Under my byline

A Pepys a day

Posted in Books, Living, Profiles by Rrishi on 9 January 2010


“For these two or three days I have been much troubled with thoughts how to get money to pay them that I have borrowed money of, by reason of my money being in my uncle’s hands.” With these rather prosaic words opens Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 9 January 1660. The ninth day of the year is also the ninth day that he is keeping his journal. He kept it for 10 years.

A hundred years after he stopped writing it (apparently because he thought all that scribbling by candlelight was ruining his eyes), the importance of his diary was beginning to be recognised. A student then did the long and laborious work of transcribing the whole text from Pepys’ handwritten pages. Laborious because Pepys’ was a private diary, and in it he did not apply self-censorship in the way someone writing a journal with an eye to publication might — instead he wrote large parts in a then-current shorthand to make it impenetrable to the casual reader. (Little did the student labouring to lay bare Pepys’ private thoughts know that a key to that shorthand was available in the same library where he performed his labours.)

And only three centuries later, between 1970 and 1983, did a wholly unexpurgated version of Pepys’ text finally make it into print. Standards have changed, and Pepys’ various peccadilloes and peculiar health practices (such as a beer-based enema for his constipation, administered by his long-suffering wife) are now a source of curiosity and amusement rather than distaste.

Historians, of course, are all agog, and have been for a long time. There are few single sources as richly detailed and readable as Pepys’ diary covering London in the decade that saw the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II (1661), the Great Plague of London (1665), the Great Fire of London (1666) and the second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67).

Through Pepys’ eyes we moderns can survey the 17th-century scene — in politics, because this was the centre of the kingdom; in administration, because Pepys was a senior bureaucrat of the British navy and led the professionalisation of the service, which came in handy during the Anglo-Dutch War; in society, because Pepys shared gossip and was active about town (and well-connected: the Earl of Sandwich was a distant relative); in urban culture, because Pepys loved books and discourse of all sorts, and counted both Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton as friends; and in a variety of other topics from the shape of the city to health and family life.

In late 2002, a quirky and enterprising young web designer named Phil Gyford realised that Pepys’ diary was tailor-made for the Internet age. So, on 1 January 2003, he started putting it online: as a blog. Every day Gyford uploads a new entry to PepysDiary.com, exactly as Pepys wrote it, and on the same calendar day. Thus, on his website, now seven years into the diary, it is January 9 of both 1667 and 2010.

In the way these things work, Pepys has now collected his own 21st-century community — a cohort of dedicated Pepys followers who await their daily dose of the 1660s. Because much about 17th-century London is opaque or mysterious to the modern reader, Gyford designed the blog so that knowledgeable readers could annotate each entry on their own. Every Pepys entry draws a train of comments, and out of this small space a community has grown.

I find this fascinating. It well reflects modern patterns of Internet-based fannish sociability — many strangers communing over an abstraction. Yet it also reflects Pepys’ own times, because the readers become amateur scholars and conversants. This reverses decades of academic specialisation; yet it highlights the academicisation of so much of our public discourse. Most of all, however, it’s amusing to note that we citizen Netizens can be so harmoniously collegial only about something in the distant past.


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