The Diary of Samuel Pepys : so rich I couldn’t think of a subtitle

So, for the Reader’s Season I can see that people are mostly going for fiction: time to stand up for some fantastic non-fiction.

On the First of January, 1660, a minor government functionary in London began a diary, and kept to his writing for ten years. In the million words which followed, he charted great events, like the Fire of London, the war with the Dutch and the Restoration of the monarchy. He also described, in unparalleled detail, his domestic life.

Pepys’ diary has an added level of interest because he is so honest about his weaknesses and vices. His jealousy about his wife’s dancing master, driven perhaps by his own infidelities, comes through strongly. His miserliness, his drive to be respected while doing things which were disreputable: they make him both the sort of man one would not want as a friend, but a fascinating character study.

It’s not clear why Pepys wrote the diary, in a coded shorthand, and then left it to a University library. Presumably he hoped someone would be interested. Through accident he created one of the most detailed accounts of Restoration life and manners. It’s delightful to dig through, each time looking at different facets of politics, dress, food, manners, gender relations and so on.

A million words used to put people off – not so much in the years following Harry Potter and Game of Thrones – but there are many sources where people have cut the diary down, keeping only entries which reflect certain themes. One I particularly like is the BBC Audio full cast recording. It focuses on Pepys’s domestic life, although it also includes the Plague and the Great Fire, each lurking as a horrible shadow behind the sunny parts of the text. Each disc begins with a young woman singing the first verse of To The Virgins, to Make Much of Time, which suits the themes of the book excellently.

“Gather ye rosebuds while you may.

Old Time is still a-flying.

and the same flower that smiles to-day

To-morrow will be dying.’