Samuel Pepys - World Literature

World Literature

Samuel Pepys


BORN: 1633, London, England

DIED: 1703, Clapham, England


GENRE: Nonfiction


Memoirs Relating to the State of the Royal Navy in England (1690)

The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1825)



Samuel Pepys. Pepys, Samuels, photograph. The Library of Congress.



British author Samuel Pepys (pronounced ‘‘Peeps'') fused together two opposite personality traits—he had a chaotic, unbridled personal life bursting with creative energy and physical passions, but he also had the ordered and disciplined mind of a highly successful bureaucrat. For over thirty years, he undertook the massive project of restructuring the entire British navy. But starting around this same time, he also wrote an astonishing diary, published in 1825 as The Diary of Samuel Pepys, that, better than any other primary source, gives us a detailed portrait of the dynamic Restoration period in British history. Pepys essentially invented the form of the personal diary as it is known today.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

English Civil War Marred Childhood. Pepys was born in London in 1633, the son of a tailor and a butcher’s sister. During his childhood, the English Civil War broke out. Lasting from 1642 to 1651, the war was a conflict between royalist forces who supported King Charles I (a Catholic-leaning believer in the divine right of kings) and Puritan rebels led by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell’s forces wanted a shift of power away from the king, the landed aristocracy, and the Church of England and more toward Parliament, the urban merchant classes, and Puritan theology. The rebels won, and Charles I was executed in 1649. Great Britain became a commonwealth, and Cromwell was its leader.

Pepys was educated in Puritan schools, and in 1650, he entered Cambridge University. He graduated in 1653 with few prospects and little money, and in 1655 he married the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth St. Michel, a French Protestant who was even poorer than he. The couple was supported by Pepys’s cousin Sir Edward Montagu, later the first Earl of Sandwich. Pepys became a secretary for Montagu, who was a powerful naval officer.

Began Writing Diary. The year 1660 marked an important transition for Pepys and for all of England. Cromwell died in 1658, succeeded by his son Richard Cromwell, but by then the public was dissatisfied with Puritanical rule. Parliament voted to restore Charles II, the eldest son of Charles I, to the throne. The following period (1660-1700) was known as the Restoration. The first entry in the most revealing and intimate account of the Restoration period, Pepys’s diary, is appropriately dated January 1, 1660.

Pepys accompanied Montagu on the voyage to Holland that returned Charles II to England. That same year, Pepys was appointed clerk at the Navy Office. The British navy at the time was totally chaotic by today’s standards: Ships might or might not be owned by the state; there was no clear distinction between civilian and military sailors; no regular systems were in place for supplying the ships or paying the men; officers were likely to be courtiers appointed without experience; bookkeeping varied from person to person, and taking bribes was considered one of the privileges of office. Pepys pioneered thousands of small changes that would eventually transform this chaos into an orderly and professional navy.

Increased Naval Responsibilities. When the Dutch War (a conflict between England and what would become the Netherlands over Dutch domination of world trade) broke out in 1665, Pepys was appointed surveyor general of the Victualing Office in addition to his regular duties for the navy. He remained at his post throughout the Great Plague of 1665 when most other inhabitants of London had left to avoid an outbreak of the deadly bubonic plague, a bacterial infection transmitted by fleas carried by rats. Pepys saved the Navy Office from the Great Fire of 1666 (when as much as 80 percent of London was destroyed by the blaze) by having the buildings around it destroyed in advance. Once the Dutch War ended in 1667 with a Dutch victory, Pepys established his reputation as a skilled public servant by eloquently and honestly defending the navy’s management of the disastrous war before angry committees in the House of Commons.

Served in Parliament. Pepys’s appearance before Parliament evidently whetted his own aspirations for a seat. He was elected to Parliament in 1673 and again in 1679. In 1673, King Charles II transferred Pepys from the Navy Office to the secretaryship of the Admiralty. At the time of the Popish Plot in 1678, a time of anti-Catholic paranoia in the wake of a failed attempt to assassinate Charles II, the Whig opponents of one of Pepys’s political allies accused Pepys of giving naval secrets to the (Catholic) French. Pepys resigned his office and was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1679, but the charges against him were unfounded, and Pepys was freed in 1680.

Meanwhile, Pepys’s marriage was under strain starting in 1668 after his wife discovered him groping the household maid. The history of the affair, and the emotional turbulence for all concerned, is described in memorable detail in the diary. Pepys’s wife died of a fever in 1669. His main companions afterwards were many of the most brilliant men of the Restoration, including John Evelyn, Christopher Wren, and John Dryden.

Personal Restoration. In 1684 Pepys was elected president of the Royal Society, a prestigious organization of scientists, intellectuals, and (in Pepys’s case) collectors and cataloguers of exotica. Pepys was restored to the secretaryship of the Admiralty, retaining the post until his voluntary retirement, with his eyesight failing, when dramatic political changes came through England in 1688. At that time, King James II, who had succeeded his elder brother Charles II in 1685, was overthrown because he attempted to restore Roman Catholicism to Britain. James II was replaced on the throne by his daughter, Mary II, and her Dutch husband, William III. This transfer of power was known as the Glorious Revolution.

Retiring in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution was completed, Pepys moved to the London suburb of Clapham. There, he devoted time to reading and writing. He spent much time writing what became the only work he saw published Memories Relating to the State of the Royal Navy of England (1690). Pepys died on May 26,1703.



Pepys's famous contemporaries include:

Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (or Tschirnhau- sen) (1651-1708): German mathematician, physicist, physician, and philosopher. He is most familiar today, however, for the chemical experiments that led to the invention of European porcelain. His books include Medicina mentis sive artis inveniendi praecepta generali (1687).

Arthur Annesley, first Earl of Anglesey (1614-1686): Irish politician. Annesley represented Dublin in the British parliament under Richard Cromwell. During a time when the English led brutal attacks against the Irish to stamp out political dissent and crush Catholicism, Annesley argued for moderation and nonviolence. He was a leader in bringing about the restoration of Charles II.

Jeremy Collier (1650-1726): English bishop. Collier is best known for his pious attack on the sexually charged Restoration comedies of William Congreve and John Vanbrugh in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698).

Frangoise-Marguerite de Sevigne, Comtesse de Gri- gnan (1646-1705): French aristocrat. When she got pregnant, married, and moved from Paris to Provence, she began one of the most remarkable series of correspondence in literary history. For the next thirty years, she exchanged over a thousand letters with her mother, sometimes writing up to twenty pages a day.

William Bradford (1663-1752): English printer and settler of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. His arrest in 1692 for offending the colonial Quaker leaders of Philadelphia helped shape the early debate over freedom of the press in early America. The jury was split in his trial, delivering no verdict.

Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici (1667-1743): Italian aristocrat. De Medici was the last of the powerful family who held sway over Florence for over four hundred years. Because of their banking interests, the Medicis were at one point the most wealthy family in Europe. She willed all of the vast Medici property to the city of Florence.


Works in Literary Context

Advent of Modern Diary. With The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Pepys essentially invented the modern diary, if by that word we mean an informal account of the thoughts, passions, events, and gossip of the day. Before the diary, however, there was the Puritan spiritual autobiography, to which he would have had some exposure in the Puritan schools he attended as a child. Most Puritans endorsed John Calvin’s theology of ‘‘predestination,’’ or the idea that if God truly knows everything and biblical prophecies are true, then God must know the future, which includes knowing who will go to heaven or hell even before they are born. Calvin believed that each human being is born predestined for his or her fate and has a duty to discover the path that God has already laid out for them. Puritans were therefore encouraged to keep spiritual journals, noting the small coincidences and subtle clues in their lives that together sketch a map of one’s life.

Individualism. Pepys articulated the new modern individual, moving through his days according to his own shifting passions, curiosities, likes and dislikes, speculations, and high ambitions. In this sense, Pepys reflected the same cultural influences that would later become the mode of the modern novel—a genre that explores individuality, subjectivity, the small details of daily life, the highs and lows of love and marriage, the foibles and confessions of imperfect people trying to make the most of their lives, and the relationship of the individual to larger society.

Public versus Private One recurring theme of the diary concerns tensions between the public, the private, and the idea of ‘‘secret.’’ Pepys sometimes goes to extremes in one direction, but most often he ends up with a kind of compromise. As he writes chronologically of his day, he will often move fluidly between his public duties as a navy bureaucrat, his private life as a husband or friend, and his secret life as a confessional writer or adulterous lover. In one famous passage about the coronation day of Charles II on April 23, 1661, he carefully details the grand public ceremonies of the event, his personal concerns with the location of his wife in the crowd, and his private bodily requirements of urinating and vomiting.

The frequent shifts between the public and the personal are captured in the sometimes bizarre writing style of the diary. Pepys kept his diary secret, stuffing it in cabinets and drawers. Most of it is written in shorthand, but when he wanted to be particularly secretive about something like a sexual affair, he would slip into an improvised mish-mash of numerous foreign languages. When the massive manuscript of the diary was discovered among Pepys’s papers in the early 1800s, it was entirely and painstakingly decoded. The hapless transcriber failed to notice until after he was finished that one of the other books in the Pepys collection was his customized shorthand manual.

Reflection on Restoration Culture. The Restoration was a period obsessed with novelty, passions, and enthusiasm, all processed through a balancing sense of reason, self-control, and social decorum. Pepys’s diary is full of examples. Pepys was curious about whatever was new and exciting, whether it was shipbuilding, the new sciences, music, languages, prints, ballads, mathematics, or the theater. He was enthusiastic about beauty, especially the beauty of music and women; yet he labored constantly to resist the temptations of drink, the theater, and the numerous young women whom he pawed in closet, kitchen, or coach. He was a compulsive collector, acquiring countless ship models, scientific instruments, portraits, books, and coins—and his logical side led him to catalog all of it very precisely. Pepys’s entire diary can be thought of as the most sophisticated expression of his instinct to collect and possess.

Influence. Puritan spiritual autobiographies were influences on some early novels, particularly Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). But most novels are far from Puritan theology and deal more often with the free choices that characters make as they shape their own destiny. Pepys’s diary helps bridge the gap although his diary was not a direct influence on the early novel, as it was not widely known until the twentieth century. Pepys wrote his diary for self-exploration and as a creative outlet rather than out of religious duty.



Since Pepys's time, the diary form has proven to be a popular mode of storytelling. Writers such as Anais Nin, for example, have published their diaries, while other writers have adapted the form to fiction. The accumulation of small details in a diary establishes a sense of realism, while the intimate, confessional tone allows readers an emotional connection to the narrator. Well-known works written in the diary form include:

A Diary from Dixie (1905), a diary by Mary Boykin Chesnutt. Chesnutt's wonderfully written diary details her experiences on a South Carolina plantation throughout the Civil War. The diary was republished in a new edition, edited by prominent scholar C. Vann Woodward, in 1981 and won Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

Lonelygirl15 (2006), an Internet series. More than two hundred thousand viewers regularly followed the video diary entries that the anonymous "Lonelygirl15" posted on the video sharing site YouTube. The compelling storyline of a girl involved in a religious cult and her struggles with her restrictive parents intrigued readers, even after the series was exposed as a fake.

The Diary of a Young Girl (1952), a diary by Anne Frank. Begun on her thirteenth birthday, this diary covers two years of Frank's life while she and her family hid from the Nazis during Hitler's occupation of the Netherlands. The family was discovered, and Frank died in a Jewish concentration camp in 1945. The diary has become one of the most important and useful documents for understanding the history of World War II.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf (1915-1941), five volumes of diaries by Virginia Woolf. Woolf had one of the most wide-ranging intellects of her era, and she was friends with most of the great thinkers of her time, from Sigmund Freud to James Joyce. Her diary reveals the wide sweep of her emotional life, and it is a near-epic document about the creative process of writing.


Works in Critical Context

Pepys’s diary was not transcribed and published until 1825. Even then it appeared in excerpts, and the first virtually complete edition was issued between 1893 and 1899. It was not until the 1970s that a fully decoded, uncensored version was available. The critical history of Pepys’s diary, therefore, is oddly dislocated from his own period. Pepys was a well-known public servant and socialite in his own time, but even his literary friends such as John Dryden knew nothing about his diary and the remarkable literary talent that it would reveal.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys. The diary was a revelation when it first appeared. One reviewer, Francis Jeffrey, wrote in 1825, ‘‘[We] can scarcely say that we wish it a page shorter; and are of opinion, that there is very little of it which does not help us to understand the character of his times and his contemporaries, better than we should ever have done without it; and makes us feel more assured that we comprehend the great historical events of the age, and the people who bore a part in them.’’ No doubt many Victorian critics would not have approved of the scandalous sexuality in the diary, but these passages were generally not published until the more permissive late twentieth century.

Since Pepys was a theater lover, literary critics have regularly turned to the diary as a rare source of firsthand accounts of the great age of Restoration drama. Recent critics have been interested in the ways in which Pepys defines the modern man, analyzing the complexity of his self-portrait. Cultural criticism and New Historicism often draws upon Pepys, noting the many ways in which his collections demonstrate aspects of an emerging material culture in the late seventeenth century, and how his alternating patterns of concealment and revelation are indicative of the new mode of self-invention that characterized the period.


Responses to Literature

1. Pepys was very careful to hide his diary and write it in ways that are difficult to understand. Who, therefore, is the intended audience for the diary? Does your answer to this matter relate to how we read the diary today, and what value we assign to it? Create a presentation of your conclusions.

2. Look for phrases in the diary where Pepys expresses the extremes of pleasure. How many times do you find him saying something is the ‘‘best,’’ the ‘‘greatest,’’ etc.? Note some of the places where Pepys expresses ‘‘enthusiasm,’’ and then do some research on what exactly this word meant in Pepys’s time and why it was controversial. Write an essay about your findings.

3. What can Pepys’s diary tell us as a firsthand account of the most significant historical events of the era: the restoration of Charles II, the plague of 1666, the Great Fire of London, and the emergence of Restoration comedy? What does the diary offer that straightforward historical accounts leave out? Write a paper about your conclusions.




Barker, Francis. The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection. London: Methuen, 1984.

Bryant, Arthur. Samuel Pepys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1900.

Long, James, and Ben Long. The Plot Against Pepys. London: Faber and Faber, 2007.

Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Pepys’ Diary and the New Science. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965.

Ollard, Richard. Pepys: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Sherman, Stuart. Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form, 1660-1785. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. ‘‘Samuel Pepys.’’ In Familiar Studies of Men and Books. London: Chatto and Windus, 1882.

Tanner, J. R. Samuel Pepys and the Royal Navy. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

Tomalin, Claire. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Turner, James Grantham. ‘‘Pepys and the Private Parts of Monarchy.’’ In Culture and Society in the Stuart Restoration: Literature, Drama, History. Ed. Gerald MacLean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


Berger, Harry, Jr. ‘‘The Pepys Show: Ghost-Writing and Documentary Desire in the Diary.’’ ELH 65, no. 3 (1998): 557-91.

Web Sites

Gyford, Phil. The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Daily Entries from the 17th-Century London Diary. Retrieved May 8, 2008, from Last updated on May 8, 2008.