Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Penguins on Parade: The Shorter Pepys!

Some Penguin Classics are necessary compromises, and Robert Latham's fantastic The Shorter Pepys is a perfect case-in-point. The diary that Samuel Pepys kept from 1660 to 1669 is a great unruly sprawl, a mix of purely utilitarian jottings, longer and more personal entries, and set-pieces describing great events, so despite the genial and engaging voice Pepys brings to the written page, the unedited Diary makes for some very uneven reading. Latham's reduced version - comprising about a third of the original - was first published 1985 and first brought out as a Penguin Classic in 1993. With all due respect to my beloved Everybody's Pepys, this is certainly the best one-volume edition of the Diaries - it's only serious competition is in-house: Latham's The Illustrated Pepys from 1978.

Latham loads the volume with Pepys scholarship, of course, so the Introduction and the Notes are both interesting and extremely helpful for newcomers to the period - but as with any edition of the Diaries, it's the man at center stage who'll keep those newcomers reading. Pepys was a rising man in government work when he started his diary - he continuously mentions his net worth, and he's clearly proud of his new connections with powerful men at the court of Charles II. But the Diary's personal sagas upstage its political content every time, as when Pepys discovers a cache of letters in which his brother John uses the most foul and hilarious language to describe him. Pepys broods over his discovery, and when he's next in the same room with John and their peacemaking father, the brooding erupts into a frightful row:
 21 March 1664

Up; and it snowing this morning a little, which from the mildness of the winter and the weather beginning to be hot and the summer to come on apace is a little strange to us - I did not go abroad, because of my tumour, for fear it shall rise again; but stayed within and by and by my father came, poor man, to me, and my brother John; after much talk and taking them up to my chamber, I did there after some discourse bring in my business of anger with John and did before my father read all his roguish letters; which troubled my father mightily, especially to hear me say what I did, against my allowing anything for the time to come to him out of my own purse, and other words very severe - while he, like a simple rogue, made very silly and churlish answers to me, not like a man of any goodness or wit - at which I was as much disturbed as the other.

The unconscious genius of Pepys is that it never occurs to him not to include such scenes - virtually any other diarist would succumb to the urge to censor themselves. Instead of doing that, Pepys always just writes himself, in the round, as the beguiling combination of high-minded motives and trivial daily realities that most brisk, engaged humans are (though they seldom want to admit it). And our author is never aware of the weird dichotomies he's forever preserving on the page, as when he and his colleagues face international threat:
8 June 1667

Up and to the office, where all the news this morning is that the Dutch are come with a fleet of 80 sail to Harwich, and that guns were heard plain by Sir W. Rider's people at Bednall Greene all yesterday noon. So to the office we all, and sat all the morning; and then home to dinner - where our dinner, a ham of French Bacon boiled with pigeons - an excellent dish. Here dined with us only W. Hewers and his mother. After dinner to the office again, where busy till night; and then home to read a little and then to bed.

The threat of invasion, and a delicious dish of French Bacon - and no hint from the entry itself as to which one loomed the larger in the author's recall when he sat down to make this entry. Little details like supper and dinner and road conditions and weather crop up constantly in the Diary - they're a very large part of its charm, even when some of those details foreshadow disappointment for the knowing reader:
24 December 1668

A cold day. Up and to the office, where all the morning alone at the office, nobody meeting, being the Eve of Christmas. At noon home to dinner and then to the office, busy all the afternoon, and at night home to supper; and it being now very cold, and in hopes of a frost, I begin this night to put on a Wastecoate, it being the first winter in my whole memory that I ever stayed till this day before I did so. So to bed, in mighty good humour with my wife, but sad in one thing, and that is for my poor eyes.

That 'my poor eyes would be gloomily prophetic, of course. After a decade of keeping his diary and quite obviously enjoying it, Pepys came to the conclusion that he was in danger of losing his eyesight from constant scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. He decided to dictate all his future writing (a decision immeasurably helped by being able to afford an amanuensis) - which meant, obviously, that his diary, with its brutally honest assessments of some of the most powerful men in the country, and with its sexual irresponsibility and openness, would have to come to an end. Pepys was sad about that - he refers to it almost as seeing his own self laid in the grave - and perhaps wrong as well: I'm thinking he could have kept generating his diary without hurting his eyes at all. If true, that's a bitter thing for any Pepysian to contemplate, since we'd all very much like another decade of entries.

Still, we can be grateful for what we have, and grateful that Penguin Classics corrected as long-standing oversight by introducing Pepys to the Classics line in this nifty abridgement. If you're already a Pepys fan, this will be the volume you end up carrying around with you - and if you're just discovering Pepys, this volume is pretty much the perfect vessel of that discovery - like Pepys himself, The Shorter Pepys is bright, accessible, and fat - but not too fat.

1 comment:

S Newman said...

If you want your Pepys online, you can read an entry a day at the following website: