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Master Samuel Pepys

No man is a hero to his valet, and unluckily Samuel Pepys, by way of a valet, chose posterity. All the trifles of temper, habit, vice, and social ways which a keen-eyed valet may observe in his master Samuel Pepys carefully recorded about himself, and bequeathed to the diversion of future generations. The world knows Pepys as the only man who ever wrote honest confessions, for Rousseau could not possibly be candid for five minutes together, and St. Augustine was heavily handicapped by being a saint. Samuel Pepys was no saint. We might best define him, perhaps, by saying that if ever any man was his own Boswell, that man was Samuel Pepys. He had Bozzy's delightful appreciation of life; writing in cypher, he had Bozzy's shamelessness and more, and he was his own hero.

It is for these qualities and achievements that he received a monument honoured in St. Olave's, his favourite church. In St. Olave's, on December 23, 1660, Samuel went to pray, and had his pew all covered with rosemary and baize. Thence he went home, and "with much ado made haste to spit a turkey." Here, in St. Olave's, he listened to "a dull sermon from a stranger." Here, when "a Scot" preached, Pepys "slept all the sermon," as a man who could "never be reconciled to the voice of the Scot." What an unworthy prejudice! Often he writes, "After a dull sermon of the Scotchman, home;" or to church again, "and there a simple coxcombe preached worse than the Scot." Frequently have the sacred walls of St. Olave's, where his effigy may be seen, echoed to the honest snoring of the Clerk of the Navy. There Pepys lies now, his body having been brought "in a very honourable and solemn manner," from Clapham, where, according to that respected sheet, the Post-boy, he expired on May 26, 1703. No stone marked the spot, when Mr. Mynors Bright's delightful edition of Pepys was published in 1875.

Now Pepys is honoured in that church where he sleeps even sounder than in days when the Scot preached worse than usual. But he is rewarded in death--not, it may be feared, for his real services to England, but because he has amused us all so much. A dead humorist may be better than a living official, however honest, industrious, and careful.

In all these higher things Pepys was not found wanting. The son of a tailor in the City, he yet had connections of good family, who were of service to him when he entered public life. Samuel Pepys was born in 1632. He was educated at Magdalene, Cambridge, where he was once common- roomed for being "scandalously overserved with liquor." Through life he retained a friendly admiration of Magdalene strong ale. He married a girl of fifteen when he was but twenty-two; he entered the service of the State shortly afterwards. He was the Chief Secretary for Naval Affairs during many years; he defended his department at the Bar of the House of Commons after De Ruyter's attack in 1668, and he remained true to the Stuart dynasty in heart after James was driven abroad. Yet, though his contemporary biographer calls Pepys the greatest and most useful public servant that ever filled the same situations in England, Pepys would not now be honoured if he had not kept the most amusing diary in the world. Samuel was a highly conscientious, truly pious man, constant in all religious exercises, though he did slumber when the Scot wagged his pow in a pulpit. At the same time, Samuel lived in a very fast age, an age when pleasure was a business, and "old Rowley, the king," led the brawls. He was young when society was most scandalously diverting. He had a pretty wife, "poor wretch," of whom he stood in some awe; and yet this inconsistent naval secretary liked to flit from flower to flower. He was vain, greedy, wanton, fond of the delight of the eye and the pride of life; he was loving and loose in his manners; he was pious, repentant, profligate; and he deliberately told the whole tale of all his many changes of mood and mistress, of piety and pleasure. One cannot open Pepys at random without finding him at his delightful old games. On the Lord's day he goes to church with Mr. Creed, and hears a good sermon from the red-faced parson. He came home, read divinity, dined, and, he says, "played the fool," and won a quart of sack from Mr. Creed. Then to supper at the Banquet House, and there Mr. Pepys and his wife fell to quarrelling over the beauty of Mrs. Pierce; "she against, and I for," says superfluous Pepys. No one is in the least likely to suspect that Mrs. Pepys was angry with her lord because he did not think Mrs. Pierce a beauty.

How living the whole story is! One can smell the flowers of that Sunday in May, and the roast beef. The sack seems but newly drawn, the red cheeks of Mrs. Pierce as fresh as ever. The flowers grow over them now, or the church floor covers them; the sack is drunk, the roast beef is eaten, the quarrel is over; the beauty and the red-faced parson, the husband and wife, they are all with Tullus and Ancus. Pulvis et umbra--that is the moral of "Pepys's Diary." Life yet lives so strong in the cyphered pages; all the colour, all the mirth, all the little troubles and sins, and vows, they are so real they might be of yesterday or to-day, but the end of them came nigh two hundred years ago. Therefore, to read Pepys is to enjoy our own brief innings better, as men who know that our March is passing where Pepys' May has flown before, and that we shall soon be with him and his wife, and the Scot, and the red- faced parson. So fleeting is life, whose record outlives it for ever; so brief, so swift, so faint the joys and sorrows, and all that we make marvel of in our own fortunes and those of other men.

Reading Pepys is thus like reading Montaigne, whose cheery scepticism his revelations recall. But Pepys has all the advantage of the man living in the busiest world over the recluse in that famed library, with the mottoes on the wall. Montaigne wrote in a retired and contemplative home, viewing life, as Osman Digna has viewed strife, "from afar," almost safe from the shots of fortune. But Pepys writes day by day, like a war correspondent, in the thick of the battle; his head "full of business," as he declares; his heart full of many desires, many covetings, much pride in matters that look small enough. He notes how, by chewing tobacco, Mr. Chetwynde, who was consumptive, became very fat. He remarks how a board fell, and the dust powdered the ladies' heads at the play, "which made good sport." He records every venison-pasty, every flagon of wine, every pretty wench whom he encountered in his march through his youth towards the vault in St. Olave's. He is vexed with Mrs. Pepys and troubled by "my aunt's base ugly humours." He is "full of repentance," like the Bad Man in the Ethics, and thinks how much he is addicted to expense and pleasure, "so that now I can hardly reclaim myself." He interests himself in Dr. Williams's remarkable dog, which not only killed cats, but buried them with punctilious obsequies, never leaving the tip of puss's tail out of the ground. Then he goes to the play, "after swearing to my wife that I would never go to the play without her." He remembers one night that he passed "with the greatest epicurism of sleep," because he was often disturbed, and so got out of sleeping more conscious enjoyment. Now he sleeps what Socrates calls the sweetest slumber of all, if it be but dreamless, or, somewhere, he enjoys all new experience, with the lusty appetite of old.


Andrew Lang