Our book today is the Diary of Samuel Pepys, kept by him for almost a decade, from 1549 to 1559, and of course so infinitely interesting a work cannot be encompassed in any one entry, even here at Stevereads where we love his work abidingly. It isn’t just that the diary is vast, although it is encouragingly large; it’s that Pepys is such a remarkable narrator of himself, so acutely observant and yet so wholly confessional – he resists complete analysis in the same way that Shakespeare does, and he likewise draws out the same endless curiosity.
But we can chip away at his happy monument here and there, always glad to be in his company even when he’s truthfully reporting himself at his most blockheaded or hypocritical.
We could take as our theme, for instance, a character mentioned more frequently in the Diary than any other: our author’s wife. They married very young – he was twenty-two and she was just fifteen – and since neither one of them had any money, we can presume there was some genuine affection binding them. Certainly by the time they began to make friends in London society they were in a more sincere kind of love with each other than all but a handful of the time’s couples – those friends could see it not in the smiling serenity of, for instance, the future Queen Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark, her amiable dolt of a husband, but in the fiery emotions of their numerous fights. Pepys and his wife shared a childless bed until her death at age 29 (after fourteen years of marriage), and despite his numerous infidelities, their imperfect passion remained strong until she was taken from him.
Much as we love the Diary, much as we might have loved Pepys himself had we known him, we must say it: he couldn’t have been a particularly endurable husband. Partly this can be attributed to the era in which he lived: women were seldom educated and often thought of as a topical variation of children – and, like children, not quite human. The real pity of such a situation, of course, is to be reserved for the victims of it – Pepys was free to go to his office, to sit up late debating and drinking at a tavern or coffee house, to take in a scandalous new play; his wife could scarcely do any of these things unless she was attended by a man. To a woman as high-spirited as the one Pepys married (he never once in the entire course of his writings bothers to tell us her name), these daily restrictions were virtually intolerable; time and again in the Diary, we read of her pleading with her husband to hire a waiting lady for her, somebody to talk to because she was so desperately lonely. And for all his evident love of her, Pepys himself can often be found either treating her like a piece of furniture:
Or like a small child he can bully:
5th April 1664: Coming home I find my wife dressed as if she had been abroad, but I think she was not; but she answering me some way that I did not like I pulled her by the nose, indeed to offend her; though afterwards to appease her I denied it, but only it was done in haste. The poor wretch took it mighty ill, and I believe besides wringing her nose she did feel pain, and so cried a great while; but by and by I made her friends, and so after supper to my office a while, and then home to bed.
Some other aspects of his behavior towards her will be instantly recognizable to contemporary women, alas. It seems that in all ages, men can be equal parts incompetent and huffily defensive about it, with the long-suffering ladies left to roll their eyes and endure it as best they can:
6th January 1663: Thence my wife and I home, and found all well, only myself somewhat vexed at my wife’s neglect in leaving her scarf, waistcoat, and night-dressings in the coach to-day that brought us back from Westminster; though, I confess, she did give them to me to look after, yet it was her fault not to see that I did take them out of the coach.
The salutary difference in Pepys’ diary, however, is the quiet domesticity that shines through, the great and immediately human counterbalances to carelessly tweaked noses. Innumerable entries open with Pepys and his wife abed in the morning, quietly talking, and far more frequently than they fight, they can be found laughing together:
Her illness was swift and unexpected, and her death came closer to destroying this maddening, indomitable man than anything else that had tried. All the things he had built from the nothing they’d shared – the nice house, the fine fixtures (so lovingly detailed in the Diary, the only book we know that is hugely materialistic but not at all venal), the costly drapings, the paintings, the art objects, the musical instruments, the finely bound books, the modest fortune in money – all these things he had built for her as much as for himself, though he didn’t always admit that even in the privacy of the Diary. He outlived her by thirty-four years but never remarried, which is singular tribute itself from such a lover of women as he was. And when he died in 1703 he was buried with her.
Her name was