Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution

John Westbrooke visits the biggest-ever exhibition about the famous London diarist

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Samuel Pepys led a hectic, eclectic life in Stuart London, as we know from the famous diaries he kept from 1660 to 1669. But we nearly didn’t know. It wasn’t till the successful publication much later of the diaries kept by his close friend John Evelyn that his Cambridge college suddenly remembered they too had potentially lucrative diaries in their possession, left to them by Pepys.

Even then it wasn’t plain sailing. A scholar laboured for years trying to decode the writer’s squiggles before realising that it was a recognised shorthand, and the textbook had been lying on the next shelf all along. The dairies were a hit – but only after the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in the 1960s could an unexpurgated version be printed detailing his amorous escapades.

His remarkable life and turbulent times are revealed in a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

We first meet him as a 15-year-old, bunking off school on a winter’s day to see the execution of Charles I. He was in favour of the republic introduced under Oliver Cromwell, but fortunately his politics were flexible. He worked for his influential uncle Edward Montagu, later Earl of Sandwich, who was also a Roundhead but, worried by the threat of another harrowing civil war after Cromwell died, sailed to the Netherlands to invite the late king’s son to return to England as Charles II. Pepys, always in the right place at the right time, went with him and wrote it all down. He attended Charles’s coronation too, though leaving early as he had “so great a list to piss”.

He’s most famous for his records of the plague in 1665 (he worked through it, chewing tobacco to keep infection away) and the Great Fire in 1666, in which he took a significant role advising the king, buried his parmesan cheese for safekeeping, and climbed a church tower to describe the scene of desolation – a masterpiece of eyewitness journalism.

Another calamity came the next year when the invading Dutch navy sailed up the Medway: Pepys by now had been made secretary to the Navy Board, and feared for his job. But he stayed on, proving to be a tireless administrator and in the end one of the great reformers and creators of the modern navy.

He also became an MP, president of the Royal Society (his name appears on the title page of one of the most important scientific works, Newton’s Principia Mathematica, though he had little to do with it, having spent the society’s budget on publishing a definitive work about fish), Master of Trinity House and of the Company of Clothworkers. He was also sent, as a compensation assessor, on a mission to destroy the fortifications of Tangiers, an English possession that was about to be abandoned.

Pepys fell out of favour when Charles’s brother James II was driven from the country, and retired to pursue his own interests – chiefly his library of 3000 books, all carefully filed in order of height. Whenever he bought a new one, the whole thing had to be rearranged.

But the public Pepys is only half the story. From his diaries we learn about the private man, and about life in Restoration London – a modest–sized city stretching roughly from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, but growing in wealth and importance, and on the cusp of the Age of Enlightenment. We know what he ate and drank, where he went, what he did, what he read (including the porn), who he talked to, and about what.

We know he privately deplored the debauchery of Charles’s court but behaved much the same way himself, alternately mauling women whenever his long-suffering wife’s back was turned and reproaching himself for it. His groping of servant girls would get him into serious trouble today. He was a fascinating man, but not always a nice one; he was however (at least when writing in code) honest about his shortcomings.

His biggest challenge came even before he even began the diaries, when he had a bladder stone removed. Done with neither anaesthetics nor antiseptics, this involved cutting through the perineum and extracting the object – the size of a billiard ball – with forceps. He survived the trauma (possibly because he was the first case of the day and the implements were still clean) and celebrated it with a party on the anniversary in later years. For those with strong stomachs, typical medical instruments are on display, along with someone’s else’s stone.

As well as this, the curators have assembled a fine collection of paintings, including a nude Nell Gwyn, which would normally have been hidden behind a seascape. There are also some lavish Stuart clothes, exotic tableware, bills of mortality from the plague, a naval medal (awarded to Captain Haddock, no less), ships’ fittings and scientific instruments.

Notably absentees are, sadly, the legendary diaries themselves; by the terms of his will they can’t leave Magdalene College. But visitors can call them up on computer screens and read decoded versions, which is more than they could do with the originals.

Samuel Pepys: Plague. Fire Revolution, at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, until March 28 2016. Adults £12.