Can you imagine, just for a moment, being the curator of the Antiquities Collection at a large university library and taking into your possession the original diaries from a very famous person of the mid 1600s – and then discover that the whole lot are written in a combination of French, Dutch and English – and all of it in shorthand. Somehow, this has to be translated into a legible script before the historians can put it to any use whatsoever… wouldn’t that be a headache?
Such was the conundrum facing the Chief Librarian at Magdalen College Cambridge after taking possession of Pepys’ library of volumes, which included his diary. Fortunately, a key was provided allowing the translation of most of the shorthand passages, and over the years a number of scholars patiently transcribed the entries covering the most tumultuous decade the country ever witnessed – the 1660s. Indeed, so important is Pepys’ eyewitness accounts of both the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London that it is considered the primary text for any scholar to consult before embarking on larger works.
Rumour has it that Pepys wrote his diary in this way to put off prying eyes – presumably those of his wife, given that he gave intricate details of his sexual encounters with a number of famous actresses of the day, but also because he worked for the Government and was privy to a number of very important meetings, including those arranging the return of Charles II to London from his exile in France. I do wonder though if anyone would now be that concerned with his meticulous recording of his bowel habits and his wife’s menstrual cycle but just in case they are, it’s all there, written down for one’s reading leisure.
He only stopped writing the diary when his eyesight started failing, his wife had died and he was given a more responsible government position, which would have taken up the time that he would otherwise have spent writing. Pepys himself went on to become an MP and President of the Royal Society before dying in 1703.
Strangely, I’ve never fancied reading Pepys’ diary before, but since this September will be 350 years since the Great Fire of London, perhaps I ought to make a bit more of an effort. We shall see. If I only bother reading the entries for that year, I will consider it a good effort on my part!