Reading Time: 11 minutes

Twenty-first century London sprawls over a thousand square miles of southern England. But for most of its history, London proper was packed into a single square mile—a district now known as The City. It had a single bridge, London Bridge, a twenty-arched catastrophe of stone and wood, easy target for cheap-shot nursery rhymes.

This was the pocket-sized London that Shakespeare knew. But the Bard isn’t the right guide for 17th-century London. He’s better on Scottish moors, Danish princes, and Italian balconies. For insights into pocket-sized London, there is The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

Like most educated middle-class London males of his time, Samuel Pepys was a hard drinker, serial adulterer, fiddler, and Secretary of the Navy. Unlike most of his century-mates, Pepys (pronounced not “peppies,” but for reasons I can’t fathom, “peeps”) kept a careful personal diary.

He began his diary on the first of January 1660 at age 26, recording his thoughts and actions for nearly 10 years thereafter, rarely missing a day. Pepys described navy business, revolutions, plagues, and his own bowel movements with equal enthusiasm, often in the same paragraph. Pulled my wife’s nose in anger, then felt rather ashamed. Screwed the carpenter’s wife again in the afternoon. Army massed north of the Scottish border, Parliament’s future uncertain. Shat twice in good volume before bedtime is less a paraphrase than you might hope.

Out of deep respect for his wife Elizabeth, Sam limited his adulterous affairs to 12 other women— sorry, 13—and went the extra mile by sparing Elizabeth knowledge of all but one.

We do get to hear in detail from his diary how she stumbled on the one. “Elizabeth, coming upstairs suddenly, found me with my main [hand] in Deb’s cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it, and the girl also.” Deb was their 17-year-old live-in servant.

Look, I’m not offering Pepys’s Diary for moral instruction.

There were many other ways in which he was good and kind and noble, which I’ll spare you. But more than any message, it’s the combination of who Pepys was during the diary years—a broke, newlywed clerk who climbed to the top of the British Admiralty—and the fact that those nine years included some of the most astonishing moments in English history: the restoration of the monarchy after Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great London Fire of 1666. Sam Pepys was not only alive but center stage for all of these.

Add the fact that he wrote engagingly, perceptively and well, and you’ve got a unique historical treasure so irreplaceably precious that posterity would surely want to be damn careful not to lose or alter one damn word.

Hold that thought.

“Floating toords of every color”

Though he always lived north of the Thames, Samuel had to cross at London Bridge to get to his Greenwich office, which meant a walk through the writhing, grinning fleshpots of Southwark.

Southwark [American readers: say “southern” but change the ‘n’ to a ‘k’] has always been a bit of an embarrassment to London proper. Ever since the Middle Ages, Southwark was that nasty southern region where Londoners went to get their nasty southern regions scratched. You start to get the flavor right around Blackfriars Bridge as the bricks turn to black and Cromwell’s nightmares begin—old brothels and taverns, bear-baiting and cockfighting pits, and perhaps worst of all, theatres.

What a cruel coincidence that this district of sin and debauchery, so despised by the city north of the Thames, had sprung up right around the foot of London Bridge—the only easy access from the north.

Though all of 17th-century London was plenty ripe, the stench of Southwark was legendary. Chamberpots were emptied into the streets from every altitude, roaming black feral pigs fed on dead dogs, and the sewers were open ditches—festooned, by one contemporary account, with “floating toords of every color and description.”

In the context of that kind of morning commute, Pepys’s Diary seems right at home:

About 8 o’clock my wife did give me a Clyster [enema] as directed by Mr Hollyard, namely a pint of strong ale with 4 oz of sugar and 2 oz of butter. I had about two stools in the night – and pissed well. Voided some wind.

The diary brings the whole complicated, blood-soaked history of London back to the level of a single life. Plagues and fires and civil wars were never enough to keep one man from picking up a quill pen every time he voided wind.

Lowercase history

The thing that made Pepys’s diary unique was that it was about being Pepys. Even when he described the big-canvas moments he lived through, it was almost always in small-canvas terms—a priceless example of lowercase history.

You can learn about the Great Plague by reading history books, or you can walk through Holborn with Sam Pepys at the height of the epidemic, seeing Londoners wandering aimlessly “like people that have taken leave of the world.” You can learn that 7,400 people died in a single week, a colorless statistic, or with Pepys, know that during that week “little noise [was] heard day nor night but tolling of bells” for the victims, and that eventually every churchyard was stacked with bodies three high, too many to bury, and too few people able-bodied enough to lift a shovel.

The following year, he walked the same streets after the Great Fire, described pigeons flying with charred wings, and told of seeing a cat being lifted from a hole in a chimney, still alive but with every scrap of fur singed off. He stepped over red-hot coals in the streets, then picked up a piece of warped and melted glass from a chapel that had exploded in the heat of the holocaust.

Then he bought a drink and a plain penny loaf, complaining about the increase in price.

He loved his wife Elizabeth, whom he married when she was 14, loved her so much that it made him feel ill. Yet he cheated on her constantly, faithful only in his journaling about every sweaty encounter—from Sarah, “a girl at the Swan Inn,” to Jane Welsh, his barber’s servant, to the wife of a Navy carpenter (the carpenter grotesquely offered her for Pepys’s pleasure in hopes of securing a promotion, and Pepys grotesquely accepted). We never even learn the first name of the carpenter’s ill-used wife; Pepys’s diary refers to her quite formally throughout their long affair as (please put your seatbacks in their upright positions for this one) “Mrs. Bagwell”—which had the added virtue of being her actual name.

Despite all of his own philandering, Pepys was incensed when his wife merely flirted with her dancing instructor, one Jonathan Shagabunch. (Just kidding. His name was Thomas.)

Every time Elizabeth sneezed, Pepys was terrified she might die. He delighted at lollygagging in bed with her on Sunday mornings, chatting about their plans, and at teaching her music and astronomy in the evenings. Once he described caressing her hand after she burned it cooking the Christmas turkey—a familiar and endearing human moment. She read to him as he dressed each morning; she buried herself in saucy French novels; she went to the market to buy food and cooked it herself.

They both longed for children, and his diary is peppered with heartbroken reports of the relentless arrivals of her menstrual periods. In fact, such a report constituted the third sentence on the very first page of the diary. The fourth sentence reported that England was on the verge either of civil war or the restoration of the monarchy, no one knew which. But that sentence was fourth, after the menstrual report.

They were still childless when she died unexpectedly at 29.

His diary is peppered with heartbroken reports of the relentless arrivals of her menstrual periods. The fourth sentence reported that England was on the verge either of civil war or the restoration of the monarchy, no one knew which. But that sentence was after the menstrual report.

Though 400 years removed from our own, that’s a world I recognize, a life I can feel, the side of human experience that history too often leaves undescribed—and a jolting contrast with the monumental events he describes outside the door, history’s bread and butter. Pepys’s Diary is an account of being human. I can find myself in it.

A life full of death

In addition to history small and large, Samuel Pepys ruminated quite a bit about death.

How could he not? At age five he lost his closest friend, his seven-year-old brother John. In the next two years he watched his sisters Mary and Sarah succumb to fever. Two more children were born to the family and buried in the churchyard of St. Bride’s, just out the Pepys’s back door, both before their second birthdays. Constantly ill as a child, he always wondered when his turn would come. Brother Tom made it all the way into his twenties before dying of consumption. A year later, the Plague made staying alive seem positively eccentric. Two years after that, his mother died, and the next year, with little warning, Elizabeth.

For most of his own life, Pepys struggled with horrific attacks of what was then called simply “the stone”—now known as urinary calculi or kidney stones—wondering constantly if he would survive them, as many sufferers of his time did not.

So it would have been odd if death weren’t stomping around Pepys’s mind during most of his waking hours.

He described himself as “wholly Scepticall” in matters of religion, and so, like me, had to consider death without benefit of the usual panaceas—in fact, with very little help at all but the workings of his own mind. He had a magnificent personal library and read voraciously, but there’s little in the diary about what he read or what he might have thought about it. He spent more ink describing the loss of the bookselling district of Paternoster Row in the Great Fire than almost any other single aspect of that disaster. So he did indeed have access to the published thoughts of others as he sorted out his own thoughts about death, though if he found them helpful, he’s not telling.

Pepys had bladder surgery for the stone on a March Wednesday in 1653 when he was 20. He had 17th-century surgery, the only kind available in his day. Joseph Lister was busily pioneering antiseptic surgery less than a mile from where Pepys lay tied to the bedposts, but Lister refused to offer his new techniques to Pepys’s physician, using all the old excuses—My techniques are too new, my methods are untested, I’m living 200 years in the future, etc. The pioneers of anesthetic surgery were also unhelpfully unborn but had the additional excuse of working in a whole different country.

So Pepys’s doctor used what science he had: He got his patient drunk, tied his legs to the bedposts, and stabbed and sawed away until, in a gush of blood and urine, out rolled a stone the size of a tennis ball.

Pepys survived the surgery for some reason, and each year celebrated the removal of the stone with a party on the same March day. And each year at that party, in the center of the table of hors d’oeuvres, mounted in a smart teak box, sat the guest of honor, the founder of the feast—the stone itself.

For all his faults and oddities, you have to appreciate the window this man opened into his world. Yet between Pepys and us was a long line of people determined to keep that window partly closed, or at least rose-colored.

The vivisectionists

Pepys died in 1703—seven stones in the left kidney, gut mortified, inflamed and gangrenous all around—and his will specified that his library be transported intact to Magdalene College Cambridge, never to be divided. His wishes were followed to the letter. But he never said what he wanted done with the Diary, which sat in six catalogued but otherwise unread volumes for over a century.

At which point…the 19th century happened to it.

Many lovely things happened in the 19th century. Monet happened then, for example, and the better end of Beethoven. The Japanese invented surgical anesthesia, better late than never. Food was canned for the first time. Photography was invented, without which the office building next to Parliament might have remained forever unknown in Japan. Darwin figured out the most astonishing thing ever about the natural world, after which his fellow humans spent a lot more energy trying to unfigure it out. Charles Dickens happened, though mostly to write about how wretched his century was, which hardly goes in the win column for the 19th. Cell theory and the laws of thermodynamics. Emily Dickinson, two thumbs up, and Lincoln, also just super. Pasteurization, dynamite, the telephone and the light bulb. Erase dynamite. Mark Twain and aspirin and X-rays.

That’s it.

The rest of the century is a total wash, not one other good thing. Not one. Okay, the invention of Braille. The 19th century is a mess of imperialism, slavery, war, bad poetry and nasty philosophy, industrialization gone haywire and poverty gone beyond hellish. It is the century that fathered, with its illusions and delusions, the worst horrors of the century that followed it while denying entirely its paternity.

In a word, the 19th century was the century of romanticism, the primary goal of which is to declare reality unacceptable, substituting self-serving fictions in its place—fictions that subsequently needed to be discovered as such, then removed, painstakingly, layer by layer, by the careful and patient caretakers of reality.

Once in a while, when we’re lucky, we spot the fictions before the world catches fire.

I’m not just passively other-than-romantic. I loathe romanticism. Romanticism is the opposite of my every human value. It is the summation of all that stinks and festers, and all the more so because it calls itself noble and beautiful and pure and wise. It’s the toord of humanity, romanticism. The very toord.

Which leads us back to Pepys’s diary, delivered now into the hands of the Reverend and Honorable George Neville, Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, who in 1819 thought it high time someone transcribed those six volumes of scribbles into the King’s English.

The diary, you see, was written almost entirely in shorthand. Master Neville held the task to be of such importance that he gave the job of transcription to a 20-year-old undergraduate named John Smith. Smith worked diligently and well for three long years, making very few errors, leaving out just a small number of passages he found too explicit, but indicating the omissions with “obj” (objectionable) in the margin. Good lad.

Now the fun begins.

In 1822, Smith handed the transcript back to Master Neville, who gave it to a relative of his, Lord Braybrooke, who would serve as the manuscript’s vivisectionist. He whacked out three-quarters of it and rewrote large swaths of the remainder in his own words without noting where or in what ways he had done so.

Richard Aldworth Griffin-Neville, Second Baron Braybrooke, as portrayed by Jay Leno.

A total of five major editions came out in the next century and a half, all based not on the original, but on Braybrooke’s travesty, because George Neville and those who followed in his place refused anyone access to the original manuscript.

Overtly sexual references were the passages most often rewritten by Braybrooke. “Elizabeth, coming upstairs suddenly, found me with my main in Deb’s cunny” became “My wife, coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl.” For my less worldly readers: The unexpected discovery of a hug is generally considered shall we say less noteworthy than the unexpected glimpsing of cunny and main united in song.

Elizabeth’s subsequent prolonged fury—none of which is excised from the text—makes her look unbalanced, which is wildly unfair.

See also: The shredder of history and the oldest song in the world

Even more revealing is what was torn out completely. Every reference to Elizabeth’s menstrual periods was erased, thereby removing most of the powerful thread of their heartbreaking and unfulfilled desire for children. But someone in the 19th century decided that you and I could not handle reference to menstruation, or full-fledged extramarital affairs, or a dozen other aspects of Pepys’s world they considered too reality-based, not only for their contemporaries but for all future readers.

(Pepys’s autopsy discovered the reason for their childlessness: the doctor who had removed the stone in 1653 inadvertently severed the vas deferens, rendering Pepys sterile—though clearly not impotent.)

Those looking for a window into the everyday life of a person of the 17th century would have been out of luck. But if you wanted to know what a 19th-century person thought you ought to know about a 17th-century person’s life—do I have the book for you!

This practice goes beyond literature. One of the editors of the music of Bach in the mid-1800s added a measure of his own to Bach’s famous C Major Prelude before publishing. Years later, when the interpolation was discovered—that’s right, he hadn’t annotated the change—he said he had done so because it “needed a transition” that Bach hadn’t included. Never mind that the transition he added used a chord unknown in Bach’s time, and broke the phrase structure, among other things.

The shredding of Pepys’s Diary (and Darwin’s Autobiography, and countless other examples) raises a much larger question: If even the thoughts and experiences of people with power and position can’t get through to posterity intact, what chance do those with much less power and position have, the overwhelming majority of human experience and lowercase history?

Eventually, we did get to see the whole diary, by the way, shortly after the first moon landing. That’s right: The very first edition of Pepys’s Diary to include the third sentence of the first page, and a lot of other sentences on a lot of other pages, was produced in 1970. Only 301 years were needed after the completion of the diary before anyone other than John Smith and Lord Braybrooke could read it.

Read an entry from the Diary, updated for each day’s date, or subscribe for a daily email

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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