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Literature / The Diary of Samuel Pepys

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"Up betimes and to the office..."

Samuel Pepys (pronounced 'peeps') (23 February 1633 – 26 May 1703) was a 17th Century English civil servant who is famous for keeping a remarkably frank daily diary between 1 January 1660 and 31 May 1669 (this was perhaps not as dangerous as it sounds, as the diary was written in a form of shorthand most people could not read, and it wasn't translated into plain English until over a century after his death). The diary is an exhaustive record of everything he thought noteworthy, from important historical events like the Great Fire of London to the plays he watched, the meals he ate, and the other people's wives he slept with.

Pepys' diary for this day in history, preserved as a blog, is available here.

Tropes related to Pepys and his diary:

  • Apocalyptic Log: The diary slips into this when the Great Fire of London breaks out in September of 1666. Pepys is indeed the first to brief the king and court on the severity of the danger, and chronicles the mass-evacuations, the attempts to control the blaze, and the anxiety over the possibility it was started deliberately by foreign agents.
    • His entries during the Great Plague shortly beforehand could also count, albeit less dramatically. Ironically the period marks a high point in Pepys' life and career, a contradiction that he himself remarks upon.
  • Badass Bureaucrat: Pepys was responsible for making the Royal Navy the Trope Codifier of Badass Navies by his skill in administration and his ruthless demand for meritocracy. According to some accounts his influence will be felt thousands of years from now.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Pepys's wife Elizabeth is, understandably, outraged when she catches him groping their maid, and the diary records many epic fights — but Pepys also notes that they have pretty awesome makeup sex.
  • Bile Fascination: At one point during the Great Plague Pepys goes for a walk, noting with some guilt that he's curious "whether I could see any dead corps going to the grave".
  • Brutal Honesty: One of the diary's most salient features is Pepys' honesty about everything, from cheating on his wife to accepting kickbacks from contractors.
  • Catchphrase:
    • Pepys has a hyperbolic habit of marking especially outstanding things and events with snowclones in the general form of "the most (adjective) (noun) that ever I (saw, heard, encountered, etc.) in my life". See It Will Never Catch On, below.
    • See also the very top and bottom of this page.
  • Dirty Business: At one point Pepys is asked to help ship out freshly "pressed", i.e. forcefully recruited, men. He's deeply troubled by the practice, calling it technically unlawful and even "a tyranny", and sorrowfully notes the grief it's causing and will cause the mens' loved ones. But they're out of money to pay sailors, their war with the Dutch is going badly and ships need manning, so it's deemed necessary.
  • Domestic Abuse: Occasionally, in one of the uglier instances of Values Dissonance. At one point Catherine Pepys receives a black eye and Samuel has to connive to keep her out of sight for a few days. For her part Catherine isn't above "biting and scratching"; at one point she even menaces him with red-hot pincers, accusing him of being unfaithful (ironically he certainly was, just not in that particular instance).
  • Gallows Humor: "I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition."
  • Have a Gay Old Time: In a February 1664 entry, Pepys writes: "our little girl Susan is a most admirable Slut and pleases us mightily, doing more service than both the others and deserves wages better." The word "slut" in those days meant (among other things) "kitchen maid" and while Pepys did have affairs with maids, here he only meant that Susan is a good maid.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Pepys conceals many of his more indiscreet entries behind a deliberate word salad of Latin, French, and Spanish. The effectiveness is debatable; it quickly becomes obvious what's going on when Pepys meets a woman and proceeds to code the next few phrases.
  • Hype Backlash: Invoked. Pepys writes that he saw Henry IV, "but my expectation being too great, it did not please me, as otherwise I believe it would."
  • I Love the Dead: Pepys recounts how he kissed the mummified Catherine of Valois on his thirty-sixth birthday for good luck.
  • It Will Never Catch On:
    • It can be seen that Shakespeare's reputation wasn't quite as good yet in Pepys's as it is today — and it probably didn't help that, during Pepys's time, the plays were very rarely presented in their original format, having much extraneous material added on. He called A Midsummer Night's Dream "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life", Romeo and Juliet "a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life" and Twelfth Night "one of the weakest plays that I ever saw on the stage"; he did not like Henry IV Part 1 either, although he chalked most of that up to having brought the book in order to follow along.
    • He liked Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth, however (particularly Macbeth, which he records seeing eight times within a space of four years).
    • He mentions meeting with a "German Princess" currently under trial for faking her identity and bigamy, whose innocence and good character he defends. This woman was Mary Moders/Carleton, who was indeed eventually convicted (after an initial acquittal) as a serial fraudster, exiled to Jamaica, and ultimately hanged upon sneaking back.
  • Kavorka Man: Pepys himself. Despite his regular dalliances with tavern wenches and frequent groping of his wife's maids, he even made one of his subordinates pimp out his wife to him in return for a promotion. Ironically, he also suspected his wife of cheating on him as well, and was horrified on hearing a rumor that his recently deceased brother might have fathered an illegitimate child on his housemaid.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: "I went, and Mr. Mansell and one of the King's footmen, with a dog that the King loved, which shit 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."
    • He attends a Catholic mass out of curiosity at one point and notes thoughtfully that it's really not all that different from a Church of England service (and finds the music pleasant).
  • Plagued by Nightmares: Following the Great Fire Samuel notes numerous occasions where his sleep is disturbed by dreams of fire and falling buildings.
  • Potty Emergency:
    • September 28, 1665: Pepys was staying at an inn and woke during the night with a bad bout of diarrhea. The maid had forgotten to leave a chamberpot in his room and he couldn't make it down to the privy, so he had to use the fireplace. Twice.
    • Elizabeth has at one point some long-standing bowel problem, meaning that at one point she has to 'do her business' in the street while out for a walk. It was that kind of era.
  • The Promise: Periodically, Pepys resolved to mend his ways. He rarely stuck to it for long...
    • New Year's Eve, 1661: "I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine..."
    • 17 February, 1662: "Here I drank wine upon necessity, being ill for the want of it."
  • Riddle for the Ages: If Pepys later retrieved the expensive Parmesan cheese he buried during the Great Fire, he never mentioned doing so.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Pepys with his neighbor and colleague Sir William Pen (father of the namesake for Pennsylvania), whose "falsenesse and impertinencies... would make a man mad to think of", and who at least once had his chamberpot emptied on Pepys' roof. Pepys at one point endeavors to establish an amicable relationship (mainly for professional reasons, as Pen was in a position to further Pepys' interests), which holds for a while but ultimately falls through.
  • Speak Ill of the Dead: "Newes this day from Brampton, of Mr. Ensum, my sister’s sweetheart, being dead: a clowne."

"And so to bed."

Alternative Title(s): Diary Of Samuel Pepys, Samuel Pepys