Samuel Pepys (1633–1703)
The Diary of Samuel Pepys contains firsthand accounts of some of the most important historical events of 17th-century England. Yet it is Pepys’s candor in recording the minutiae of his private life— what he ate for dinner, a squabble with his wife, his childlike excitement over a new watch—that prompted his biographer Claire Tomalin to declare him “both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet.”
An Insatiable Curiosity
Pepys had an insatiable curiosity and attempted to learn all that he could about every subject. It was undoubtedly this fascination with life that inspired him, at the age of 26, to begin keeping a diary in which he would eventually set down more than 1.2 million words. At the age of 35, he abandoned his diary, fearing it was straining his eyes so much that he might go blind.
“The Right Hand of the Navy”
Shortly after starting his diary, Pepys became a clerk in the Royal Navy office and worked hard at rooting out corruption and streamlining management. Acknowledged as “the right hand of the Navy,” in 1684 he was appointed the secretary of the admiralty. In that capacity, he doubled the number of battleships and restored the Royal Navy as a major sea power.
A Confidante of Kings
During his years of public service, Pepys enjoyed a close relationship with King Charles II and his successor, James II. However, Pepys also made enemies in his rise to power. In 1678, some of his adversaries tried unsuccessfully to ruin his reputation, falsely accusing him of murder and treason. Although Pepys was imprisoned briefly, the intervention of Charles II kept him from further punishment.
A Scholarly Retirement
Pepys lived in retirement for the last 14 years of his life. He spent his time amassing a large personal library, corresponding with various artists and scholars, and collecting material for a history of the navy, which he never completed. He bequeathed his large library, including his diary, to Cambridge University.
Written in shorthand, the diary was not transcribed until the early 19th century. An abridged version—with his romantic dalliances and other details that “could not possibly be printed” removed—was published in 1825. The full, uncensored version did not appear until 1970.