Samuel Pepys
Kenneth Branagh,

(HighBridge Classics)
I know now why they tried to get us to read Pepys' Diaries in university. He is a classic upwardly-mobile bureaucrat (his title was "Surveyor-General of the Royal Navy") --- a man who was a mover and doer; also he was one of a class of men, not unlike his contemporary Casanova, who barely survived a pesky if not exuberant libido.

His follies are memorable. Pepys had several affairs with respectable lady friends. At times, he was caught by his jealous wife; at other times, he worked around (if not under) her. His specialty outside provisioning naval warships was hunting down innocent housemaids; all peccadilloes were noted in his special code within the general code of the diary (the whole was written in something called "lachgraphy;" it was deciphered and published in bowdlerized form in 1825).

Pepys' love affairs were rendered into a strange mix of English, French and Spanish. His name was pronouced "Peeps" but, in keeping with his ubiquitous lusts, it is appropriate to find that some of his cousins pronounced the name with two syllables.

§     §     §

He is constantly counting his gold (being part of the navy procurement service is, it seems, very profitable), and each of his end-of-the-year entries tells us of the gain to his net worth. He starts the diary with £20 in the till, and in the last, he is worth more than six thousand.

Where does it all come from? Well, he casually takes kick-backs on contracts. Very wary he is, too: In one case, he refuses to open the envelope containing his bribe until he gets home, in case he might be seen. He also advances ranking officers to better assignment in the Navy so he can be near their wives, being rewarded by sleeping with the eponymous Mrs. Bagwell, along with a Mrs. Lane ... both of whose husbands are known to him and, presumably, improved in their state if not approving of the liaison.

Pepys is a man who enjoys himself to the hilt, but, at the same time, he is filled with fears. One is of his wife who shrewdly watches his every move. He is also wary of becoming a drunkard (he takes the pledge often). And, being a man of 17th Century England, he is terrified of fire, the plague, the "pox," the Divine (he regularly notes Sundays in the diaries as "the Lord's Day"), and any favor or disfavor at the royal court of Charles Stuart.

And the intimacies he shares with us! Sometimes more than we want to know: He tells us of "being lousy," of problems with his bowels, and of problems with his bladder (he celebrates annually "the cutting of the stone" --- surgical removal a kidney stone --- which he carried about with him in a felt-lined box).

Pepys was no slouch as a respected gentleman on the make. He lavishes care on the coach he is to buy to be seen about town in with his wife. He reports to the King, works under the Earl of Sandwich, knows Christopher Wren and William Penn. He is apparently well-spoken, addresses Parliament several times on naval matters, is a fan of Dryden and Shakespeare, enjoys dance and lute music.

He helped in a minor way in the Restoration, but then comes to see Charles Stuart as a fool, "mumbling inanities and fondling his codpiece." He witnesses the Plague of 1665, and his writing of it makes it personal, fearsome and --- in a world that had no inkling of whence it came --- startling:

    To hear that poor Payne my waterman hath buried a child and is dying himself --- to hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams to know how they did there is dead of the plague and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water ... is now dead of the plague --- to hear ... that Mr Sidny Mountagu is sick of a desperate fever at my Lady Carteret's at Scott's hall --- to hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick --- and lastly, that both my servants, W Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulcher's parish, of the plague this week --- doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason.

Pepys is witness to the Great Fire of 1666, and his daily entries of the progress --- it went on for a month --- brings the story to high adventure and flight: people moving their possessions to save them, and then, as the fire progresses, moving them yet again. The whole of it haunted him afterwards:

    I did within these six days see smoke still remaining of the late fire in the City; and it is strange to think how to this very day I cannot sleep a-night without great terrors of fire; and this very night I could not sleep till almost 2 in the morning through thoughts of fire.

When the Dutch threaten to invade from Calais, Pepys and his faithful worker Tom --- pure Laurel and Hardy --- cumbersomely move his gold (then worth more than £5,000) to his father's house in the country, has his father and wife bury the treasure, and then, after the scare is over, Pepys curses them for doing it during the day when people might see ... and worse, for not marking the place; so when they come to dig it up, the bags are broken, they lose several dozen gold pieces, and he is "quite vexed."

§     §     §

Pepys is caught from time in his philandering. He vows himself to get Deb's "maidenhead," but too soon, the maid is put out of the house by an angry spouse. Pepys spends much time --- vexing himself even further --- trying to locate her. One night, his wife, still insanely jealous, probably a bit potty, wakes him by trying to burn him on the ass with fire-tongs. At the same time, we find him sending off a letter the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, advising him not to make a spectacle of himself with "a wench," suggesting that he be more careful in his indiscretions.

The code within the code is interesting to those of us who enjoy lightly-spiced pornography. On February 5th 1667, Pepys manages to cook up some fairly intricate stimulation with a lady friend, all the while plumped down next to his own wife:

    "I did come to sit avec Betty Michell, and there had her main, [hand] which elle did give me very frankly now, and did hazer [do] whatever I voudrais avec l', [would with her] which did plaisir me grandement" [pleasure me greatly]

At another time,

    I took coach and home, in the way tomando su mano [taking her hand] and putting it where I used to do; which ella did suffer [she put up with] , but not avec tant de freedom [not as freely] as heretofore, I perceiving plainly she had alguns [some] apprehensions de me but I did offer natha [nothing] more then what I had often done. But now comes our trouble, I did begin to fear that 'su marido' [her husband] might go to my house to enquire pour elle [ask about her], and there, trouvant my muger [find my wife] at home, would not only think himself, but give my femme [wife] occasion to think strange things. This did trouble me mightily, so though 'elle' would not seem to have me trouble myself about it, yet did agree to the stopping the coach at the streete's end, and je allois con elle [I walked home with her].

This reading on disk by Kenneth Branagh is steady, competent, fun, and lends itself to a leisurely listening. The diary form always allows one to start and stop in various random places, and so up and to the office I pleasured myself with this not vexatious rendering yet I by entering it again and again was meanwhile looking again to make sure that I was not observed, as one might think it strange that I had come to be so obsessed with the intercourse between Mr. Pepys and his wench Deb.

Pepys can be very funny (often not meaning to be so), gives us an acute view into the life and customs of the Restoration and London city life --- all jammed in with politics, scheming, greed, joy, piety, and a markéd marital infidelity. It is a lovely mix, testimony to the never-ending juxtaposition of lust and grace, scheming and generosity, the trickery and honesty to be found in most of us.

It is a testament to one who, like Johnson, could never stop scribbling. Yet by the end of Volume Twelve, when Pepys tells us of his inability to write further, because of approaching blindness, this particular critic found himself stricken. Here is a man from so many years ago, like many of us, a lively sort who is all of a sudden to go through the pain of near blindness (a time when glaucoma or cataract could easily have devolved into sightlessness), with no relief in sight.

We know that Pepys was to live on another thirty-three years, yet we are distraught to find ourselves losing a friend, one who had come to be a charmingly honest, a confessional buddy, from 350 years ago, with all the frauds, foibles, pride, lusts, and larks of the rest of us:

    And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal, I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand; and, therefore, whatever comes of it, I must forbear: and, therefore, resolve, from this time forward, to have it kept by my people in long-hand, and must therefore be contented to set down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know; or, if there be any thing, which cannot be much, now my amours to Deb. are past, and my eyes hindering me in almost all other pleasures, I must endeavour to keep a margin in my book open, to add, here and there, a note in short-hand with my own hand.

--- C. A. Amantea
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