The destination for history

The later diaries of Samuel Pepys


The great Diary for which Pepys is universally known was closed on 31 May 1669. For some while his eyesight had been weakening, and he feared that complete blindness was imminent. He suspected that the Diary, written in shorthand and usually by candlelight, had been much to blame, and with his great reluctance he decided not to continue it.

Although his eyes recovered after a few months’ rest, and in time he resumed his habitual shorthand, he never again kept a comparable diary. It would be churlish to complain that he gave us no more than those nine and a half years as to berate eminent composers who did not deliver a tenth symphony. Even so, we must regret that Pepys did not leave us a record, of whatever artistic merit, of those great events of the 1670s and 1680s in which he was an active participant: the Third Dutch War, the Exclusion Crisis and the development of party politics, the Revolution of 1688. This is indeed one of the most important and interesting books never written.

There are nevertheless a few sketches for this unachieved masterpiece. Pepys did revert to the diary format on several later occasions, though always restricted to some particular business of special importance. These ‘later diaries’ consist of five such texts, including the Tangier Journal, Pepys’s record of the winding up of Britain’s first African colony in 1683. Of the latter pieces the Tangier Journal is nearest to a general diary, and has been issued in popular editions.

It has always been recognised, but must nevertheless be repeated, that even the longer texts of Pepys’s late diaries are B-features. None approaches the stature of the Diary of 1660–9. The Tangier Journal, the best of the rest, has been called ‘a worthy appendage to a great diary…written with the all the old vitality’ and abounding in ‘incisive character sketches’. All these pieces nevertheless have the interest which attaches to minor works by a great artist, and they are unquestionably historical documents of considerable importance. Above all, many of Pepys’s admirers will find things to cherish in his later works, as we all value the company of old friends even when they have lost the sparkle that once delighted us.

Extracted from Pepys’s Later Diaries by C.S. Knighton

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