Thoughts on Samuel Pepys

I’ve been listening to the diary of Samuel Pepys on audio. He wrote it between 1660 and 1669 while living in London and working in the British government. He’s unusual among diarists in that he was interested in everything from politics to fashion to music, spared no detail even about his own faults, and witnessed some major historical events.

At first I was enjoying the details about daily life and their similarities and differences with daily life now — What he thinks of his new wig! The argument he and his wife had about whether the dog should sleep in their room! Boy, there are a lot of public executions!

Maybe the most striking thing to me is how much he writes about sex. I can think of a few contributing reasons:

  • he was just unusually interested in sex.
  • lots of people are very interested in sex, and I usually don’t read their diaries.
  • this is an abridgment of the original million+ words, and they kept the juicy bits in and cut some of the details about his day at work.

By the time we get to 1665, I was pretty done with the constant description of his interactions with bosoms and was relieved that he started talking about the Great Plague of London instead.

The fastest way to find the sex passages is to search for the phrase “God forgive me,” which basically always means the rest of the sentence is him trying to figure out how to get it on with his servants, his friends’ servants, his friends’ wives, or random strangers.

“God forgive me, I was sorry to hear that Sir W. Pen’s maid Betty was gone away yesterday, for I was in hopes to have had a bout with her before she had gone, she being very pretty. I had also a mind to my own wench, but I dare not for fear she should prove honest and refuse and then tell my wife.”

One of the rare bosom-themed passages in which he does not ask God’s forgiveness, apparently because it was the fault of the Mrs. Penington involved:

“she willingly suffered me to put my hand in her bosom very wantonly, and keep it there long. Which methought was very strange, and I looked upon myself as a man mightily deceived in a lady, for I could not have thought she could have suffered it, by her former discourse with me; so modest she seemed and I know not what.” Poor Sam, so deceived.

Maybe the nerviest episode is where he tries to grope a woman in church, she threatens to stab him, and he just moves on and tries another woman in the next pew instead:

“I walked towards White Hall, but, being wearied, turned into St. Dunstan’s Church, where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again — which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design. And then I fell to gaze upon another pretty maid in a pew close to me, and she on me; and I did go about to take her by the hand, which she suffered a little and then withdrew. So the sermon ended, and the church broke up, and my amours ended also.”

(Through the 1910s, hatpins were used for a similar purpose.)


Another (literally) striking aspect of the diary is the casual attitude toward physical violence. He routinely complains about injuring himself while beating his employees.

“I sent my boy home for some papers, where, he staying longer than I would have him, and being vexed at the business and to be kept from my fellows in the office longer than was fit, I become angry, and boxed my boy when he came, that I do hurt my thumb so much, that I was not able to stir all the day after, and in great pain.”

“I bade  Will get me a rod, and he and I called the boy up to one of the upper rooms of the Comptroller’s house towards the garden, and there I reckoned all his faults, and whipped him soundly, but the rods were so small that I fear they did not much hurt to him, but only to my arm, which I am already, within a quarter of an hour, not able to stir almost.”

He has a similar approach to his wife. After giving her a black eye, he does admit to being “vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black, and the people of the house observed it.” It’s unclear how much of the vexation is due to the black eye and how much is due to the servants noticing.

He married her when he was 22 and she was 14. In the early years, he discusses the pleasant times they have talking, singing, walking, and “sporting.” As time goes on he more often complains about her requests for money.

At one point she gives him a letter asking for him to hire her a female companion so she won’t be so lonely during the day while he’s gone (working/drinking/wenching). He burns the first copy without reading it. When she reads him a second copy, he’s afraid it will become an embarrassment to him. What’s a husband to do? Destroy her documents:

“She now read it, and it was so piquant, and wrote in English, and most of it true, of the retiredness of her life, and how unpleasant it was; that being wrote in English, and so in danger of being met with and read by others, I was vexed at it, and desired her and then commanded her to tear it. When she desired to be excused it, I forced it from her, and tore it, and withal took her other bundle of papers from her, and leapt out of the bed and in my shirt clapped them into the pocket of my breeches, that she might not get them from me, and having got on my stockings and breeches and gown, I pulled them out one by one and tore them all before her face, though it went against my heart to do it, she crying and desiring me not to do it, but such was my passion and trouble to see the letters of my love to her . . . to be joyned with a paper of so much disgrace to me and dishonour, if it should have been found by any body.”

“Though it went against my heart to do it.” Why do it, then? Just the kind of stupid prideful argument most of us have had, taken too far? Or to be sure she knows her place? Much more on the scene here.

The scene reminded me of literature-class debates about The Taming of the Shrew. Surely Shakespeare didn’t really mean the happy ending (Katherina abandons her pride and submits to her husband’s every whim) unironically? He wasn’t really celebrating the breaking of a woman’s will, was he? After reading this passage, written about 70 years after The Taming of the Shrew, I find it a lot more likely that the answer is no. A 17th-century audience may have just found this good comedy.


I worked in a jail, right? I’ve heard people talk about bad stuff they’ve done.

What feels disturbing about this one is that he feels like part of my tribe. He’s super into books and playing the flute. He gets all excited about practicing his multiplication tables when he realizes it will help him find errors in the books at work. This is the kind of person I might well have been friends with.


I come away with both a sense of disappointment about human nature (this is how powerful people treat less powerful people if they can get away with it) and also a sense of progress.

If it’s no longer acceptable in developed countries to beat your employees until your arm is sore, if destroying someone else’s documents is now considered abuse rather than a husband’s right— maybe there’s hope.

One of the main reasons animal advocacy doesn’t appeal to me at an intuitive level is a sense that the power imbalance here is eternal and intractable. The economic change involved would be staggering. To teach my children that animals are not there for us to use would require a lot more critical reading of most of our books. (“Why is there a pig on Old MacDonald’s farm?”) In short, it wouldn’t be easy.

But the idea that Pepys’ wife could earn her own money or choose her own friends was likewise unthinkable to him in 1663. A lot has changed, and it wasn’t easy.

Maybe someday my meals will seem as archaic and barbaric as the dinners Pepys describes:
“a dish of marrow bones; a leg of mutton; a loin of veal; a dish of fowl, three pullets, and two dozen of larks all in a dish; a great tart, a neat’s tongue, a dish of anchovies; a dish of prawns and cheese.” I’m not sure what would need to change, but it seems less impossible than it used to.



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