When I bought this book a couple of years ago, it was partly out of curiosity and partly for historical research, particularly to get an idea for the language of the 17th century, a period of history that is fast holding my interest as a writer. However I had no idea this was more than just another primary historical resource until I started reading it in June 2010.
2010 was the year a number of 350th anniversaries were celebrated, namely 1 January (when Samuel Pepys first began his great diary), 16 April (the birth of Sir Hans Sloane, the Royal doctor and fellow Royal Society member who would go on to become a good friend of Pepys, perform the autopsy on his body in 1703 and amass enough money to buy the manor of Chelsea) and also in May 2010, there was the 350th anniversary of the Restoration of the Monarchy. The latter event is describe in vivid detail in this diary along with the coronation of Charles II
The first thing that struck me about this book as I got into it was the honesty of Pepys when writing about himself. If you read the introduction (and it is referred to in one of the entries for 1664) you would know that in 1654 he attempted to write a novel, a romance he titled "Love a Cheate" which he never completed and ended up tearing to shreds: a huge loss to future readers. He never paints himself as though he was Mr Wonderful but gives us a rounded human portrait in words, showing us all his faults as well as his plus points. On reading some of these entries, a few things sounded familiar: getting up, going to work, meeting friends, going to the bar, getting drunk and waking up with a major hangover the next day (or, in the case of 23 April 1661 soaked in his own vomit after an all night bender to celebrate Charles II's coronation), complete with the occasional cheating on the spouse for good measure. Makes you wonder if anything has really changed, does it? Personally I think Pepys would be mortified if he knew that his private thoughts were available for anyone to read.
Throughout the diary there is wonderful descriptions of people, incluidng incidental characters like boatmen, for example, are brought vividly to life by an ordinary government official who, in private, was becoming an extraordinary writer. These descriptions are evidence that the skills gained from writing the incomplete "Love a Cheate" had not gone to waste. What really impresses the reader are the descriptions of events like the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great FIre of London" in September 1666. Although he quotes constantly from the weekly Bills of Mortality during the plague, Pepys is genuinely shocked at the amount of indiscriminate death there was in London during that year and although he sent his household away for their own safety, he stayed until he himself was forced to leave: something I think shows bravery on his part.
There are a number of accounts of the Great Fire of London but it is Pepys who gives us details as such as the cat that refuses to move from its refuge only to get its fur burnt off in the blaze. Whether or not that poor animal survived is not known but it is detail like this that makes the diary read, even in this abridged format, more like a novel than an account of one man's life.
One event that is documented in honest detail that is just as unforgettable was the time Pepys was caught cheating on his wife, Elizabeth with her maid, Deb Willet. Although this is unacceptable behaviour, Pepys doesn't shy away from his part in the whole affair and accepts the blame as well as the punishment dished out by Elizabeth which not only involved paying her the clothing allowance she yearned for but also her insistence that he never see Deb again and that he never goes out without a chaperone. This role was, for a while, played by his clerk Will Hewer who would go on to become his closest friend as well as a very rich man in his own right.
By the time he signs off from his diary on 31 May 1669, there is a feeling of regret both from the author and his reader who has accompanied him through this period of his life so far as well as grown quite fond of him. Like a number of readers of Samuel Pepys, I feel that if he had not worked such long hours at the office and therefore had more time to write his entries by daylight, perhaps he would have continued writing his diary. He certainly regretted it himself and for him it was like killing off part of himself. This was a man with a genuine talent for writing which would certainly have grown over the years. If he had continued this great diary into the 1670's through to the last years of his life, he would have left behind an historical record of such events as the Popish Plot of 1678 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which would have been of great interest to historians as well as readers in general. There are other letters and journals written by Pepys but the narrative detail of the diary is lacking in these. However, I have heard that the same engaging tone used in the diary can be found in, for example, the Tangier Journal of 1683. I have yet to read that and will look forward to doing so in due course. By writing a diary of over a million words, Pepys proved he did have the discipline necessary to write a novel and maybe he should have stayed the course with "Love a Cheate" and left us a work of fiction any writer would be proud to leave to posterity.
As a reader, I found this to be a book well worthy of any five star ratings it gets from reviewers. It certainly has from this reader who also admires a man who can be honest enough with himself to portray himself as a charming but flawed human being.