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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

X. Memoir and Letter Writers

§ 10. Pepys’s Early Life and Marriage

The publication of Evelyn’s diary only increased the fame of the writer, and added a fuller portraiture of one who was well known before the new material appeared. On the other hand, the fame of Pepys had so far escaped recognition at the time of the publication of his diary that it was an entirely new man who was now presented to public notice. The enthralling interest of the diary has had the effect of urging lovers of Pepys to obtain further information respecting him, with the result that we have come to know much more respecting his life-history, and this knowledge has added greatly to our appreciation of the importance of the author. The reputation of Samuel Pepys had much changed at various times. When he died, his great qualities were generally recognised, although he was half forgotten as years rolled by; but it is to the credit of the admiralty that his name has always been honoured there. Thus, his reputation remained the property of an intelligent few until the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when readers were startled by the appearance of a work in which the inner life of the diarist is portrayed in a manner absolutely unique and without either precedent or parallel. Confessions have frequently been made in writing; but their authors wrote them for the public eye, and their disclosures are made in such a manner as to attract the reader’s sympathy. This was not so with Pepys’s diary, for there can be no doubt that its pages were never intended to be seen by other eyes than those of the writer. Everyone read and was entertained. A new man was added to the circle of our intimate friends—a man whose confessions are ever fresh and can never tire. Can we be surprised that, for a time, little was thought of Pepys outside the diary? With a revived public interest in the history of the navy came the rediscovery of Pepys’s great work at the admiralty.

Samuel Pepys went into the navy office without any knowledge of any particular ships or of the navy as a whole; and yet, in a few years, according to high authority, he had become “the right hand of the Navy,” and not only understood more of administration than all the other officers (some of them brilliantly successful admirals) put together, but, in spite of opposition, was able to carry on the work of his office with no small success. Pepys was a historical character of mark, for he figured in all the most important scenes that occurred during his official life. He acted with vigour during the Dutch war; and, when the Dutch fleet was in the Medway, in 1667, he was among the few who, during a time of national humiliation, deserved credit for their conduct. His name, too, stands out among those who performed their duty during the terrible times of the plague and the fire of London. He suffered during the reign of terror caused by the action of the promoters of the trials of persons supposed to be involved in the so-called popish plot. He was committed to the Tower in May, 1679; but, when brought before the privy council to answer charges against him, he covered his influential enemies with confusion, and his defence was so complete that he was ordered to be set free without a trial. His last great work, as secretary of the admiralty, was to reform the navy, which had been brought into a dangerous state by an incompetent commission.

Samuel Pepys was born on 23 February, 1632/3, probably in London, since he tells us that, as a small boy, he went to school with his bow and arrows across the fields to Kingsland. Later, it is fair to suppose that his kinsman and patron through life, Sir Edward Montagu, first earl of Sandwich, the “My lord” of the diary, sent him to school, first to Huntingdon grammar school, then to St. Paul’s school, and, afterwards, to the university of Cambridge. We may take it for certain that John Pepys never had sufficient money for the satisfactory education of his son. Samuel seems to have done fairly well at St. Paul’s, and he always retained an affection for the school. At Cambridge, he was first entered at Trinity hall; but, subsequently, he was transferred to Magdalene college, of which, in after life, he became one of the best friends. In 1655, he married Elizabeth St. Michel, a pretty girl, the daughter of an impecunious Frenchman and his English wife. Mr. and Mrs. Pepys were a young and inexperienced couple, the bridegroom being twenty-two years old and the bride only fifteen. The newly-married pair went to live at Sir Edward Montagu’s London house, and Pepys seems to have acted as a sort of steward or factotum to “My lord.” On 26 March, 1658, Pepys underwent an operation for the stone, which was removed; and, afterwards, he kept the anniversary of the operation as a festival. In the same year, he became clerk (at a salary of £50) to George Downing (who gave his name to Downing street).

The diary opens on 1 January, 1660, when Pepys was no longer living at Sir Edward Montagu’s, but in Axe yard, Westminster (which stood on part of the site of the present India office), in a very humble way of life, his family consisting of himself, his wife and one servant named Jane. During the frosty weather, they have not a coal in the house, and Samuel is forced to dine at his father’s, or to make himself as comfortable as he can in the garret. That the larder is not very plentifully supplied is seen by the fact that, on 1 February, he and his wife dine on pease pudding—a very different meal from most of those recorded in the diary; but a great change soon occurred in Pepys’s condition. He had every reason for welcoming the restoration, as it was through the change of government that he obtained a comfortable income. This was the turning-point of his career, when he became a prosperous man.