Thursday, February 23, 2017

Birthday Book of the Day: the famous Samuel Pepys diaries

Wheatley, Henry, ed., The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Random House, 1950). From the publisher’s Lifelong Library series. 2 vols., octavo, black boards with faded blue and gilt spine titles, 2358 pp. Copiously annotated, with index. Slight spotting of the text blocks. No dust jacket. The daily recordings of a young Restoration man on the make, 1660-69. Very good condition. HBB price: $39.95 the set.


2016 marked the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, and for much of our understanding of that watershed event, we owe a debt to a London bureaucrat, Samuel Pepys (pronounced “peeps”) (1633-1703), whose birthday is today. His singular diaries, kept through the decade of the 1660s, has made the time seem one of outlandish costumery, gentlemen bedding their females servants, shady characters making deals in coffee houses, and a rage for discovery and overseas empire, much parodied in movies and books.

At the same time, Pepys- who started the diary when he was 27- gives us a vivid account of life in the professional and landed classes. He was a man of wide curiosity and took his pleasure liberally. He loved wine and adored parmesan cheese; he recorded seeing 350 theatrical performances in a decade.

He recorded the weather, and his bowel movements; wars, plagues, and politics. He had a pocket watch with an alarm- ‘twas an age of wonders! He reproached himself for his excesses: women, drinking, books, putting a shilling in the parish church’s poor box when he lapsed.

The world Pepys recorded was one being rewritten by the day. As one scholar has argued,

One of the first things Charles II did upon his restoration to the throne in 1660 is pass the Indemnity and Oblivion Act. Michael Neufeld among others has shown in The Civil Wars After 1660 how these acts kicked off a top-down effort to erase public memory of the Civil War (during which a fourth of the population perished) and Interregnum Period, and minimize violent reprisals. Under the act, only 11 out of the 31 regicides were executed, and records were altered, or ‘obliterated’ to erase any source of embarrassment. But the government’s enforcement of memory loss and its related control on information and record-keeping could only go so far on a societal scale. Consider only for example the failure of the King’s supposed “Surveyor of the Press”, Sir Roger L’Estrange, toward the end of the 60s, in suppressing the publication of seditious materials among groups who had been vocal during the war — nonconformists like the Quakers barely broke their stride in speaking, and publishing, their minds. Against that background, acts of God were much more effective than legislation: pestilence that killed a fourth of London, a fire that levelled the city and incinerated many of its books, archives, and artefacts that people might otherwise use to connect with the past.

Who is to say how people might develop, on top of that, their own behaviours of forgetting, their own coping mechanisms: whether it be going to the theatre obsessively, or drinking wine constantly, or focusing their telescope on Jupiter and churchgoing ladies alike? Novelty can sometimes be deeply therapeutic, and in a London that had been destroyed, there was nothing to do but start over and buy garish new things until the panic subsided and there was truly the time to rebuild.

This form of consumerist coping makes sense when paired with the epistemological optimism of institutions like the Royal Society, which Pepys was elected to in 1665 and president of in 1684: socialising around practices of observing new phenomena and conducting new experiments to re-calibrate an understanding of the way the world works is a wonderful way of moving forward. So too does it fit with his naval career and the expansion of the British Empire. The hunger for novelty to soften the traumas of the past seems, for Pepys, limitless. In The Invention of Improvement, Paul Slack describes it in different terms (indeed, in Pepys’ terms, or even at a later date Benjamin Franklin’s) that hunger becomes about “improvement” and “improvement came to rival and eventually replace alternative roads to better things, such as ‘reformation’ or ‘revolution’. Instead, the condition of England would be bettered by gradual and piecemeal change.”

It’s hard to imagine the difference accidents of birth made in the lives of people in times past. Samuel Pepys father was a tailor; his mother, the daughter of a butcher. Yet among the elder Mr Pepys’ cousins were the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, and the future first Earl of Sandwich.

Samuel Pepys was the fifth of eleven, but given the vagaries of life and health, he was soon the eldest of the children. A bright boy, he was educated at St Paul’s School in London (he witnessed the execution of King Charles I in 1649), then won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1654.

At 23 he married a fourteen-year-old girl of French Huguenot descent. Their fourteen-year marriage was a tumultuous affair; he had a wandering eye, but stopped his wife’s dancing lessons when he thought her instructor did, too. They had no children, which some attribute to his remarkable decision to undergo surgery-unanaesthetized- for bladder stones in 1658. He suffered various complications for the rest of his life.

In 1658 he obtained a place as a teller in the Exchequer; two years later, on January 1, 1660, he undertook the keeping of a diary that, over the decade, ran to over a million words. Thanks to the ennobling of his cousin, Lord Sandwich, Pepys landed a clerkship to the Navy Board worth 350 pounds a year. The side benefits and gratuities that came with the post made it even more lucrative; Pepys turned down an offer of a thousand pounds to vacate the post in the bidder’s favor.

Pepys knew a good thing, and soon learned mathematics from a tutor, and took up studying ship models, to learn the ins and outs of the service. He soon began moving up the ladder in the Admiralty, praised for his skills and acumen, while chafing, in his diary, under the political appointees who ran the service and who were, to a man, nitwits.

He was an able administrator and contractor; from his work maintaining, then evacuating, a short-lived British colony at Tangier, he got a lion from the consul there and kept it in his office as a pet. He devised a plan for an international British intelligence service that foundered for lack of funding.

His family connections and good reputation won him the eye of the King, Charles II, after the Restoration. He became Secretary to the Admiralty and a member of Parliament between 1673 and 1679; the political winds then shifted and he spent some time in the Tower over charges of being a papist and a spy.

The charges dropped, he returned to his place at the Admiralty and Parliament, now serving King James II. That king’s fall and flight ended Pepys’ career as well. After being jailed again- and a third time- on political charges later dropped, he was released again, and retired to the country.

He died in 1703, having survived his wife by 34 years. He never remarried, though he was sufficiently close to a longtime housekeeper that many thought her his spouse. He left his estate- which included a vast library of over three thousand volumes, to a nephew. On the nephew’s death, he willed it to his college at Cambridge, requiring that it be maintained as he had in his home, bookcases and all. It remains there to this day.

Pepys loved books with a blue passion, the good and the bad alike. After he reveled in L’ecole des filles, a naughty French romp, he burned it; his resolutions to improve himself often included not buying more books, or- failing that, not buying more than he had shelves for.

This, of course, meant building more shelves. And, having nearly lost his home and books to three different fires in London, he took a different tack to book preservation:

Pepys noted in July 1666 that he had lost the use of his books due to their being stacked up on chairs. Instead of emulating a library in an aristocratic house by fitting shelving to the walls in his modest lodgings on Seething Lane, Pepys decided upon a flexible (and affordable) approach to the storage of his books. He commissioned a ship’s Master Joiner, Thomas Simpson, to help create a radical new design. The freestanding ‘flat pack’ oak book presses, which can be dismantled and moved using the carrying handles fitted to the sides, indicate Pepys’ ambition to move into bigger and better accommodation. During Pepys’ lifetime, the presses were moved around as he changed his place of residence. However, the presses have never been moved from the Pepys Building since their arrival at Magdalene in 1724. During the Great Fire of London in September 1666, when the first two book presses were almost brand new, Pepys had them sent across the River Thames to Deptford for safe-keeping. A few weeks after the fire, Thomas Simpson returned to help ‘set them up’ again in Seething Lane.  
The book presses are a representation of Pepys’ understanding of book conservation and a reflection of his astuteness. By employing the services of a ship’s master joiner, Pepys used his naval connections to ensure a ‘good deal’ for the materials and workmanship, and the presses are reminiscent of ship’s furniture, for example the deep carving patterns in the wood. The wooden feet prevent damp and rodent damage, and the glazed fronts allow the books to be shown to their best advantage. This type of book storage was revolutionary, and the presses are now considered to be the oldest of their type with these particular features. 
Of course, books in the 17th century were still a symbol of status and the notion of books as aesthetically beautiful objects to enhance a room’s decoration was an important one. This idea, combined with Pepys’ love of order and organisation, leads to an obsession with achieving aesthetic perfection, and the overall look of the library was extremely important to him. The books are stored in order of height, going against contemporary practice of shelving books by subject matter. Although this seems a very illogical idea, we can be grateful to Pepys for his predilection for symmetry of form:   by having books of the same size next to each other, the books are well supported and thus the bindings remain in a good condition to the present day.
Pepys repeatedly vowed to himself in his diary that he would not buy any books which he did not have room for in his presses, but throughout his lifetime and as his wealth increased, he commissioned more presses to be made in the same design to house his ever-growing book collection. Although at first glance the presses look identical, there are slight differences: the later presses do not have adjustable shelving, whilst the early ones do.
pepys library.jpg
Pepys only published one book in his lifetime, a 1690 memoir of some of his official Navy service. A grand history of the British Navy; the biography of his cousin and patron, Sandwich; an account of the escape of King Charles I during the civil war: all went unfinished.

His diaries- which he gave up in 1669, thinking writing by candlelight all those years was making him blind- attracted little interest; those who tried reading it were frustrated by his use of foreign languages combined with Navy codes, especially when describing his amorous liaisons.

Early in the 1800s a British minister spent three years developing a key to the code, not realizing there was one in one of Pepys’ library cabinets at Cambridge; an edition of the diaries was published in 1825.

A second, more expansive edition, was published between 1875 and 1879. As the value of his work, as a record of everyday life, became more appreciated, a third, still longer edition was issued between 1893 and 1899.

Over that century, Pepys’ record of his sexual dalliances went from being completely excised to glossed over to mentioned in passing in cleaned-up diary entries; it was not until 1983- the 350th anniversary of his birth- that a complete, annotated edition came out.

Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at  Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like. #RareBooks #HenryBemisBooks #SamuelPepys #Diaries #Charlotte

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