Saturday, February 23, 2013

Quote of the Day (Samuel Pepys, on the Terrible Start to His 30th Birthday)

“Thence to my Lord Sandwich, who though he has been abroad again two or three days is falling ill again, and is let blood this morning, though I hope it is only a great cold that he has got. It was a great trouble to me (and I had great apprehensions of it) that my Lord desired me to go to Westminster Hall, to the Parliament- house door, about business; and to Sir Wm. Wheeler, which I told him I would do, but durst not go for fear of being taken by these rogues; but was forced to go to White Hall and take boat, and so land below the Tower at the Iron-gate; and so the back way over Little Tower Hill; and with my cloak over my face, took one of the watermen along with me, and staid behind a wall in the New-buildings behind our garden, while he went to see whether any body stood within the Merchants' Gate, under which we pass to go into our garden, and there standing but a little dirty boy before the gate, did make me quake and sweat to think he might be a Trepan. But there was nobody, and so I got safe into the garden, and coming to open my office door, something behind it fell in the opening, which made me start. So that God knows in what a sad condition I should be in if I were truly in the condition that many a poor man is for debt: and therefore ought to bless God that I have no such reall reason, and to endeavour to keep myself, by my good deportment and good husbandry, out of any such condition.”—Samuel Pepys, diary entry February 23, 1663

Samuel Pepys, a naval bureaucrat and perhaps the greatest diarist in English letters, was born on this date in 1633 in Salisbury Court off Fleet Street, the fifth in a line of 11 children born to a London tailor and the sister of a Whitechapel butcher. The surname, by the way, is pronounced “peeps”—a rather apt description, come to think of it, of what he gives us of life in his country in the mid-17th century, a period of regime change, turbulence, disaster and the fear these all bred.

Pepys’ accounts of the London fire and the plague that also devastated the city have become primary sources for historians of major cataclysms of that time, and his daily descriptions of playgoing and his marital misadventures have filled in the details of social life in his time. But I thought, with this post, to see how he would view events on a day with more personal meaning for him: his birthday.

The whole entry for this day is double in length, at least, what I’ve quoted here. But this portion does give a good sense of the juxtaposition of high and low in Pepys’ world. As the right-hand man of Lord Sandwich (cousin Edward Montagu), head of naval administration, he’s sent at the behest of his mentor (taken sick, and experiencing the treatment-worse-than-the-disease of bloodletting with leeches), on one of those inevitable political-bureaucratic errands that public servants inevitably handle.

As I read the passage, I called to mind my own trip to London late last month, and especially around the Tower of London and Parliament. Those areas are now thronged with tourists, but it was a different atmosphere in Pepys’ time. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (published only 13 years before Pepys’ 30th birthday) famously described the life of man in a state of war as “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” Less than 15 years after a regicide ended England’s Civil War, Pepys encountered shadows of that state in the figures he encounters on his errand.

Already worried about “these rogues,” this high minister is afraid he’s bumped into a “Trepan.” The word might sound a bit unfamiliar to us, but its context is treacherous. The Oxford English Dictionary, it turns out, defines it as “A person who entraps or decoys others into actions or positions which may be to his advantage and to their ruin or loss.” The sinister aspect of this term might come from something sharp that a hoodlum might hold in the pocket, such as a surgical instrument in the form of a crown-saw, used for cutting out small pieces of bone.

Pepys quit making his diary entries only six years later, when he feared encroaching blindness. It turned out that his fears on this score were as overblown as the ones he felt concerning the “rogues” that he was sure were accosting him on his 30th birthday. He ended up dying when he was 70. Posterity honors him not for the phantoms he thought he saw, but for the gritty, amusing vignettes he did witness. Biographer Claire Tomalin has called him “The Unequalled Self,” and many have found little reason to argue the point.

(Portrait of Samuel Pepys by Johann Closterman)

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