am 28. April 1998
This diary in this abridged version, has given me more sheer pleasure than any other book I have ever read. Writing for himself alone, Pepys selected things for inclusion in the diary purely on the basis of how they struck him. This grand subjectivity would be fatal in a dull or passive or insensitive writer, but in Pepys it makes the work fresh and vibrant, constantly surprising, unlike anything else in literature. Even when describing an "important" scene, he is still his natural self and gives touches of his own behaviour, like this at the King's coronation: "But so great a noise, that I could make but little of the Musique; and endeed, it was lost to everybody. But I had so great a list to pissse, that I went out a little while before the King had done all his ceremonies...." Not just his behavior, but also his reactions: "As it grew darker, [the fire] appeared more and more, and in Corners and upon steeples and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire." That is from Pepys's stunning account of the first day of the great fire of London. It has no conscious artifice: Pepys's descriptions owe their power to his uncanny knack for expressing how the events struck him. So he gives details which a more "responsible" writer would have overlooked: "Among other things, 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." The diary gives us the texture of Pepys's daily life - what he wore, what he ate, what skirts he lifted, and what he paid in hard cash for all this; the plays he saw, how the audiences behaved, the doorman who swindled him out of a shilling; his book collection, his musical instruments, the improvements to his apartment; his growing wealth, from sources bright and shady; his bowels and his testicles; the list is endless. Along with stories that are variously amusing, touching, shocking, there are episodes like this: "Before going to bed, I stood writing of this day its passages - while a drum came by, beating of a strange manner of beat, now and then a single stroke; which my wife and I wondered at, what the meaning of it should be." And this: "I sat up till the bell-man came by with his bell, just under my window as I was writing of this very line, and cried 'Past one of the clock, and a cold, frosty, windy morning.' One of the topics is Pepys himself - his thoughts, feelings and actions, and his thoughts and feelings about these. He had a lively inner life, was intimately in touch with it, and had the ability to know at any given moment how he felt and to write about it clearly and purely. We get Pepys warts and all. He does not pose for his self-portrait. When a stranger importunes his wife, he records, "I did give him a good cuff or two on the chops; and seeing him not oppose me, I did give him another". This is not the writing of someone who wants to be a hero to his diary! He freely criticizes himself, particularly for his capacity - amazing in one so able and successful - for neglecting work and career in the pursuit of pleasure. After a bout with one of his mistresses, he went to see another but found that she was away: "So I back again to my office, where I did with great content faire a vow to mind my business and laisser aller les femmes for a month; and am with all my heart glad to find myself able to come to so good a resolution, that thereby I may follow my business, which, and my honour thereby, lies a-bleeding." (Where sex is the topic, Pepys usually scatters French and Spanish words through his text.) Sometimes he scolds himself for his feelings. After appearing before a tribunal of inquiry, and concluding that he is not in much trouble, he writes: "And yet though this be all, yet I do find so poor a spirit within me, that it makes me almost out of my wits, and puts me to so much pain that I...vex and fret and imagine myself undone - so that I am ashamed of myself to myself, and do fear what would become of me if any real affliction should come upon me." He later remarks that the tribunal had treated him "as a Criminall", kept him waiting and made him stand; but he seems not to have reflected that that is why he was so depressed. He is always interested in his inner life and willing to respond to it, judge it, lament it, rejoice in it; but as a child of his times he is not challenged to try to understand it. The Navy Board, and therefore Pepys himself, were potentially in much greater trouble only a month later. He did not collapse. His three-hour speech to Parliament was a triumph, though he describes it in less than a sentence: "I begin our defence most acceptably and smoothly, and continued at it without any hesitation or losse but with full scope and all my reason free about me, as if it had been at my own table...". Pepys was able to enjoy HIMSELF, to take his triumphs without vainglory and his reverses without self-deception. He had, as Robert Latham puts it, "a gift for happiness that amounts to genius".