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Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, January 5, 2003

Three Books Give More Than a Peek at Life of Pepys

The New Year is a time of resolutions, which unfortunately demands a measure of energy that we may have in short supply. If you are looking for the pep you need to improve your life, I recommend reading the diary of the 17th-century Englishman Samuel Pepys. Some of the man's incredible energy might rub off on you.

Often rising at 4 a.m. and working until midnight, this son of a tailor rose to be secretary for admiralty affairs under James II. At the beginning of his career, during the decade of the 1660s, he also found time to write the most famous diary in the English language and one of the jewels of English literature.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys: 1660 edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews (HarperCollins, 2000).

Pepys wrote his diary in shorthand in six finely bound volumes, shelved with the rest of his books in the library that he bequeathed to Cambridge University. Though it was first transcribed and published in 1825, it was not until 1970 that the diary was published as Pepys had written it.

Previous editors had considered some of the passages to be either vulgar or indecent, which is actually one of the reasons people like it so much. Pepys' diary is remarkable in its honesty and its merciless depiction of his personal life -- foibles, indiscretions and all. Pepys reads like a modern writer in his obsessive scientific self-observation and his open-mindedness.

The diary is also one of the best primary sources for material on the most tumultuous decade in English history. During the 1660s, Oliver Cromwell ousted Charles I, who was beheaded but was succeeded by Char-les' son, Charles II, who inaugurated the Restoration, an orgy of sensation in reaction to the Puritanism of the Protectorate. The decade also saw the great plague of London in 1665 and the great fire of London in 1666.

Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin (Knopf, 2002).

Tomalin writes wonderful literary biographies. Among her subjects have been Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Jane Austen. The hallmarks of her writing are readability, empathy and thorough research.

We learn here that Pepys was the ambitious son of a tailor who had remote family connections to the noble Montagu family, which enabled him to attend excellent private schools and eventually matriculate at Cambridge University.

Pepys was a good student, which meant that he excelled in Latin and Greek, the only subjects taught in those days. This classical education instilled in him and his contemporaries an admiration for and emulation of the senators and statesmen of ancient Rome.

Indeed, 1660s London was like a classical golden age in many respects. William Shakespeare had died not too long before; John Milton, though disgraced politically, was writing Paradise Lost; Isaac Newton was publishing his theories; and John Dryden was the court poet.

Though Pepys' diary concentrated on his personal life, his success in naval affairs made him one of the giants of the English navy. His hard work and compulsive tidiness led him to insist on careful record keeping and organization, and his own rise from obscurity caused him to emphasize the merits of achievement over noble birth for advancement within the naval ranks.

The Journal of Mrs. Pepys: Portrait of a Marriage by Sara George (St. Martin's, 1999).

Pepys' wife is silent in his diaries; yet, she manages to impress us with her ability to stand up to the bullying and tomcat ways of her energetic husband.

Sara George has given Elizabeth Pepys a voice in this novel. George has obviously studied the diaries quite closely, and her version of what Mrs. Pepys might have written is very believable.

Her marriage to Samuel was tumultuous from the start. She left him briefly because he neglected her and spent too much time drinking with his cronies. She had to put up with Pepys' infidelities and once caught him with one of their servants.

Nevertheless, they loved each other, and the tenderness and natural gentility of Elizabeth comes forth in these pages. Pepys never remarried after her death before the age of 30.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.