“The new orthodox title makes it now very handsome”

by Nick

On 17 April 1663, Samuel Pepys walked over to St. Paul’s churchyard on an errand:

Friday 17 April 1663. After dinner my father and I walked into the city a little, and parted and to Paul’s Church Yard, to cause the title of my English “Mare Clausum” to be changed, and the new title, dedicated to the King, to be put to it, because I am ashamed to have the other seen dedicated to the Commonwealth.

Mare Clausum, by John Selden, was an innocent enough book, which asserted sovereign nations’ right to claim dominion over the sea as well as the land. The original edition had been dedicated to Charles I. However, the particular edition Pepys owned was more suspect. It was the 1652 translation by Marchamont Nedham, a salaried pamphleteer and newsbook editor employed by the Commonwealth during the 1650s. The title page contained the Commonwealth arms, and the second page dedicated the work ‘To the Supreme Autoritie of the Nation: The Parliament of the Commonwealth of England’.

In 1663 a new edition – keeping Nedham’s translation, but changing the title page – had been published by two booksellers called Andrew Kembe and Edward Thomas:

For readers who already owned the 1652 edition, and who didn’t want the shame of the old title page but were reluctant to shell out for a new one, there was another option. The bookseller Robert Walton was offering a new title page that could be bound or pasted into the old edition, restoring the dedication to Charles I. It was Walton who Pepys visited that Friday evening to make the appropriate arrangements.

A week later the new title page had been inserted and Pepys was well pleased with it:

Tuesday 21 April 1663. Up betimes and to my office, where first I ruled with red ink my English “Mare Clausum,” which, with the new orthodox title, makes it now very handsome.

Pepys’s focus on the title is significant. His text remained exactly the same as that which he had spent the winter of 1661/1662 enjoying reading. Only on the surface had things changed.  What mattered was the appearance of the frontispiece, not what lay beneath.

This episode sums up an important tendency in Pepys: that he liked to make a good impression on others. “Others” includes us reading his diaries in the twenty-first century. Because of the detail of the diaries – particularly their recording of the fights, farts and flings of his private life – it is easy to assume that he was uncompromisingly honest and self-critical in his account of his life. This version of Pepys as master of the examined life has remained popular since the diaries were first published. Over a hundred years ago, Robert Louis Stephenson declared in a celebrated essay about the diaries that:

He has outstripped all competitors in the art or virtue of a conscious honesty about oneself.

Robert Latham made much the same point in his introduction to the condensed edition of the diaries:

He almost persuades us that we are sharing his life. We are the more willing to be persuaded because Pepys was so frank about himself.

A few years ago Claire Tomalin came to a similar conclusion in her biography of Pepys:

He was more interested in observing and recording his own actions than in presenting an immaculate or even favourable image of himself.

But then there is the academic version of Pepys, who is rather different. Francis Barker was amongst the first to argue, in the mid-1980s, that the account Pepys gives of himself contains rather more self-fashioning than at first apparent. It’s true that his diary does present to us very uncompromising details about his life. The famous account of his wife Elizabeth catching him in flagrante with their maid, Deb, hardly spares his blushes. And yet if Pepys had been unstinting in his accuracy, the point remains that we have no way of knowing that he was. We assume that this was the case, given Pepys’s skills as a narrator in drawing us into his life. Wealso assume that he wrote for posterity – why, as many argued, would he have gone to such trouble to preserve his diaries? Perhaps so. But nobody close to him left an equivalent diary in which they recorded their own observations about Pepys’s life, with the result that it is impossible to know what he did and didn’t record – or what he softened or altered.

My suspicion is that, wittingly or unwittingly, Pepys did exercise at least some self-censorship in his diary. Pepys came of age just as the Commonwealth died. He owed his career to the ideological volte-face performed by his employer, Montagu, who had previously been a loyal supporter of Cromwell. As a result, he moved from one phase of his life to another just as the political nation did the same. Like Nedham’s translation of Mare Clausum,  on the surface Pepys jettisoned the puritanism that he had imbibed during his youth from his time at Huntingdon grammar school then Magdalene, Cambridge. Beneath the surface, however, the odd current survived.

You can see this tension working itself out in the early days of the diary, as events move towards the restoration of Charles II. Pepys was quick to criticise his fellow clerk John Creed for changing his spots:

Sunday 12 May 1661. From thence homewards, but met with Mr. Creed, with whom I went and walked in Grayes-Inn-walks, and from thence to Islington, and there eat and drank at the house my father and we were wont of old to go to; and after that walked homeward, and parted in Smithfield: and so I home, much wondering to see how things are altered with Mr. Creed, who, twelve months ago, might have been got to hang himself almost as soon as go to a drinking-house on a Sunday.

But Pepys was also changing his beliefs during this period. Early in 1660 he joined the republican Rota Club:

Tuesday 10 January 1660. Thence to the Coffee-house, where were a great confluence of gentlemen; viz. Mr. Harrington, Poultny, chairman, Gold, Dr Petty; &c., where admirable discourse till at night.

Incidentally Pepys’s membership of this club also results in one of my favorite throwaway asides of the diary:

Sunday 14 January 1660. Nothing to do at our office… went myself to the Coffee-house, and heard exceeding good argument against Mr. Harrington’s assertion, that overbalance of propriety was the foundation of government.

Those skiving from the office on slow days today probably don’t go to philosophical discussions at Starbucks, but they still share a common impulse with Pepys.

Despite this flirtation with republicanism, later in the year Pepys bumps into an old schoolfriend and is afraid that his past beliefs may catch up with him:

Thursday 1 November 1660. Here dined with us two or three more country gentle men; among the rest Mr. Christmas, my old school-fellow, with whom I had much talk. He did remember that I was a great Roundhead when I was a boy, and I was much afraid that he would have remembered the words that I said the day the King was beheaded (that, were I to preach upon him, my text should be “The memory of the wicked shall rot”); but I found afterwards that he did go away from school before that time.

Often this tension between the two sides of his character emerges in his attitudes to the changing fashions of the 1660s. Here is his initial reaction to Montagu’s wife and daughter wearing fashionable black patches, then his subsequent actions:

Saturday 20 October 1660. To my Lord’s by land, calling at several places about business, where I dined with my Lord and Lady; when he was very merry, and did talk very high how he would have a French cook, and a master of his horse, and his lady and child to wear black patches; which methought was strange.

Sunday 4 November 1660. My wife seemed very pretty to-day, it being the first time I had given her leave to wear a black patch.

Similarly he wrestles with whether or not to wear a periwig, weighing up the bother of doing so with the fact that everyone who’s anyone is doing it:

Saturday 29 August 1663. Abroad with my wife by water to Westminster, and there left her at my Lord’s lodgings, and I to Jervas the barber’s, and there was trimmed, and did deliver back a periwigg, which he brought by my desire the other day to show me, having some thoughts, though no great desire or resolution yet to wear one, and so I put it off for a while.

Saturday 31 October 1663. But it hath chiefly arisen from my layings-out in clothes for myself and wife; viz., for her about 12l., and for myself 55l., or thereabouts; having made myself a velvet cloake, two new cloth suits, black, plain both; a new shagg gowne, trimmed with gold buttons and twist, with a new hat, and, silk tops for my legs, and many other things, being resolved henceforward to go like myself. And also two perriwiggs, one whereof costs me 3l., and the other 40s. — I have worn neither yet, but will begin next week, God willing.

Friday 5 May 1665. This day, after I had suffered my owne hayre to grow long, in order to wearing it, I find the convenience of periwiggs is so great, that I have cut off all short again, and will keep to periwiggs.

Pepys always has an eye on his social betters, and even when he disapproves of their actions it is normally not long before you find him following them. In this case his about-turns are recorded quite obviously. But there are the occasional moments of self-delusion, like when he chances upon a pornographic book at the stationer’s and protests rather too loudly:

Monday 13 January 1668. Thence homeward by coach and stopped at Martin’s, my bookseller, where I saw the French book which I did think to have had for my wife to translate, called L’escholle des filles, but when I come to look in it, it is the most bawdy, lewd book that ever I saw, rather worse than Putana errante, so that I was ashamed of reading in it, and so away home.

We know, and Pepys knows, that he will go back and buy it later, and end up doing what you do with pornographic books:

Friday 7 February 1668. We sang till almost night, and drank my good store of wine; and then they parted and I to my chamber, where I did read through L’Escholle des Filles; a lewd book, but what doth me no wrong to read for imagination’s sake (but it did hazer my prick para stand all the while, and una vez to decharger); and after I had done it, I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame.

This is the seventeenth-century equivalent of wiping your browser history. Burning the book was partly, I’m sure, to prevent his wife discovering it. But it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to me to wonder whether it was also to hide it from his conscience. The same might be said of his lapses into jumbled Spanish, French and Latin to describe sexual encounters. Given that the diary was already written in shorthand, you have to ask why Pepys added a second later of encoding to such sentences. If someone proficient with that particular form of shorthand had discovered the diary, then perhaps it would have puzzled them for a bit. Nevertheless, I do wonder whether it was also a convenient rhetorical device to separate the lecherous Pepys from the business-like Pepys.

This may seem harsh. But I like Pepys all the more for his occasional attempts to fool himself. Many critics see Pepys as a consummate humanist, dispassionately exposing and analysing his merits and flaws to readers of the diary. If this was actually what Pepys was like, I think I would find him less sympathetic. As it is, he was intelligent, lively, enthusiastic but at times colossally flawed. In other words, he was a human being like any of the rest of us.  This, ultimately, is what makes his Diaries so readable. If he was your friend, he would probably be the kind of friend you can tolerate only in small doses: but that doesn’t make the Diaries any the less compelling a portrait of his personality.