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Samuel Pepys's Diary tells us a great deal about the author himself and even more about the times in which he lived. But despite the fact that this book is a marvelous window into the 17th century, it is also a marvelous window into the 21st century as well, for Pepys's observations about human nature and the ways in which cities have their own life remain strikingly trenchant in today's world as well.
As Coote (2001) tells us, Pepys came from a relatively humble background -- his father has worked as a tailor. But Pepys's own skills an talents had allowed him to acquire as a patron the earl of Sandwich, Sir Edward Montagu. Because of this connection, Pepys was able to meet and to observe many of the most important men in England during his generation, and his comments on them in his diary help us to understand not only his own wry understanding of human failings in the realm of allowing power to corrupt but also the ways in which politics was and is done.
Coote's biography of Pepys describes how Pepys rose to the position of secretary of the admiralty, a position he held from 1673 to 1688, and he also served as a member of Parliament and as president of the Royal Society. One of most striking aspects of his diary is the fact that we believe that he himself that he would not be corrupted by the power that he gained later in life, although we do not have any confirmation of this first hand from the diary itself, since he stopped writing it in 1669.
One thing that we may be relatively sure of is the fact that Pepys was forthright in his descriptions of his own life and the actions of others because he wrote the diary in a personal shorthand that he did not intend for anyone else to be able to decipher. And indeed his precautions were for the most successful: The work was not deciphered until 1825, when all of those whose exploits it chronicles were long dead.
Even though this diary was meant to be a private one, we can interpret it as an exemplar not only of Pepys's own style and experiences, but as an exemplar of the literary trends and modes of his era. The self-consciousness that he exhibits, his ability to step back and view with a great deal of objectivity himself and his world, were emerging as tropes within the novel as well as the dairy of his time as the conventions of the modern novel were just then being developed. Indeed, the self-referentialty of this kind of diary would become a mark of much of the finest literature that would be written over the next century.
It is life, but as he writes it down it becomes art; and it is the art of a diarist of genius, one who does not choose to give himself the beau role. Later in his career Pepys sometimes stood greatly on his dignity, but here in the pages of his own Diary he assumes none of the gravitas we should all like to claim for ourselves in a bedroom row. He struggles into his breeches, he behaves unjustly and cruelly, he offers no justification of any kind for his behaviour except his anger and fear of being blamed. This is what he had seen and what he had felt, transmuted into words (http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/classics/story/0,6000,795829,00.html).
Among the entries that are less well-known are those that provide us with fascinating insights into the world of the 17th century: This entry from 14 November 1666 describes the transfusion of blood between two dogs by members of the Royal Society. The fact that Pepys included his observations on this event demonstrates his own interest in science and in the possibilities that were just then being opened up by the first stirrings of modern science:
Here Dr. Croone told me that at the meeting at Gresham College tonight (which it seems they now have every Wednesday again) there was a pretty experiment, of the blood of one Dogg let out (till he died) into the body of another on one side, while all his own run out on the other side. The first died upon the place, and the other very well, and likely to do well. This did give occasion to many pretty wishes, as of the blood of a Quaker to be let into an Archbishop, and such like. But, as Dr. Croone says, may if it takes be of mighty use to man's health, for the amending of bad blood by borrowing from a better body (http://beebo.org/pepys/1666-11-14.html)
Pepys's very cool description of what must have been a very bloody scene also give us an indication into way his own phlegmatic nature.
Probably the best well-known of the passages in the Diary are those that describe the great - the terrible - fire of 1666, which brought about the modern design of London through the expedient process of having left so very little of the medieval city standing. Again, one of those most striking aspects of his description of the fire is his own sang-froid. Here is his description from 2 September 1666:
Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep.... By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places,...and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side... Of the bridge (http://www.pepys.info/fire.html).
The next year, on February 24, Pepys would write again about the fire, this time turning to its possible cause. His description this time reminds us that as long as there have been disasters, there has been fingerpointing:
Asking Sir R. Viner what he thought was the cause of the fire, he tells me that the Baker, son and his daughter did all swear again and again that their Oven was drawn by 10 a-clock at night. That having occasion to light a candle about 12, there was not so much fire in the bakehouse as to light a match for a candle, so as they were fain to go into another place to light it. That about 2 in the morning they felt themselves almost choked with smoke; and rising, did find the fire coming upstairs - so they rose to save themselfs; but that at that time the bavins were not on fire in the yard. So that they are, as they swear, in absolute ignorance how this fire should come - which is a strange thing, that so horrid an effect should have so mean and uncertain a beginning (http://www.pepys.info/fire.html).
When we look at Pepys's Diary we can see in his acute and (we believe) accurate self-observation both the predecessor of Dickens as well as the tell-all expose of the modern tabloid - what might be considered to be a rather mixed blessing indeed.
Other diaries of the 17th century were devoted to the spiritual life, to politics…[continue]
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