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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

§ 16. Character and Charm of the Diary

Pepys’s diary is so various in its interest that it is not easy in a few words to indicate where its chief distinction lies. The absolute sincerity and transparent truth of the narrative naturally explains much, but the vitality of the man and his intense interest in the pageant of life supplies the motive power. Important events gain by the strength of their presentment, and trivialities delight us by the way in which they are narrated. Here is not only a picture of the life and manners of the time, but, also, the dissection of the heart of a man, and the exposure suggests a psychological problem difficult of solution. We naturally ask how it came to pass that the writer of the diary arrived at a perfection of style suitable to the character of what he had to relate. Is it possible that he had previously practised the writing of a journal? We see the man grow in knowledge and power as the diary proceeds; but the narrative is equally good at the beginning and at the end. Pepys apparently made notes on slips of paper and then elaborated them without any unnecessary delay. It is remarkable that there should be few or no corrections in the written manuscript. He wrote in secret, and, when he unguardedly (at the time of his detention in the Tower) told Sir William Coventry that he kept a diary, he was immediately afterwards sorry for his indiscretion. It is also matter for wonder that he should have trusted a binder with the precious book. Was the binder brought into the house to bind the pages under the writer’s eye?

The brilliancy of the narrative and the intimacy of the confessions so thoroughly charm the reader that, in many cases, he overlooks the fact that, although Pepys was devoted to pleasure, he was not absorbed by it, but always kept in view the main object of his life—the perfection of the English navy. Pepys was not a man of letters in the same way that Evelyn was one. When the latter was interested in a subject, he wanted to write upon it, and not only wanted to, but did write, as is shown by the list of his works in our bibliography. This was not the case with Pepys. Early in his official life, he proposed to write a history of the navy, and collected materials for the purpose; but, although he talked about the project, he never got at all forward with it. His Memoires of the Navy was prepared under an urgent desire to present his apologia, and was only a chapter in the great work that had long been projected. This little book contains a thoroughly effective statement of his case; but it is not lively reading or a work of any literary merit. The question, therefore, arises why the diary is different, and why it is remarkable as a literary effort.

The entries are all made with care, and there is no hurry about any of them; but we must remember that they were written fresh from the heart, and many hard judgments passed on colleagues were the result of temporary indignation. He was himself careful, tidy and methodical, and he was impatient of untidiness and improvidence in those around him. His wife often irritated him by her carelessness and want of method; but his poor sister, Paulina Pepys, comes off as badly as anyone in the diary. She did not receive much kindness from her brother and sister-in-law, although Pepys did his best to find her a husband, and, when the search was followed by success, gave her a handsome dowry. The pages of the diary are full of particulars respecting Pepys’s various servants, and their part in constant musical performances. It is necessary to bear in mind that most of these servants were more properly companions or maids of Mrs. Pepys.

Pepys’s system of vows and the excuses made for not carrying them out are very singular and amusing. He feared the waste of time that would arise from a too frequent attendance at the theatre, and from his tendency to drink. The fines which he levied upon himself had some influence in weaning him from bad habits. It does not appear that he neglected his work, even when taking pleasure; for, although the working day was often irregular in arrangement, the work was done either early in the morning or late at night, to make up for occasional long sittings after the midday meal. The diary contains a mine of information respecting theatres and music; there is much about the buying of his books and book-cases, but it should be borne in mind that the larger portion of the Pepysian library now preserved at Magdalene college, Cambridge, was purchased after the conclusion of the diary.

It has been said that Pepys knew Evelyn a great deal better than we know that stately gentleman, but that we know Pepys a hundred times better than Evelyn did. In illustration of this dictum, two passages from Pepys’s diary come to mind. On 10 September, 1665, he joined a party at Greenwich, where Sir John Minnes and Evelyn were the life of the company and full of mirth. Among other humours, Evelyn repeated some verses introducing “the various acceptations of may and can,” which made all present nearly die of laughing. This is certainly a fresh side of his character. On the following 5th of November, Pepys visited Evelyn at Deptford, when the latter read to the former extracts from an essay he had in hand, also a part of a play or two of his making, and some short poems. “In fine a most excellent person he is and must be allowed a little for a little conceitedness but he may well be so, being a man so much above others.” So Pepys helps us to know Evelyn better and love him none the less; while, as for Pepys himself, we certainly know him better than Evelyn knew him, though we readily accept Evelyn’s noble tribute to his merits. His frailties he has himself recorded; but, even were there no other evidence on the subject than is to be found in the diary itself, it would show him to have been a patriot and a true and steadfast friend.