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Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution

1 January 2016 | Ryan Ormonde

New Year’s Day is a good day to start a diary. If you are Samuel Pepys, you may get an exhibition dedicated to it, more than 300 years after your death.

As you nurse your hangover on January 1st 2016, you might consider that it will be 356 years to the day that Samuel Pepys wrote his first diary entry. A New Year’s resolution to read the famous diary might be a bit ambitious, even in audiobook format: the unabridged version is 115 hours long. A visit to the exhibition Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich is a more achievable goal, and it might make the prospect of those 115 hours with London’s most famous diarist more appealing.

With more than 200 objects on display, it should first be mentioned that the six volumes of the diary are not among them. As stipulated in Pepys’ will (which is among the exhibits), the diary is never to be removed from his alma mater, Magdalene College, Cambridge University. However, the exhibition displays a letterbook written by Pepys in 1664, open at an example of the shorthand in which the diary was written. There are also examples of the first transcription of the diary, and Pepys’ journal from his trip to Tangier, where he was sent to administrate financial matters as the British abandoned their Moroccan stronghold.

The famous diary spans ten years of Pepys’ life, and the centre of the exhibition is dedicated to some of the people and events that feature in it, most notably London’s double curse, the great plague and the fire. Charles II is a notable presence, and one of the grandest items on show is the portrait of the king in his coronation robes following his restoration. There is also a recreation of a typical theatrical performance of the day, the theatre being one of Pepys’ favourite pursuits.

The years following the diary see Pepys rise in social and political ranks. He becomes president of the Royal Society - here the exhibition touches on the scientific discoveries and publications of the day - as well as a Member of Parliament and Secretary to the Admiralty. James II succeeds his brother Charles and Pepys retains his post. As the events of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 unfurl, leading to the deposition of the king and the accession of William and Mary, Pepys characteristically stayed out of harm’s way, and happily retired.

To the end of his life and for many years after, Pepys was remembered as a minor figure in naval and political history. The final part of the exhibition shows how the diary was brought to publication and how Pepys eventually became one of the most famous diarists of all time. The best and most unfortunate story in the publication history is the work of the Reverend John Smith who spent three years deciphering and translating Pepys’ personal shorthand from the original volumes, unaware that the key to the writing system was stored a few shelves up.

The diary itself was far from a labour in vain; it is the single most important historical source that contributes to our understanding of that critical decade in the history of England and of London in particular. It is strange to think that the full content of Pepys’ writings was not known to us until the 1970s. It now exists in its entirety online following a project begun in 2003 by Phil Gyford, who blogged an entry a day on pepysdiary.com. No one in Pepys’ day could have predicted that the journals of a notable administrator would cause such a fuss centuries after his death.

It’s enough to prompt another New Year’s resolution. Start by writing down what you did today...

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire Revolution is showing at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until 28 March. For more information and to book tickets, see website.

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