Book Review: Samuel Pepys: Plague Fire and Revolution

Former history teacher, Alec Stephen is impressed by the attractively presented and fascinating Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire and Revolution. 

Samuel Pepys: Plague Fire Revolution

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire and Revolution edited by Margarette Lincoln and is the companion book to an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

The name Pepys makes one think of his diary, but that only lasted some ten years in a life that was seven times that length. He had been of humble birth, but had the patronage of his cousin Edward Montagu. Pepys studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge and by 1660 was taken by Montagu as his secretary in the “Charles” (hastily renamed from “Naseby”) in order to bring Charles II from Holland for the Restoration. It was a considerable gamble as there was no certainty that it would succeed, but it did. Charles rewarded Montagu by making him Earl of Sandwich and a Privy Councillor. Montagu, in turn, rewarded Pepys, securing a position for him at the Navy Board. This opened all kinds of possibilities to a young man who was to become in the words of A.L. Rowse, “The complete gentleman and something of a scholar”.

The diary is in shorthand so that Pepys felt it safe to put his true opinions and show his curiosity about everything, not least himself. It shows his love of collecting, of the theatre, music and above all, women. Indeed, it was only after the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case of 1960, that was it thought suitable to publish the diary entries about his amorous fumblings, seductions and sexual fantasies. Had he lived in the dullest of times, he would still have been the most compelling diarist. But Pepys lived through five reigns, three regime changes, one civil war, the outbreak of plague in 1665, the great fire of London of 1666 and the second Anglo-Dutch war.

At his death, Pepys, bequeathed his considerable library, including his diary, to Magdalene College. The success of the publication of John Evelyn’s diary in 1818 made the Magdalene College authorities wonder if there might be a similar success for them with Pepys' diary. So they hired an impecunious young clergyman of St John’s College for the relatively generous sum of £ 200 to decipher the shorthand. The diary was published in 1822.

But this attractively presented book covers so much more that Pepys' diary. Its strength is that it is divided into five relevant subjects, each covered by two or more experts. Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire and Revolution covers the remaining years of Pepys’ life including his work for the navy, his career as an MP and the time when his life was in danger owing to his loyalty to James II. It also looks at the many national and political events of Pepys' lifetime including the Exclusion Crisis, the “Glorious Revolution” and the reign of William III. 

Of particular interest was the work of the Royal Society of which Pepys was a prominent member. Its membership includes a list of the great men of science and learning – Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Hans Sloane, Sir Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, John Evelyn, Robert Hooke, Sir Samuel Morland and Robert Boyle. Perhaps more credit might have been given to John Wilkins who achieved the remarkable feat of being Warden of Wadham College Oxford, brother-in-law to Oliver Cromwell and Bishop of Chester.  

Equally fine are the illustrations to the book, the portraits of the main characters and the photographs of the most important documents of the time. All are first rate and make the book stand out from recent Pepys books. 

My only criticism of this fine book is that it is not long enough.


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