I’ve long enjoyed reading around in the Diary of Samuel Pepys, a late seventeenth-century English bureaucrat who worked in the Naval Office. The level of minute detail that Pepys included in his diary — on just about every imaginable facet of life: entertainment, his sex life, his relationship with his wife, his duties in the Naval Office, his thoughts about the monarch, government, and administration, what he ate, what he drank, how he traveled from one place to another, the coronation of Charles II, the Great Fire of 1666, and much, much more — make it an important source of information for historians and literary scholars alike.
In the past, I’ve looked up specific entries in the diary, Pepys’s thoughts on the libertines I write about: Sir Charles Sedley, George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham, and John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, for example. I haven’t ever just started at the beginning and simply read the diary. Until now (sort of).
I’ve decided to teach the Diary in my eighteenth-century class this spring. Since it’s actually a 9 volume set (in print, plus a companion volume and an index), I obviously can’t teach the whole thing. Instead, I’ll order an edition of selections from the Diary, probably the Modern Library edition, which presents the selections in order rather than topically, like the California edition, A Pepys Anthology.
Since I’ve never taught more than one or two entries from the Diary, I thought that I should read through the edition I’m going to order and begin to think about what kinds of directions I want to give my students to guide them in their reading. So, I started reading in January 1660 and am working my way through to the end, 1669. I can’t predict what my students will make of it, but I think it’s a fascinating read. I’m already learning so much. For instance, I didn’t know that Pepys actually sailed over to the Netherlands as part of the official party that brought the royal family back to England in 1660. I’ve also become increasingly impressed with just how much Pepys bustles around London. (If I didn’t have anything else to do, I would love to join the ranks of scholars working on “London Studies,” but since I am busy elsewhere, maybe I can just teach a class sometime on London.)
Even PJ has gotten (slightly) interested in Pepys. He’s watching Deadwood (which is brilliant, btw). One of the characters has a multi-episode arc about having kidney stones, so Paul googled “kidney stones” find out more about them. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Pepys writes about everything, that one of the hits that came up was on Pepys. Pepys suffered from a kidney stone in 1658 and underwent a successful operation to remove it. He then celebrated the anniversary of the operation every year.
The site that he found is a project to put Pepys’s Diary online, one day at a time. Kind of like wikipedia, readers can then add annotations to the entries. When it’s done in about 6 years, this site will be an incredible resource, especially for teachers.
I hope to accomplish a couple of things by having my students read Pepys. First, I want them to get a sense of the period in a general sense. What did people do in the 1660s? What was it like to live in this decade? What were the social and political issues that interested men like Pepys? How did someone like Pepys view the monarchy and its restoration? Did his opinions change over time? How important was religion to someone like Pepys? I think reading the diary will give a lot to talk about in answering these and other questions.
Second, the theme of my class is going to be something about creating the modern self. Pepys’s Diary is an obvious text to look at in relation to this topic. His (obsessive) self-reflection isn’t quite a model for the commonplace book assignment that I will requiring my students to complete, but it does get at some of the issues that I will want to bring up with my students and have them explore in their commonplace books. If modernity begins in full force with the Enlightenment, then reading Pepys will give us a good handle on how at least one man constructed the self in this period.
I’m really looking forward to teaching Pepys. If my students enjoy it even just one-tenth as much as I do, I think it will be a very successful course.