Samuel Pepys’ London Chronicles

The candid diarist portrays the ravages of fire and plague, the bawdy court of Charles II, and his own romps with maids

In 1703 a retired widower named Samuel Pepys died in a London suburb. He had risen from humble beginnings to occupy naval positions of immense power. For a time, as Secretary to the Admiralty, he had answered only to King Charles II and the duke of York. This might have summed up Pepys' life except for one fact: from 1660 to 1669, through some of the most colorful and stirring events in English history, he kept a diary that may be the best ever written.

In 1660 Pepys had a key post at the Navy Office and was well placed to record the court activities of the restored king, whose mistresses were plentiful. Yet Pepys was just as apt to record his own lechery as that of Charles II. His diary dramatically describes his wife's recurring paroxysms of rage after she discovered him dallying with her personal maid. Pepys' candor and eye for detail make his diary irresistible.

Running concurrently with accounts of the Second Dutch War of 1665-66 are descriptions of plague and fire that are rife with the kinds of details only a born reporter would notice. During the onslaught of the plague, Pepys sees, "much against my Will," houses with red crosses and "Lord have mercy upon us" marked on the doors. Soon "The nights...are grown too short to conceal the burials of those that died the day before." London's Great Fire of 1666, "a most horrid malicious bloody flame," made pigeons "loath to leave their houses...till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down."

Unfortunately for us, in 1669 Pepys gave up the diary. When the first complete edition was published in 1970 (previous versions were expurgated to conceal sexual explicitness), it filled nine volumes. Its publication, says Elliott, opened a window straight into the rowdy, dangerous, gossipy, scandal-filled heart of Restoration London.

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