Samuel Pepys is my favourite diarist and an inspiration so when in London last week I had to visit the exhibition. It’s in Greenwich, along the river east of the city. Greenwich is grand place with the old Royal Naval College, the National Maritime museum and the Royal Observatory and the surviving tea clipper – the Cutty Sark. It’s an apt place to meet Pepys.
What makes Pepys so special? I like him because he reminds me of myself. He is from a modest background but he is ambitious. He is an observer and a listener. He is curious to learn and experience new things. He loves women, music, clothes and theatre. He wants a career and works hard to get his social mobility. When reading his diaries I feel it’s me wandering around London, just as I do now.
Of course his fame is largely down to the incredible events he witnessed over the 9 years of his diary (1660 – 1669); the restoration of the monarchy, the plague, the Dutch wars and the Great Fire. But for me it’s observations and opinions of relationships and everyday life that are the most interesting.
It seems quite extraordinary for the time that he kept such candid diaries. And so deliberately; he wrote in (Shelton’s) shorthand and had codes for his sexual exploits. He wanted them to be secret but in leaving them to Magdalene College, he knew (and hoped) he had made an historical mark. His diary opens with disappointment that his wife isn’t pregnant and I wonder if the diaries became his legacy in the absence of children.
The exhibition is designed around the key historical events so it’s a story of the events as well as Pepys descriptions. But the diaries bring the events to life. His eye witness accounts of the Great Fire tell more than any history book. It’s not just the chronology of events but the reaction of the people, the government and his peers. We can assess the response and the priorities including his own famous decision to dig a pit with Sir William Penn to bury his wine and parmesan cheese.
In the exhibition there’s a brief mention of his life around the theatre, his home, his health, his wife and his career. But read the diaries to fully appreciate his life. Claire Tomalin´s biography is my recommendation.
Overall it was great to see a celebration of a fellow diarist.