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Samuel Pepys

One of the most extraordinary diarists of all time was born in London on Feb. 23, 1633.  Samuel Pepys (Peps) managed to pull himself up from the very depths of poverty to become a gentleman and a scholar at a time when it was nearly impossible to do so in Europe.  His mother, a washerwoman, and his father, a taylor, were influential on his life, but it was his father's cousin, Sir Edward Montagu, later to become the first Earl of Sandwich, who helped enroll him in good schools and, afterwards, procure well-paying government jobs.

Pepys attended St. Paul's School in London, followed by Cambridge University.  At 22, he married a 15-year-old French girl, Elizabeth St. Michel.

By 1655, Montagu had become an Admiral, and Pepys was assigned clerk in his service.  In 1660, he was sailing on the ship that brought King Charles II back to England, and he befriended the monarch.  Following his introduction, he wrote, "God forgive me, though I adore them with all the duty possible, yet the more a man considers and observes them, the less he finds of difference between them and other men."

Pepys was fascinated by the popular image of the royalty, finding it far less intimidating than amusing.  "I went [aboard the ship]...with a dog that the King loved," he wrote, "which [defecated] in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are." 

Pepys' career quickly advanced, and he soon was made secretary of the Admiralty.  His constant fear of losing his job made him an extremely hard worker, and he eventually managed to climb to the top of society.  He later wrote, "For myself, chance without merit brought me in, and that diligence only keeps me so, and will, living as I do among so many lazy people, that the diligent man becomes necessary, that they cannot do anything without him."

Pepys began his diary in 1660, the year that Puritan rule ended in England and the Restoration began.  After the staid and stuffy sobriety of the Puritan years, Londoners took great pleasure in attending recently reopened theatres, where they enjoyed the comedies of John Dryden and other Restoration dramatists.  Pepys, himself, reveled in London life to the fullest, taking notes along the way on practically everything he saw, thought, felt, and heard.  He describes the city's churches, theatres, and taverns, its streets and homes, and even the clothes that he and his wife wore. 

He wrote in his diary for nearly 10 years.  No one knows why he began it, but he was an avid collector of model ships, scientific instruments, portraits, ballads, money, and women, and some historians see his diary as an attempt to collect his whole experiences of the world into a single source.

Although it was common practice at the time for educated gentlemen to keep journals, most were dry accounts of trips, politics, and public affairs.  Pepys was the first Englishman to fill his diary with descriptions of his most personal and ordinary experiences: his daily aches and pains, what he liked to eat, going to the bathroom, having sex with his wife, and having affairs--graphic details that novelists wouldn't begin incorporating into their work for more than two hundred years.

He chronicled London's Great Plague of 1664-65, which took the lives of many of London's residents.  In one week alone, 7,165 people died.  The total number of deaths was nearly 70,000.  The disease was carried by fleas that lived on black rats.  It was generally incurable, and its effects were horrifying--fever and chills, swelling of the lymph glands, eventual madness, and death.  Worse, still, medical science had no idea what caused the disease or how to control its rapid spread.  Pepys attributed his own immunity to the plague to an "inoculating pipeful" of tobacco, which he enjoyed each morning throughout the rest of his life. 

Pepys also witnessed the carnage of the Great Fire of 1666, about which he made copious notes.  "Among other things," he wrote, "the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down."

Pepys numbered among his friends many of the well-known people of the time, including scientist Isaac Newton, architect Christopher Wren, and poet John Dryden. 

Brutally honest about himself, Pepys wrote about his failed attempts to seduce young servant girls and bar maids.  In August 1667, he wrote, "[At church I] stood by a pretty modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me, and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again; which seeing, I did forbear."

He wrote his diary in shorthand and kept its existence a secret during his lifetime.  With the onset of failing eyesight, he closed the book on May 31, 1669.  His wife died the same year.  Near the end of his own life, he bound the diary into six volumes and gave the set to a college in Cambridge. 

The first edition of the diaries was published in 1825, and it was republished continuously over the years, with an ever expanding number of explicit entries included.  The entire diary was finally published in totality in 1983.

In addition to its historical significance, the diary is well regarded as a literary document.  Its style is vigorous, raucous, and colloquial--rarities for writings of the day.  Since he intended it to be read only by himself, he was brutally honest, admitting even to his own greed, deceit, and vanity, although also admitting to great acts of charity.

Altlhough Pepys always feared going blind, he retained his eyesight throughout his life.  In his later years, he helped establish a rigorous shipbuilding program, to which Great Britain owes its continuing tradition as a maritime power.  He ended his official career with the revolution of 1688.

Samuel Pepys died in London on May 26, 1703.

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