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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Samuel Pepys (1633–1703)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Arthur George Peskett (1850–1931)
 
IN the front of the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, is inscribed the sentence from Cicero that Samuel Pepys chose as his motto: “Mens cuiusque is est quisque”—“The mind makes the man.” To those who regard him as a mixture of garrulous diarist and painstaking official the motto may seem inappropriate, for seen in this aspect alone he reaches no high level of intellectual attainment; but to all who have followed his career to its close and learned to know him better, the phrase sufficiently indicates his attitude towards the world at large. Himself a man of keen intelligence and great practical sagacity, he was extraordinarily quick to gauge and appraise the intelligence of others. Numerous passages of his diary attest this ready insight into the character and intellectual merits of his contemporaries, and the delight that he took in the society of those who, possessing information on any subject, no matter what its nature, could impart it agreeably. Pleasant discourse with friend or chance acquaintance upon topics grave or gay, trivial or weighty, is as sure to be recorded as important details of business or of State policy. He was a man of unbounded curiosity: to use his own quaint expression, he was always “with child to see any strange thing.”  1
  With these more intellectual traits was united an inexhaustible capacity for purely animal enjoyment of life. It is this universality of human interest that makes him one of the most engaging characters in history, and his diary a unique production of literature. It was this same keen zest and interest in human affairs that stimulated him to become one of the most zealous and capable secretaries that the Admiralty Board has ever had. And we must add also that it was this many-sided enjoyment of life that led him frequently to indulge in pleasures that shock the stricter decorum of the present age. These characteristics, moreover, were combined with a naïve simplicity and a childlike vanity that amaze, as much as they delight, the readers of his artless self-revelations. As a public functionary, if he did not quite reach the high standard of integrity required in these days, he was at any rate far in advance of many—perhaps the majority—of his contemporaries in the employ of the State, while his patriotism was always above question. Though constitutionally timid, he nevertheless possessed that moral courage which prevents a man from shirking his duty in moments of danger or difficulty. All through the Plague, when there was a general flight from London, he remained in or near town, and went on with his official work much as usual; nor does the diary contain a single expression of self-satisfaction at his own conduct in the matter. In disposition he was irascible and prone to undignified outbursts of temper, of which he was afterwards heartily ashamed. As to his religious views,—for they must be taken into account in estimating his character,—he lived and died in the accepted faith of a Christian; but his religion was strongly tinged with superstition, and exercised no potent influence over his early life. He was a regular attendant at church, and an uncompromising critic of sermons unless his attention was distracted by a fair face in a neighboring pew. He exclaims “God forgive me” if he strings his lute or reads “little French romances” or makes up his accounts on a Sunday; but he omits to seek the Divine forgiveness when, after attending two services, he flirts with a pretty young woman who he fears “is not so good as she ought to be.” He loved and admired his wife, and was jealous of her; but he was a faithless spouse, and gravely recorded in his diary the minutest particulars of his amours.  2
  Such, in its curious blending of strength and weakness, meanness and greatness, was the character of Samuel Pepys. A distinguished critic, James Russell Lowell, has called him a Philistine. If the term implies a man of somewhat coarse tastes, with no aptitude for profound thought, with no fine literary instinct and no subtle sense of humor, then and then only is the reproach a just one; for few will admit that a man of acknowledged capacity in affairs, one who after his great speech in defense of the Navy Board at the bar of the House of Commons was greeted as the most eloquent speaker of the age and as “another Cicero,”—a man who was president of the Royal Society, and was pronounced by competent judges a fit person to be provost of the great foundation of Henry VI. at Cambridge,—could fairly be called a Philistine in the ordinary sense of the word. But Pepys may justly claim to be judged by his works; and two abiding memorials bear striking testimony to the varied merits of his singular personality,—the Library and the Diary. It may be useful to give a short account of each of them.  3
  It seems probable that Pepys began his book collecting in the year 1660; when his appointment, through the influence of his cousin and patron Sir Edward Montagu, to a secretaryship in the office of Mr. Downing, and then to the clerkship of the Acts, gave him for the first time a sufficient income. Frequent references to the purchase of books will be found in the Diary, the binding sometimes proving a greater attraction than the contents. For instance, he writes May 15th, 1660: “Bought for the love of the binding three books: the French Psalms in four parts, Bacon’s ‘Organon,’ and ‘Farnab. Rhetor.’” So by slow degrees was amassed a library which at its owner’s death contained three thousand volumes,—an unusual size for a private library of that day. As clerk to the Acts, and afterwards secretary to the Admiralty,—an office which he held from 1669 till the change of government in 1689,—he acquired a considerable number of valuable books and MSS. on naval affairs, which he intended to serve as material for a projected history of the English navy. Among other treasures are five large volumes of ballads or “broadsides,” mostly in black-letter; three of State Papers, the gift of John Evelyn; three volumes of portraits in “taille-douce,” collected apparently in response to a suggestion in a long and valuable letter from Evelyn, dated August 12th, 1689; 1 three of calligraphical collections; six of prints general; two of frontispieces in taille-douce; two of views and maps of London and Westminster; several early printed books, including some by Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde; the ‘Libro de Cargos,’—a MS. list of the provisions and munitions of each ship in the Spanish Armada, compiled by the “Proveedor” of the Fleet, Bernabe de Pedroso; two MS. volumes of the Maitland poems; an account of the escape of Charles II. from Worcester, taken down in shorthand from the King’s own dictation; and many other rarities too numerous to mention.  4
  These books—except a few of the largest, which are in the cupboards of an old writing-table—were placed in twelve handsome presses of dark stained oak, in which they may still be seen in Magdalene College. The arranging, indexing, and cataloguing of so large a collection occupied much of Pepys’s time, and that of his able assistant Paul Lorrain; and the whole library bears evidence to the minute care bestowed on its preservation. It was left by will to his nephew and heir John Jackson, second son of his sister Paulina, who once occupied the curious position of domestic servant in her brother’s house. John Jackson was of great help to Pepys in the collection of his prints and drawings; traveling on the Continent, apparently at his uncle’s expense, and bringing home numerous treasures to be enshrined in the library. On Pepys’s death in 1703, the library passed into Jackson’s hands; and on his death in 1724, it was transferred, in accordance with the diarist’s will, to his own and his nephew’s college of St. Mary Magdalene, there to be preserved in perpetuity. An interesting testimony to the care bestowed on the library by Jackson is afforded by the following entries, with his signature attached, in one of the catalogues: “Review’d and finally Placed August 1st, 1705: No one of ye 2474 Books contained in the foregoing Catalogue being then wanting. Jackson.” “Vid. rest of ye Library in Additament. Catalogue consisting of 526 Books more, making the whole Number just 3000. Jackson.” In another catalogue are two contemporary drawings 2 of the library in York Buildings, taken from different aspects. Only seven presses are there depicted. They are somewhat incorrectly drawn, and the position of the books must be due to the artist’s fancy, or represent an arrangement afterwards discarded, as it is quite unsuitable to the present interior construction.  5
  One would like to know how many of these books were read by their owner. During the period covered by the Diary, his work at the Navy Office and his numerous social engagements seem to have left him little time for reading, and in later life his defective eyesight must have rendered continuous or rapid reading extremely difficult; but of this later period our knowledge is unfortunately scanty and derived chiefly from letters. On the whole, we are disposed to regard him rather as a diligent collector than as a serious student of literature.  6
  It remains to speak of the Diary. The MS. in six volumes, written in shorthand, lurked unnoticed in the library till the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was unearthed by the Master of Magdalene. It was then transcribed by the Rev. John Smith, and a large portion of it published with valuable notes by Lord Braybrooke. A fresh transcription was subsequently made by the Rev. Mynors Bright, President of Magdalene, whose edition in six volumes, incorporating much more of the original, appeared in 1875–9. Another edition, now in course of completion in nine volumes (one of supplementary matter), under the editorship of the well-known antiquarian Mr. H. B. Wheatley, contains everything that can be printed with due regard to propriety. The question has often been raised, and will probably never be satisfactorily answered, whether Pepys intended his Diary to be published. To us it seems almost certain that he would have been shocked at the idea of its becoming public property, when we consider the secrecy with which he kept it, and his pathetic remark in the last entry of all (May 31st, 1669), that henceforward, owing to his failure of eyesight, it would have to be kept by his people in longhand, who would “set down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know.” We must remember too that in later life, Pepys’s most intimate associates were men of great worth and dignity, who held him in the highest possible esteem; and we cannot but feel that in the evening of life, amid such surroundings, he would look back with regret to the follies of his youth and desire them to be buried in oblivion. But fortunately for the world, whatever his intentions may have been, the Diary has been published; and who shall adequately tell of its contents? To describe it in any detail would be to touch on every phase of the stirring life of London during ten years of an eventful period of our history. The return of Charles and the settlement of the government, the first Dutch war and the shameful blockade of the Thames, the Plague, and the Fire, all fell within this period. But apart from events of national importance, the daily social life of the time is reproduced here with such simple and striking fidelity that we seem to see with our own eyes all that Pepys saw,—the stately court pageants, the frivolity of the gallants and fair ladies who thronged the palace, the turmoil of the narrow dirty streets, the traffic of barges and rowboats on the Thames, and all the thousand incidents of life in the great metropolis. We can follow him on board ship when he crossed to Holland with Sir E. Montagu to bring back the King, and learn an infinity of details about life at sea; we can go with him for a day’s outing into the country, where he enjoys himself with the ardor of a schoolboy; we can accompany him in graver mood through the dismal devastation brought by the Plague, and see the smoking ruins and the homeless fugitive crowds of the “annus mirabilis”; we can enter with him into church, theatre, and tavern, all of which he frequented with assiduous and impartial regularity. We are told what he ate and drank, what clothes he and his wife wore and how much they cost; he acquaints us with his earnings and spendings, the vows that he made to abstain from various naughtinesses and the facility with which he broke them, the little penalties that he inflicted on himself,—such 12d. for every kiss after the first,—and all the little events of his daily life, which however trivial never fail to interest, such is the charm with which they are told. He admits us to the inmost recesses of his house, where prying eyes should never have come: we see him in a fit of ill temper kicking his maid-servant or his wife’s French poodle, or even pulling the fair nose of Mrs. Pepys herself. He gives us unlovely details of his illnesses, often the result of his own shortcomings; he makes us the confidants of his flirtations,—and they were neither choice nor few: yet for all this, we are never angry. To us he is and will ever remain the one incomparable Diarist.  7
 
Note 1. See ‘Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn’ (London, Bickers & Son, 1879), Vol. iii., pages 435 ff. [back]
Note 2. One of these is reproduced in Mynors Bright’s edition of the Diary, Vol. iv., page 59. [back]
 
 
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