I first heard of the wonderfully lecherous 17th century Naval administrator Samuel Pepys and his famous diary from Helene Hanff’s sweet collection of book-related correspondence, “84, Charing Cross Road,” which I loved as a teenager. In one of Hanff’s letters to the Marks & Co. bookshop, she complains (in ALL CAPS!) that the Pepys’ Diary she received was merely abridged selections, not the unabridged book she
ordered. I scurried off to the library and picked up a copy of my own. I was amused by the entries where Samuel is beside himself with jealousy over his wife’s dancing instructor, followed by detailed descriptions of attempts to feel up a pretty girl during church.But the rest of it went straight over my head.
Fast forward several decades and I happen across pepysdiary.com, an amazing website run by Phil Gyford,a London drama student and web designer. Using a public domain version of the Diary from ProjectGutenberg, Gyford posts one entry each day, blog-style. In Diary Time, we’re five years into the ten-year span,up to January of 1665. The war at sea against the Dutch has reached a fever pitch. The January 23rd entry brings news that the Dutch ship King Salomon was heroically sunk by Captain Thomas Seale. In the same breath, Pepys updates us on another war he’s currently fighting, in his pants: he has his way with Mrs. Bagwell, a woman offered up to Pepys by her craven husband in the hopes of a promotion.
Since stumbling across the site about a month ago,it’s become my very favorite daily read. Whenever Sam (as the site’s avid commenters call him) mentions the name of a person, it links to a short biography and a list of all the entries where he or she is mentioned.The same goes for any book, play, or location. An incredibly civil and intelligent group of diary “followers” leave witty and informative comments after each entry, translating French, defining words, and giving deeper insight on everything from infant mortality to monetary policies. Links to the day’s House of Lords and House of Commons journals appear alongside, as do Wikipedia entries of any relevant topic (including Twelfth Night celebrations and folk belief in healing powers of rabbit’s feet.)The richness of the context, the bite-size daily pieces,and the fun, digressive comments from fellow Followers help to make the experience of getting to know SamuelPepys all the more rewarding.
Written in shorthand and in secret, Pepys’ ten years of diary never spare the truth, no matter how personal or ugly. Pepys is a historian one minute, a vile sinner confessing his base nature the next. This is what makes it so perfect for the blog format: modern readers understand the impulse to catalog one’s daily habits for posterity.The difference between modern bloggers and Sam, of course, is that the diary remained unpublished until Pepys and all of the diary’s “characters” were safely dead.It’s hard to imagine how Sam would feel about thousands of strangers worldwide commenting on his sexual conquests,his attacks of “wind,”and his dealings
with the Prize Office, more than 340 years in the future.
—NBCC member Suzanne Kleid blogs for the KQED Arts & Culture website in San Francisco.