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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

§ 3. Evelyn’s and Pepys’s Diaries Compared

In face of the fact that both Evelyn and Pepys were men of mark, it seems strange that these valuable historical documents, although known to be in existence, were allowed to remain in manuscript until the first quarter of the nineteenth century. If, for one moment, we consider what the history of the restoration era would be if all we have learned from these two writers were blotted out, we shall see at once how greatly their writings have added to our knowledge of that period. It will be remembered, how Macaulay once dreamt that a niece of his had forged Pepys’s diary, and that the news, as well it might, plunged him into “the greatest dismay.”

It was primarily due to the intelligence of William Upcott, bibliographer and devoted lover of autographs, that Evelyn’s diary first saw the light. On Upcott’s being employed by lady Evelyn, the owner of Wotton, to inspect her collection of manuscripts, his attention was particularly attracted to the original manuscript of the diary. When, by his advice, its publication was decided upon, it was thought expedient to obtain the services of the Surrey antiquary and topographer William Bray as editor. Bray, who was an elderly man when he undertook the task, did not do very much towards the illustration of the book; but Upcott continued his interest in the work and was an able assistant to him. The diary and correspondence was published in 1818, and received by the public with great satisfaction; a second edition appeared in the following year, and the diary has continued to be reprinted as a standard work in a large number of different forms.

The two volumes issued in 1818 contain several references to Samuel Pepys, and these seem to have directed the practical attention of the master of Magdalene college, Cambridge (George Grenville), to the somewhat mysterious six volumes written in shorthand which were carefully preserved in the Pepysian library. He took the opportunity of a visit by his distinguished kinsman lord Grenville, who, as secretary of state for foreign affairs, was well acquainted with secret characters, to bring the MS. under his notice. Lord Grenville, puzzling over its pages, left a translation of a few of these, an alphabet and a list of arbitrary signs for the use of the decipherer that was to be. These aids to his work were handed to John Smith, then an undergraduate of St. John’s college (afterwards rector of Baldock, Herts), who undertook to decipher the whole. He began his labours in the spring of 1819 and completed them in April, 1822, having thus worked for nearly three years, usually for twelve or fourteen hours a day. This was a great and difficult undertaking, carried out with complete success. The decipherer, writing on 23 March, 1858, gave the following particulars as to his work:

  • The MS. extended to 3012 quarto pages of shorthand, which furnished 9325 quarto pages in longhand and embraced 314 different shorthand characters, comprising 391 words and letters, which all had to be kept continually in mind, whilst the head, the eye and hand of the decipherer were all engaged on the MS.
  • Smith says that the eminent shorthand writer William Brodie Gurney assured him that neither he nor any other man would ever be able to decipher it, and two other professors of the art confirmed his opinion. The shorthand used by Pepys was the system of Thomas Shelton, author of Tachygraphy, 1641, although Lord Braybrooke was under the impression that it resembled Rich’s system. This opinion put some persons on a wrong scent, and it is affirmed that two friends in America, who usually practised two modern and briefer systems, corresponded with each other in Rich’s, which they had mastered out of interest in Pepys.

    Evelyn and Pepys were lifelong friends, and they had many business relations in connection with the navy which were carried on in a spirit of mutual esteem. There was a certain likeness between the two men in public spirit and literary tastes; but there was, perhaps, still more divergence in their characters, as shown by their respective diaries. Both were of gentle birth, but Evelyn belonged to the class of “men of quality,” and was a frequenter of courts, while Pepys had to make his own way in the world by his tenacity of purpose and great abilities. Although the two diaries are closely united in popular esteem, they differ greatly in the length of the periods which they cover as well as in the character of their contents. Evelyn’s work practically deals with the whole of his life, having been begun at a comparatively early age and continued until a short time before his death, while Pepys’s (although of considerably greater length) only occupies a little over nine years of his busy career.

    The figure of John Evelyn stands out in our history as a representative of the model English country gentleman—a man of the world, of culture and of business—and his occupation in later life, at Wotton, the beautiful old Surrey country house, with its woods planted by himself, has formed an appropriate background for his picturesque figure. He was a calm and dignified man, largely taken up by the duties of his family and his social position, for, although peculiarly fitted for the contemplative life, he did not shirk the responsibilities of his station, but consistently carried out in an efficient and thoroughly businesslike manner the important duties undertaken by him. All the many books he produced during his life are of interest; but Evelyn was not a professed author, and his publications were mostly intended to meet some particular want which he had descried. That his judgment was not often at fault is seen by the fact that several of his books went through many editions.

    Evelyn’s diary really tells the history of his life, and tells it well. The diarist is contented to relate facts and seldom analyses his feelings or gives his opinions; nevertheless, his fine character is exhibited in lifelike proportions. Southey said of him that

  • Satire from whom nothing is sacred, scarcely attempted to touch him while living; and the acrimony of political and religious hatred, though it spares not the dead, has never assailed his memory.