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Samuel Pepys‘ Diary: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man

Samuel Pepys‘ diary is a remarkable primary source document that has provided historians with an unparalleled glimpse into life in 17th century England. Kept daily from 1660 to 1669, Pepys‘ diary records not just the most intimate details of his personal life, but also eyewitness accounts of major historical events like the Great Plague of 1665, the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The Man Behind the Diary

Born in London in 1633 to a tailor father and butcher‘s daughter mother, Samuel Pepys rose from humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful naval administrators of his time. He secured a place at Cambridge University through a scholarship and later gained employment as a teller in the Exchequer. In 1655, Pepys married 14-year-old Elisabeth de St Michel, the daughter of French Huguenot exiles.

Pepys began his diary on January 1, 1660, during a period of great political turmoil. The English Commonwealth established after the execution of King Charles I in 1649 was in its final days. In May 1660, the monarchy was restored under King Charles II, ushering in the period known as the English Restoration. Pepys, a lifelong royalist, gained favor in the new regime and was appointed Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board.

Over the next decade, Pepys would help modernize the English navy, making it the most powerful maritime force in the world. He instituted reforms in naval administration, promoting efficiency and meritocracy. He also played a key role in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), a conflict fought primarily at sea as England and the Dutch Republic vied for control of trade routes.

Inside the Diary

What makes Pepys‘ diary so remarkable is not just the historical events it covers, but the incredible candor and detail with which Pepys writes. The diary was never intended for publication; Pepys wrote it in shorthand and often went back to add more details later. As a result, the diary is a raw, unfiltered look into Pepys‘ life and mind.

Pepys writes frankly about his domestic life, including his marital troubles and infidelities. The diary reveals him as a man of great appetites – for food, drink, women, and knowledge. He was a notorious groper of women, writing about incidents like the following:

"At night Sir W. Pen and I did dig another [hole], and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things." (September 4, 1666)

Yet Pepys was also a deeply curious and literate man, teaching himself mathematics, astronomy, and languages. He amassed one of the greatest private book collections of his time, with over 3000 volumes. His diary frequently mentions his visits to bookshops and the titles he purchased.

"Up, and then to the office, then to dinner, and to my office to business. The King sent for us to attend him at the Privy Council. At which he was very kind to me." (January 19, 1666)

Pepys‘ diary is full of vivid descriptions that transport readers to 17th century London. He describes the sights, smells, and sounds of the city with a novelist‘s eye for detail. Here, he recounts the chaos and terror of the Great Fire:

"The houses too so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames-street; and warehouses of oil, and wines, and brandy, and other things."

Such level of detail has proven invaluable for historians looking to reconstruct the physical reality of London before the fire reshaped it.

The diary is also an important record of the development of early modern science and medicine. Pepys writes at length about the latest scientific ideas he discussed at the Royal Society, an organization he helped found to promote empirical, experimental science. During the Great Plague outbreak, he relays secondhand reports from his physician friends and shares his own speculations on the causes of the disease.

Publication and Legacy

Pepys wrote his last diary entry on May 31, 1669, when he reluctantly stopped due to failing eyesight. In the final entry, he reflected on his accomplishment:

"And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal, I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand."

Pepys‘ diary was bequeathed with his book collection to Cambridge‘s Magdalene College upon his death in 1703, with instructions that it not be opened until 1825. The diary was first published that year in two volumes but was heavily redacted, with many passages considered too racy for Victorian sensibilities.

It wasn‘t until the 1970s-1980s that the entire uncensored and decoded diary was published, thanks to the work of scholars like Robert Latham and William Matthews. The new unabridged edition revealed the full candor of Pepys‘ writing and established the diary as a masterpiece of literature in addition to a historical resource.

Today, Pepys‘ diary is celebrated as the most extensive and intimate account of daily life in 17th century England. No other document captures both the broad sweep of history and the minute details of an individual‘s life quite like it. In Pepys‘ own struggles and triumphs, readers find a person who feels as real and relatable as he was over 300 years ago.

Quantifying Pepys‘ Diary:

Years Covered Total Words Words per Year (Average)
1660-1669 1,040,000 115,555

Most Frequently Mentioned People in Pepys‘ Diary:

  1. Elizabeth Pepys (wife)
  2. Sir William Coventry (naval administrator)
  3. Sir William Penn (admiral and politician)
  4. Sir Edward Montagu (naval officer and patron)
  5. Sir George Carteret (naval treasurer)

Key Events in Pepys‘ Life:

graph LR
A[1633 - Born in London] --> B[1655 - Marries Elizabeth de St Michel]
B --> C[1660 - Begins diary, restoration of monarchy]
C --> D[1665 - Great Plague] 
D --> E[1666 - Great Fire of London]
E --> F[1669 - Ends diary]
F --> G[1703 - Dies in London]