Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Meet my dear, dead friend Mr. Pepys

Hands off, ladies, he's mine.

Back in the days when I used to work in an office, I had office friends who I'd lunch with and gossip with in the halls. These days, I have a man named Samuel Pepys. He's been dead for 300 years but he's still got a hell of a lot to say about the daily office grind. I'm thinking of asking him to the company picnic, which will be held in my backyard later this afternoon.

Yes, I've been reading The Diary of Samuel Pepys (pronounced "peeps" like the delicious sugary candies). Many of you, I'm sure, are well-versed in the world of Mr. Pepys but I've only just embarked on his collection of diaries, which cover a rather raucous 10-year period (1660 to 1670) of British history. A lifelong civil servant, Pepys wrote daily about his interactions with members of parliament, leaders in the Navy and many, many other dignitaries including King Charles II. Now, let's be perfectly honest here -- I don't know who 99 percent of the people are in Pepys diary. To me, it's like reading a Tolstoy novel; I need a wall chart just to keep track of the characters. But what's truly awesome about these diaries is the fact that 350 years ago, office drones were bitching about the exact same things as they are today -- so-and-so totally blew off our meeting, so-and-so never does his work and always leaves me to pick up the slack and the always popular, is my boss mad at me? The only difference I can determine is that government offices were a lot more mellow about people going to the pub at 10 a.m. and forcing some errand boy to chase around London to find them for meetings.

In other ways, reading Pepys is like having my own Restoration-era Tamagotchi pet -- when I'm not reading him, I worry what's going on in his life. Did he get enough mutton? Is he going to make up with his wife? Is his dad feeling better? Will the roads be slippery on the way home from the office tonight? What if he can't get a carriage ride? And will he ever stop putting his hands up strange women's dresses? (Yes, did I mention he's a serial philanderer? Bet your Tamagotchi never did that.)

The diaries go on for hundreds and hundreds of pages, covering 95 percent mundanities and 5 percent incredible things like the Great Fire of 1666, a nasty round of plague and the restoration of a monarchy. Pepys is such an adept diarist that you truly feel you're there, in the mix and on the move with history. There is no lens through which he's viewing that history, however, so you truly are watching it unfold as it happens and it's a marvel to realize how unaware people are of what exactly they're experiencing. To read a passage where Pepys offhandedly remarks on seeing a new production of "Macbeth," which was less than 50 years old at the time, and finding him completely non-plussed by the whole thing is genuinely exciting to read...in a really weird way. I mean, today we think "Shakespeare!" but back then, Pepys is just like "Pfft, Shakespeare, I've seen better." I guess you have to be a pretty big book nerd to get excited about something as anti-climactic as that but...well...I'm a pretty big book nerd.

I know I'll never finish these diaries, but what a treat it's been to dive into the past with such an able guide as Samuel Pepys. And yes, if he were alive today, I'd hang out at the water cooler with him any time. If he could manage to keep his hands to himself...

14 comments:

Kim said...

The reading of diaries is the closest we'll get to time travel. Your experience reading his opinion of seeing "Macbeth"--the wonder of "unimpressed? Really? How novel!"--is much how I felt finding my grandmother's diary after her passing. It's only a glimpse into a world we cannot experience ourselves, but the window (however small) is an invaluable prize. Imagine what Pepys would think, knowing "Macbeth" is MACBETH all these years later...

Michele said...

Heh. I must admit, Pepys' diaries are a lot of fun - I read chunks absolutely yonks ago (er, as in, nearly 2 decades ago) as a result of reading Helene Hanff's reactions to Pepys in '84 Charing Cross Road'.

(She and Siegfried Sassoon were wholly responsible for my decision to turn my back on computing and go back to my first loves - literature and history - to take a combined degree at the age of 30. Shame neither one will ever get my thanks!)

jane said...

I'm surprised you don't mention the blog that is posting the diaries in order. It started on January 1, 2003 which corresponds to January 1, 1860.

You can add to your blog reader and keep up with Pepys real-time! :)

http://www.pepysdiary.com/

jane said...

I mean January 1, 1660, of course.

Diana said...

I love Pepys and his wonderful diaries so much that I made him into a t-shirt: http://www.zazzle.com/chillin_with_my_pepys_tshirt-235976960197642509

He really was a stupendous writer. The original memoirist. Tucker Max has nothing on Samuel Pepys.

Sara Jo said...

Omg, I was totally thinking of making a Pepys shirt, but more along the lines of "Where my Pepys at?"!

I have never heard of him, but I may add his blog to my reader.

Liz said...

Jane, I had no idea there was a Pepys diary blog! I'm thrilled. See? That's why you guys are awesome -- always introducing me to the cool stuff!

Michele, I first heard of Pepys through 84 Charing Cross as well. Hanff made the diaries sound so wonderful, but I never actually picked them up until recently. I absolutely adore Charing Cross. Have you seen the film with Anthony Hopkins? I saw it a few years after reading the book and enjoyed it very much.

Diana and Sara Jo, I love those t-shirt ideas! You guys should go into business together. :)

Cara King said...

If people partial to peeks at the past partake of Pepys, they find particular pleasure in Pepys's panoramaic portrait of the people, poetry, and plays he saw presented, and of his pursuit of both his passions and of more practical matters (such as pecuniary points.)

Liz said...

Well done, Cara King!

Michele said...

I've read the book, seen the movie AND watched the play (saw it live here in Oxford a few years ago with Rula Lenska and William Gaunt).

crone51 said...

why does the phrase " did he get enough mutton" crack me up?

I am certainly going to find Pepy's diaries. You are right , Kim, diaries are the closest we get to time travel!

crone51 said...

pOh my goodness. One can also follow him on twitter. We live in a splendid time.

hoppytoad79 said...

I really need to get my butt in gear and read his diaries. I know who he is and why he's considered a Person of Importance in historical circles, but I've never read his diaries. I'm an English history nut and I've never read his diaries. *burns with the shame of it all*

crone51 said...

right now he is exclaiming over his closet a lot. Apparently it is new, and purple!