Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dear Diary, You'll NEVER Guess What Happened Today!

by Cokie Anderson

The beginning of a new year is a very popular time to start keeping a diary. Much of this journal keeping lasts about as long as the resolution, diets, and exercise programs that were begun on January 1, but some journal writers remain faithful, and become important chroniclers of the world around them.

Diarist and man-about-town Samuel Pepys

The most famous English diarist (Anne Frank wrote in Dutch) was the 17th century's Samuel Pepys. He kept his diary from 1660-66, giving it up when his eyesight began to fail, but those six years encompassed the Restoration of the monarchy after the English Civil War, the Great Plague that swept the country, and the Great Fire of London, which destroyed most of that city and resulted in the rebuilding efforts that led to Sir Christopher Wren's beautiful reconstructions.

The shorthand used in Pepys' diary, which was not accurately translated for 200 years

In his diary, Pepys (1633-1703) gives important historical detail of the momentous events in London and at the same time reveals an uninhibited account of his private and amorous affairs, along with generous doses of society gossip. (Because of these sensitive revelations, Pepys wrote his diary in a code that was not deciphered until the mid-19th century). The son of a tailor and a butcher's daughter, he rose to prominence through his intelligence, hard work, and a fortunate family connection to Edward Montagu, the future Earl of Sandwich, who became his patron. In his own time, Pepys was known as the Secretary of the Admiralty, a post he held from 1673-88, and it was through his work in this position that he earned the credit for rejuvenating an English navy that during his day had reached its lowest point since the Middle Ages.

Portrait of Evelyn done for Pepys, who collected
pictures of the great minds of his day

The other great English diarist was a contemporary and friend of Pepys, but he could hardly have been more different than that bon vivant. The writer and gardener John Evelyn (1620-1706) is a less well-known but more prodigious diarist: while Pepys' diary covers the years 1660-66, Evelyn began to keep the notes that eventually turned into journals when he was 11 years old, and continued to the end of his life. He was born into a prosperous Surrey family who were staunch Royalists, and while the young Pepys was attending, with approval, the execution of King Charles I, Evelyn had taken refuge on the continent, joining the English expatriates in Paris. There, he married the daughter of the dead king's ambassador to France, Sir Richard Browne. They returned to England, where he designed and cultivated a famous garden at her family home, Sayes Court.

Evelyn's home near London

Evelyn was a devoted family man, who expended much effort on the education of his children, both male and female, and on the neglected instruction of his wife Mary. The Dictionary of National Biography tells us that "her marriage was both a friendship and a partnership. Her husband's plan for an otherwise all-male mathematical college included her, and she designed the frontispiece for his 1656 translation of Lucretius. After his death she said of him that ‘His care of my Education was such as might become a Father, a Lover, a Friend, and Husband’." A pious Anglican and loyal monarchist, Evelyn was thrilled when the monarchy was restored with the coronation of Charles II. He described the procession in his diary: "This magnificent Traine on horseback, as rich as Embroidery, velvet, Cloth of Gold & Silver & Jewells could make them & their pransing horses, proceeded thro the streetes, strew'd with flowers, houses hung with rich Tapissry [tapestry], Windos & Balconies full of Ladies."

King Charles II in his coronation finery

Despite his one-time support of Cromwell, Pepys certainly embraced the permissive society of the Restoration, and his diary is filled with accounts of evenings attending the theatre or going to society parties with the glitterati of the day. George Villiers, duke of Buckingham and perhaps the very embodiment of the Restoration rake, was among his friends. Pepys was better acquainted with the king's mistress Nell Gwyn than with the devout Queen Catherine, whom the sober, pious Evelyn much admired. Although a strong supporter of the monarchy, Evelyn was dismayed by the licentiousness of court life and preferred remaining at his family's country home, where he gained a prominent reputation for landscape design and gardening, and wrote a number of books on the subject.

Manuscripts of Evelyn's diaries, now held by the British Library

In the early morning hours of September 2, 1666, a fire broke out in a London bakery, and began to spread quickly thruough the timber buildings of the city. Both men have left us vivid accounts of the Great Fire, one from the perspective of a potential victim, the other a more general overview. Pepys' maid saw the fire and woke him. He recounts:

"I rose and slipped on my nightgowne, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the backside of Marke-lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off; and so went to bed again and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, Sir J. Robinson’s little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at that end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge."

Th Great Fire raging

From his vantage point on the Tower, Pepys observed people desperately trying to save their belongings, throwing things from the bridges (which were lined with shops and dwellings) to small boats in the Thames. What he did not see was anyone making any attempt whatsoever to fight the fire. Te ineffectual Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Bloodworth, resisted the pleas of Pepys and others to demolish houses adjacent to the flames, thereby forming a barrier that might have stopped the fire. Nothing was done in this regard until late Monday, when King Charles II, viewing the disaster from a barge on the Thames, countermanded Bloodworth's orders.

People desperately tried to escape by boat with their possessions

As the fire raged on, Pepys' home and office were threatened by the flames, and he leaves us a breathless account of his efforts to secure the safety of his family, his goods, and the official Admiralty papers for which he was responsible:

"About four o’clock in the morning [on Monday, September 3], my Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, to Sir W. Rider’s at Bednall-greene. Which I did riding myself in my night-gowne in the cart; and, Lord! to see how the streets and the highways are crowded with people running and riding, and getting of carts at any rate to fetch away things."

The fire as seen from Evelyn's vantage point

Evelyn lived about four miles outside London, and was not aware of the fire until later in the day. He tells us that after Sunday dinner,
"with my Wife & Sonn took Coach & went to the bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal speectaccle, the whole Citty in dreadfull flames neere the Water side, & had now consumed all the houses from the bridge all Thames Streete & up-wards towards Cheape side, downe to the three Cranes, & so returned exceedingly astonishd, what would become of the rest."

Extent of the Great Fire

Viewing the fire on Monday, he observed, "The Conflagration was so universal, & the people so astonish’d, that from the beginning (I know not by what desponding or fate), they hardly stirr’d to quench it, so as there was nothing heard or seene but crying out & lamentation, & running about like distracted creatures, without at all attempting to save even their goods; such a strange consternation there was upon them." At the end of that fateful day, with much of the city aflame, he memorably pronounced, "Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seen since the foundation of it . . . . London was, but is no more!"

Evelyn's plan for rebuilding London

Pepys and Evelyn were both involved in the rebuilding efforts, with Evelyn submitting his plan for rebuilding the city to the king just 11 days after the fire started. Sir Christopher Wren took the lead in the reconstruction efforts, and Evelyn was especially interested in the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral, the loss of which he and Pepys had both mourned.

Christopher Wren's final plan for the new St. Paul's Cathedral

The last word on these two diarists was granted to Evelyn, who noted Pepys' death on 26 May 1703 in his own diary: "This day died Mr. Sam Pepys, a very worthy, industrious, and curious person. . . . He was universally beloved, hospitable, generous, learned in many things, skilled in music, a very great cherisher of learned men. His library and collection of other curiosities were of the most considerable."

The cabinet where Evelyn kept his diaries, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum

In addition to innumerable print edition, Pepys' and Evelyn's diaries may be read online, Pepys at the very fine site,, which also has the correspondence between the two men digitized, and Evelyn's at this more basic site. The British Library holds the John Evelyn archive, which is rich in ifnormation about this lesser-known but fascinating man. The Pepys manuscripts and archives are held by the diarist's alma mater, Magdalene College, Cambridge. It was another Magdalene scholar, Mynors Bright, who finally decipered the shorthand, based on Thomas Shelton's Tachygraphy, that Pepys had used in his diary. His definitive edition, published in 1875-79, contained only about 7/10ths of the text: he had deemed those passages dealing with Pepys' amourous adventures unprintable. These racy portions did not become available to the public until the 20th century.

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