The Pragmatic Pepys

It is easy to forget, when reading about historical events, that everyday life goes on being lived during wars or times of social and political upheaval. In history books, these complex events are reduced to a series of facts—names and dates and locations—and it can seem as if whole nations hold their collective breath, exhaling only when a resolution comes about. Through Samuel Pepys’s diary one is able to see life in London during the Restoration through the eyes of an individual. History does not happen in a vacuum, Pepys, and thousands of others, had to navigate through the dangerous political and cultural climate of the Interregnum and Restoration anyway way they could. Roundhead as a youth, Royalist as an adult, Pepys navigates through these dangerous straits flawlessly.

Sometimes, time can move glacially and it is hard to tell if anything of significance is happening. Other times, historical times are more obvious. Surely Pepys, an educated man as evident in his literacy, knew he was living during historical times. The English Civil war had ended in the death of a King and marked the beginning of Puritan rule on the island and its territories. But history cannot be wiped so clean. For over five-hundred years, since the time of the fabled and noble King Arthur, the English have known a King and they would have their king. Eleven years after the beheading of King Charles I, his son, Charles II, was invited back to England to take up the throne and a small group of ships was dispatched to Holland to bring him home.

This is where Pepys’s diary begins. Pepys’s cousin Mountagu (who later becomes Earl of Sandwich, Pepys’s patron) is dispatched to pick up the King and his brother, the Duke of York, and asks Pepys to accompany him on the trip as his secretary (5). These first pages of the diary firmly establishes Pepys as a man of status and ambition. On the way to Holland, his ambition, or vanity, is clear when he writes, “I wrote this morning many letters, and to all the copies of the vote of the Council of Warr I put my name; that if it should come to print, my name may be at it” (7). On the voyage back to England, Pepys listens as the King tells the story of how he fled Cromwell’s troops from Worcester and is “ready to weep to hear the stories that he told of his difficulties that he had passed through” (8). It seems remarkable that Pepys is on a boat with the King listening to his stories. Pepys seems unimpressed, remarking at the end of the voyage how “a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are” (9). This is made more impressive given Pepys’s youth—only twenty-eight years old.

As interesting as Pepys’s encounter with the King, the diary really comes to life in the showing of everyday life in London. Of course, Pepys was of the upper class, made evident by being invited to pick up the King, so his accounts must be taken with a grain of salt. Were Pepys’s days typical of someone living in London? Probably not. It is always striking, whether reading Dickens’ David Copperfield or Pepys’s diary, how the world seems to stand still for the rich. Whatever it is they need, they will find as if it has been waiting for them all along. On the first day of the Great Fire, Pepys walks the streets and “down to the waterside and there got a boat and through the bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire” (155). Pepys’s account is curiously void of the commotion that must have been present that day. The nearest Pepys comes to showing this commotion is when he takes word to the Lord Mayor, from the King, that he is to pull houses down to stop the spread of fire. Pepys records, “To the King’s message, he cried like a fainting woman, ‘Lord, what can I do? I am spent! People will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses. But the fire overtakes us faster then we can do it’” (156). This passage also serves to show Pepys’s status once again, he was ushered in to see the King, gave his advise, and this becomes the King’s order.

But Pepys was not always a man of status, of wealth. He dreams of becoming rich and talks at length with his wife of what he will do when worth 2000 Pound (107). The Restoration of King Charles II, the resulting rise of Mountagu to the Earl of Sandwich, combined to give Pepys power and money. He was elevated from a temporary clerk at the Exchequer to a position in the Navy where he grew wealthy off questionable payments of contractors (69).

Despite rising with his cousin, Pepys held the fear of becoming poor and zealously protected his money. Pepys’s love of money, and the fear of losing it all, is made clear by his account of burying and recovering of his gold in 1667. Pepys was forced to bury his wealth after the Dutch took the Royal Charles and came into Hope. Pepys, working for the Navy, feels that his office and maybe his home will be attacked by angry mobs and sends his wife and father off to his father’s home to bury the gold. When he comes to dig the money up the following October, he frets because his wife and father cannot remember where it was buried, he eventually finds it but then is angry to learn they buried it in plain sight of the neighbors (243). His gold is strewn all over the garden, but he finds most it, although twenty to thirty pieces were not recovered, and “did bring my gold, to my heart’s content, very safe home” (246).

His issues with money provide an insight into his marriage and the roles of husbands and wives in seventeenth century England. While it may have appeared on the surface that Pepys controlled his house and his wife with ease, Elizabeth, Pepys’s wife, is no push over. The following passage illustrates both of their passions and establishes Pepys’s position in the house:

“At home find my wife this day of her own accord to have lain out 25s upon a pair of pendances for her eares; which did vex me and brought both me and her to very high, and very foul words from her to me, such as trouble me to think she should have in her mouth, and reflecting upon our old difference which I hate to have remembered. I vowed to break them, or that she should go and get what she could for them again. I went with that resolution out of doors. The poor wretch afterward, in a little while, did send out to change them for her money again. I fallowed Besse her messenger at the Change and there did consult and sent her back; I would not have them changed, being satisfied that she yielded.” (4 July 1664)

Elizabeth’s spending ways worries Pepys, he checks over her books one night, “And upon my being very angry, she doth protest she will here lay up something for herself to buy her a neckelace with—which madded me and doth still trouble me, for I fear she will forget by degrees the way of living cheap and under a sense of want” (64). It seems almost fitting that Pepys would scold his wife for spending money when he spent lavishly on himself (83).

Pepys was a restless and curious man. Like all people, he was complex and his diary records his many interests, from science to the arts to women. It is a wonder and testament to Pepys’s chameleon nature that he even survived Puritan rule. Pepys went to great lengths to hide his affairs, probably worried about his wife finding out, but more than likely worried for his reputation. Not only did he write his whole diary in code, but as an added security measure he weaved passages with several different languages to hide his indiscretions.

However, a man as amorous as Pepys could not hide his misdeeds forever. Elizabeth catches him one day embracing her young companion (or, “did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats”), Deb Willet, and is deeply hurt (256). To get revenge, Elizabeth tells her husband that she was a Roman Catholic and this troubles him (256). The fact that Pepys is bothered by his wife’s Catholicism offers another insight to King Charles II’s England.

When Pepys hears a story about four girls chanting and lifting up a heavy man with only their fingers, he inquires if the girls are Protestant or Catholic. He is told that they were Protestant “which made it the more strange” for him (170). After the fire, Pepys hears from Sir Crew that the fire was done by plot. Crew tells Pepys that there are many witnesses who saw efforts to increase the fire “and that both in City and country it was bragged by several papists that upon such a day or in such a time we should find the hottest weather that ever was in England, and words of plainer sense” (160). And when a meteor appears over the city, it is a signal that the rest of the city is to be burned and papists will start cutting throats (172).

It is unclear if Pepys believed any of this or if he was merely relating the stories of the day, but given his comment about the Protestant girls it seems he found them at least plausible. But Pepys is a hard man to pin down. He observed Mass at the Queen’s chapel at least twice and even watched the King take the Sacrament. He did not get his throat cut, instead he rather enjoyed the service, remarking that the music was better, the chapel nicer and the manner of performance glorious (24). Perhaps Pepys was not swayed by passions on either side because he was not passionate about one side or the other. While Pepys spirituality bordered on the superstitious, he never missed a chance to bless God or praise God or thank God for gold, he was not very religious. He did not like preachers and when he goes to church he is often involved in mischief. He writes without a hint of remorse about sleeping through sermons, reading books during service, and chasing after women in pews to the point of almost being stabbed. Again, Puritan rule must have been very hard on him.

But this is how Pepys survived. It is too bad Pepys did not keep a diary his whole life. It would be interesting to see how he coped during the Interregnum. A boy who upon the beheading of King Charles I remarked, “The memory of the wicked shall rot” went on to serve two Kings with nothing but loyalty (273). It is also too bad that Pepys stopped keeping a diary in 1669, it would have been interesting to see the Glorious Revolution through his eyes. But he wrote enough. Pepys lived through historic times and his diary allows us to see more than the restoration of a Monarchy, but the restoration of a nation.

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