To Greenwich, where the National Maritime Museum is housing an exhibition devoted to the life and times of a seventeenth-century naval civil servant and man-about-town who just happened to record everything that he saw and experienced in a diary. ‘Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire and Revolution’ tells the story of a most turbulent time in English history (from the aftermath of the Civil War to the Glorious Revolution) through the eyes of the greatest of diarists.
Here was a man who, although he must have realised that someone in the future would read what he’d written down, left nothing out – even when it reflected badly on him (and, as he wasn’t the most faithful of husbands, there’s plenty of that). As well as the minutiae of his personal life (what he ate, who he met, problems with the servants, trips to the theatre, falling asleep in church), his diary – which he kept between 1660 and 1669, writing it in shorthand by candle-light and only giving up when he feared for his eyesight – has eye-witness accounts of some of the key events of the age – the return and coronation of Charles II (Pepys left the ceremony early, as he needed the loo), the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666. It is both a fantastic and fascinating read, a real window through which we can glimpse the past. The whole thing amounts to over a million words, and remains one of the key texts for understanding Restoration England; for this reason, the exhibition’s publicity calls him, with some justification, “history’s greatest witness”.
Pepys came from a humble background – the son of a London tailor, he was the fifth of eleven children but the oldest one to survive. Earmarked as a bright boy, he attended St Paul’s School and then went to Cambridge, following which he came under the patronage of his well-connected cousin, Edward Montagu (who’s appeared on this blog before; he was a Parliamentarian soldier who became one of Cromwell’s generals-at-sea before being instrumental in inviting Charles II back to England, upon which he was ennobled as the Earl of Sandwich) who ensured his entry into the civil service. He married young (but not as young as his wife Elisabeth, who was just 14) and in 1658 he underwent surgery – a high-risk option at the time – to remove a bladder stone. Seventeenth-century surgical equipment can be seen in the exhibition.
The tumultuous times in which he lived are brought to bear early on in the exhibition with a large painting of Charles I’s execution, which Pepys bunked off school to see (although curiously, the painting shows Thomas Fairfax as the executioner, even though he hadn’t even signed the death warrant). There are plenty of items Cromwell-related (Pepys was a great admirer of the Lord Protector), including his death mask and a large bowl commemorating Charles II’s evading of Cromwell’s troops by hiding in an oak tree after the battle of Worcester – an event that, in addition to giving us the Royal Oak pub name, Charles later retold to one S. Pepys, who recorded it for posterity.
Portraits abound – as well as Pepys himself, there’s Cromwell, Charles II in coronation regalia, two of his patron Montagu (“my Lord”), his wife Elisabeth (reproduced from an engraving, the original having been destroyed long ago) and various contemporaries like Sir Christoper Wren. There are also portraits of some of the Merry Monarch’s mistresses, including an almost-naked Nell Gwyn, the most famous actress of the age (“pretty, witty Nell”, Pepys called her), and Mary Davis, another actress who (we learnt) Pepys rather liked, although Elisabeth took a different view, describing her as “the most impertinent slut in the world”. There’s even space for a miniature of Frances Stuart, who refused to become a royal mistress and who is said to have been the model for Britannia, as depicted on the old (pre-decimal) penny and the (pre-2008) 50p coin.
As well as exhibits – models of ships, musical instruments (Pepys loved to relax with some music), items used in futile attempts to ward off plague, many documents and letters (do check out Charles II’s love-letter to Louise de Kerouaille, and wonder how it could have been written by a man who was far from monogamous) – there are graphics, and it’s here that the exhibition does very well. The section on Restoration theatre (quite literally restored, as Cromwell had banned it) is complete with recordings of extracts from plays – a period comedy, and Macbeth done in the style of the time – interspersed with readings of extracts from Pepys’s diary where he comments on plays he’s seen, complementing visuals of silhouetted actors and actresses giving it their best despite loud cat-calls from a lively audience. Better still is the depiction of the Great Fire of 1666 – a large-scale picture of old London across which the flames gradually spread, to the sound of a roaring fire and Pepy’s commentary (indeed, many consider his eye-witness account of the Great Fire, right down to his burying a Parmesan cheese in his garden, to be the best part of the diary).
Pepys’s professional career is dealt with in a section on naval warfare (the diary aside, he is still regarded by naval historians as one of the most crucial civilians ever to have played a part in the development of the Royal Navy), while beyond that there’s a part devoted to science that explores Pepys’s role in the Royal Society – through which he knew the likes of Newton, Hooke, Halley and Wren. There are scientific instruments on display here, and most interestingly there’s a first edition of Newton’s Principia that refers to Pepys by name on the title page, as he had authorised its publication in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.
The exhibition ends with some detail on the Glorious Revolution – an event which brought about Pepys’s professional downfall. He rose high – as well as an MP, he was Secretary for the Admiralty – but his career was tied with the fortunes of James II (who, as Duke of York, had been the Lord High Admiral and had as such been well aware of Pepys’s work with the Navy). By supporting James’s right to succeed to the throne despite his Catholicism, Pepys was in fact one of the original Tories (the Tory-Whig distinction dates from the Exclusion Crisis) and he was for a time imprisoned in the Tower on fabricated charges (he was accused, among other things, of secretly being a Catholic – a dangerous thing to be accused of at the height of the hysteria known as the Popish Plot). When James fled the country, Pepys retired from public life.
Just about the only thing that’s not on show is the diary itself – that is kept at Pepys’s old college at Cambridge where it’s not allowed to leave the premises as per the terms of Pepys’s will, which is on display. Written in shorthand and bound in six volumes, the original version of the diary was part of Pepys’s very large book collection (itself one of the most impressive seventeenth-century private libraries in existence) and it wasn’t transcribed into plain English until the early nineteenth century – a job that took three years, with the transcriber only realising towards the end of his mammoth task (and you can see some of this work) that the key to Pepys’s shorthand system was written down in another book located a few shelves above the diary volumes!
There were a few things that I learned, and not just the fact about the actual diary not being allowed to leave Cambridge. I was rather surprised to learn that it wasn’t published in its entirety until the 1970s; earlier editions of the diary left the really racy bits out, and it was only after the Lady Chatterley trial that these were deemed fit for publication. The full-length version runs to eleven volumes (including the companion and index); most of us settle for single-volume abridgements like The Shorter Pepys (itself over 1000 pages) although there is a very useful online version of an older edition.
There are just a few weeks left before the exhibition closes. Go now, while you still have the chance.