On this day in 1660, Samuel Pepys made the first entry in the diary he was to keep until 1669, when his eyesight finally failed him.
His New Year’s Resolution for 1661 – which, incidentally, he failed to keep – read as follows:
“I have newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine, which I am resolved to keep according to the letter of the oath I keep by me”.
Later entries covered such momentous events in the history of London as the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666.
Pepys was an Establishment figure, well known in official and court circles; and, as such, less an “everyman” caught up in events than one very much of his time, and, particularly, place, that is to say, his place in the prevailing social and class hierarchy. His thoughts and deeds were often to greater or lesser degrees self-serving: he obsessed over his wealth (“To my accounts, wherein … I … , to my great discontent, do find that my gettings this year have been … less than … last… ”); employed sycophancy and deceitfulness to increase the same, or otherwise to get his way; and was not beyond resorting to emotional cruelty, especially towards his wife, Elizabeth, and even to physical violence. He also obsessed over his health, although perhaps understandably, given that as a young man he had survived, somewhat against the odds, a surgical operation to remove a gall-stone – the anniversary of which event he celebrated each year rather like a second birthday! However, his written words were almost always honest and true, and unsparingly and disarmingly so when describing his own shortcomings, or otherwise to his detriment. There was something of a child-like quality to Pepys the man, characteristically beautifully described by Robert Louis Stevenson, in part as follows: “Pepys was a young man for his age, came slowly to himself in the world, sowed his wild oats late, took late to industry and preserved till nearly forty the headlong gusto of a boy. So, to come rightly at the spirit in which the Diary was written, we must recall a class of sentiments which with most of us are over and done before the age of twelve”.
I refer the reader to the admirable biography by Claire Tomalin for a fuller account of the life and works of Pepys, especially at the Navy Office, where he worked as a civil servant and ultimately Secretary to the Admiralty (it has been said that, “without Pepys, there could have been no Horatio Nelson”).