, their number being much encreased since the last, so as I am fain to lay by several books to make room for better, being resolved to keep no more then just my presses will contain." (Volume IX p.48; yes, the time-honored tradition of upgrading the books in one's library)

Of course he did what we all do - he gave up that vastly sensible plan, and instead broke down and got more bookcases. By 1693 Pepys had seven bookcases, by 1698 eight, and eventually twelve (Volume X p.35). Which now reside with their books, as I have mentioned before, at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The books are numbered and shelved from smallest to largest. Pepys wrote later in life that his personal library was "...calculated for the Self-Entertainment onely of a solitary, unconfined enquirer into Books." (Volume X p.34) What a perfect self-contained statement of purpose. One of my favorite pieces of his writing, anywhere.

And, while I'm at it, one of the most poignant passages in the entire Diary, in my view:

"...I to bed, my eyes being very bad - and I know not how in the world to abstain from reading." (Volume IX p.124)


This is going on far too long. I must sum up, somehow. Let me return for a moment to my discovery of not absolutely loving Samuel Pepys as a person, despite his rampant bibliophilia (which is usually more than enough to tip the scales in someone's favor, around here). My definitive AHA moment regarding this issue came while reading the entry about Health, in the Companion, which I quote here at length:

"Clearly the diary is not the work of an introspective (AHA); when Pepys writes about his thoughts, feelings and dreams he writes objectively, at no greater length than he writes about the world outside himself. And equally clearly, the diary is the work of a man who had to an unusual degree the capacity to live happily and effectively. He was disciplined and well-organized, yet at the same time never lost his zest and flexibility. He loved order and neatness (it was the basis of his success in all sorts of ways - as a diarist, a civil servant and a collector) yet he never allowed this love to become an obsession." (Volume X p.176)

As an introverted introspective diarist myself, who seems, some days, to write of nothing but thoughts and feelings, perhaps it was only natural for me to recognize in Pepys the extrovert that certain something that I myself do not possess. From the first, I wanted to identify with him, badly, as I did with Montaigne, or as I do with any great writer I admire. I also knew how much certain writers I admire loved Pepys in their turn. I can see why. For he was certainly one of the great striders through life - working in the public arena, garnering fame and fortune, known and valued during his lifetime, advising Kings, and finally becoming famous for something he never even intended to become famous for. That was my AHA moment. And this is far too much analysis. I should scrap all that and just be able to say this instead: I loved some things about Pepys, wildly, and other things, I didn't care for at all, in fact I cringed and almost hated him.

But, as I return the last volume to its bookcase tonight, I choose to end here on a positive note. One of Pepys's most endearing qualities was certainly his tidy nature. Even after death: a codicil to his will instructed his nephew and heir to make certain book purchases to complete his library. Beautiful. Full stop.

The End.

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