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Pepys’s biographers and their rendering of his extra-marital affairs

Geoffrey Pimm

There can be no doubt that Samuel Pepys was an intelligent, god-fearing man, whose work ethic was exemplary and whose influence made itself felt over practically every aspect of seventeenth century life. As children at school, we first learn of Pepys the diarist, giving us eyewitness accounts of the historic events of his time. Later, we learn of Pepys the creator of the modern navy, probably the greatest single factor in the subsequent success of Britain, which as the United Kingdom, still boxes above its weight in world affairs. Later still in our Pepysian journey, we learn of Pepys the Member of Parliament, Pepys the Master of Trinity House and Pepys the President of the Royal Society. But what of Pepys the highly sexed man?

Pepys was undoubtedly a man of his time. His appointments in the navy office, culminating in that of Secretary of the Navy afforded him opportunities for accruing personal wealth in ways which today, should they be detected, would most probably find him imprisoned. The acceptance of gifts and favours in return for the placing of government contracts was regarded in his day as part and parcel of what we might now call a ‘remuneration package’. We know from his personal diary, into which he carefully recorded every daily event in his public and private life over a period of more than nine years from January 1660 to May 1669, how his personal wealth grew year by year and how his life changed from that of a humble clerk to that of a man of substantial substance and influence.

Yet from the same diary, we learn what we were not taught at school, that there was a darker and much less reputable side to his character. For reasons which will almost certainly forever remain a mystery, Samuel Pepys recorded in unabashed and graphic detail modes of behaviour that might make even a modern case-hardened tabloid journalist blush. Yet admiration of any man’s achievements and virtues should not blind us as historians to his character flaws and vices and Samuel Pepys certainly had his fair share of those, so how have his many biographers recorded his character ‘warts and all’? The truth is that for nearly two hundred years there has been an almost Jimmy Savile-like denial from some authors surrounding Pepys’ rather unsavoury and adulterous private life, summed up by a comment I once received from a lady historian in Oxford; “…we know he was rather naughty as far as the ladies were concerned”.

The first full transcription of his diary into plain English was performed by John Smith, erstwhile Rector of St Mary the Virgin in Baldock, over three years from 1819 to 1822, which resulted in a heavily bowdlerised two-volume version edited by Lord Braybrooke in 1825. A second transcription by Mynors Bright was published in 1875-79, but only increased the published text by about one third. The first ‘serious’ edition of the work, by Henry B. Wheatley, came soon afterwards between 1893 and 1899, and contained extensive notes together with an index. All of these editions omitted the more vivid passages that recounted Pepys’ sexual adventures which the editors obviously thought too obscene ever to be printed. Wheatley, in the preface to his edition noted that there were; “…a few passages which cannot possibly be printed. It may be thought by some that these omissions are due to an unnecessary squeamishness, but it is not really so, and readers are therefore asked to have faith in the judgement of the editor.”

Even in the masterly transcription of the diary by Robert Latham and William Matthews published in the early nineteen-seventies the offending passages were only rendered from the original shorthand in which the diary is written into their strange mixture of foreign languages, without benefit of translation or explanatory notes.

Leaving aside the various transcriptions of the diary, how have Pepys’ many biographers treated this aspect of his character? Henry Wheatley also wrote two additional works on the subject; ‘Samuel Pepys and the world he lived in’ published in 1889 and ‘Pepysiana’ subtitled ‘Additional notes on the particulars of Pepys’ life and on some passages in the diary’ published in 1899. The Victorians were notoriously shy when it came to discussing the subject of sex, as indeed was the case for the first half of the twentieth century. Despite his denial of squeamishness Mr. Wheatley was no exception. Pepys’ diary is full of women and his relationship with them – thirty-two female domestic servants alone are mentioned in varying degrees of detail, including an affair with one that very nearly destroyed his marriage and around fifty sexual encounters. In ‘Pepysiana’ fifty-one pages are devoted to notes about ‘Friends and Acquaintances’ yet ‘Women’ occupy rather less than a single page, in which Pepys is adjudged to be largely blameless in the matter and the characters of a few women are viciously assassinated, for example;

“Mrs. Betty Lane, afterwards Mrs. Martin, who figures so largely in Pepys’s pages, is the most objectionable of all. There is no evidence that she had any virtue to lose, and her conduct throughout is very revolting.”

However, in a couple of matters, Wheatley does allow a mild criticism of Pepys’ behaviour; with regard to the affair with Mrs. Bagwell, which lasted for much of the diary period, “it appears that Pepys actually did seduce her, and that in a way much to his discredit”. He acknowledges that Pepys regarded his domestic maids as fair game; “The virtue of Pepys’s female servants, if good-looking, was usually attacked by him, but the plain ones were safe…” The affair with his wife’s maid Deb Willett, whom Pepys systematically and forcibly seduced and which nearly destroyed his marriage, is described as affording “a very curious illustration of Pepys’s code of morals”. You can say that again, as the saying goes!

In a sort of halfway house biography entitled ‘A Pepys’ Anthology’, selected passages from the diary are used to reconstruct various aspects of the diarist’s life and character (Ed. Robert & Linnet Latham – Unwin Hyman 1987). The section entitled ‘The Husband’ is headed by an introductory note from the editors that informs us that…”The diary can be read as the history of a marriage, and the extracts chosen here are meant to illustrate its various fortunes”. Other than going on to say that “as is well known Pepys was frequently unfaithful”, this aspect of his married life is not touched upon, in spite of there being around fifty extramarital encounters recorded in the diary period. The Deb Willet affair has a short section of its own towards the end of the book, with eighteen heavily edited diary entries to tell the twenty-one month long tumultuous and destructive story.

Until 2002, the most serious attempt at a full biography was Arthur Bryant’s three-volume work published respectively in 1933, 1935 and 1938 (Cambridge University Press). The style is that of a narrative interspersed with sparsely quoted diary entries. The various affairs are dealt with in an abbreviated style; we are told for example how Pepys “enjoyed the wives of Mr. Martin and Mr. Bagwell on the same afternoon”. Where the author might have fallen foul of the obscene publication legislation of the day, Bryant occasionally follows a similar strategy as that taken by Messrs. Latham and Matthews and provides the quotation in the foreign languages in which Pepys had recorded it, without translation; “nuper ponendo mes mains in su des choses de son breast”.

A number of biographers have endeavoured to deal with Pepys’ private life as the subject of a specific work. Patrick Delaforce even tried to address the subject from Elizabeth Pepys’ point of view (‘Pepys in Love – Elizabeth’s Story’ Bishopsgate Press 1986) written in the first person. Pepys’ extramarital activities are recounted in a short seven-page long chapter entitled ‘Samuel’s Gadding About’. This book is a re-working of an earlier work entitled “The Diary of Mrs. Pepys” by F.D. Ponsonby Snr. (Hurst & Blackett Ltd. 1934) which touches upon “…the spicier entries which deal with his peccadilloes” whilst at the same time “…chuckling over the affaires du Coeur of ‘Old Pepys’ as we affectionately call him”. This is very much a book of its time and probably the least said about it the better.

Another attempt to address this tricky subject was made by James Cleugh in a work entitled ‘The Amorous Master Pepys’ (Frederick Muller 1958). This is a rather light-hearted approach, which refers to Pepys throughout as ‘Sam’ and recounts his various amours as being those of a rather ‘laddish’ but lovable rogue. The author concludes that…”part of the fascination of the Diary arises from its solemnity of style in relating absurd or morally discreditable incidents, especially such as are usually not considered worth discussing or proper to be discussed in polite society”. The author goes on to comment that “these passages, written by a man whose own secret life was so highly questionable, make all the more impact for being quite innocent of any attempt at irony, deliberate obscenity or teasing or exciting the reader”.  This may well be true, but the reader finds it hard to judge as nowhere in the entire work are any of these passages quoted in full. Where the quotation becomes explicit, the author omits them and inserts (necessary gap) or explains that “..the Diarist here, muddled with his foreign words, falls into pidgin English”. Elsewhere some words are omitted as being an “unprintable expression” although in common with many other biographies, some rather innocuous phrases are rendered in their original foreign language without translation e.g. “hazer tout que je voudrais con her”

A more serious attempt at a biography was produced by Vincent Brome entitled ‘The Other Pepys’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd. 1992), although quite why it was entitled thus is not altogether clear, as the work covers all aspects of Pepys entire life from birth to death. Pepys private life is covered by a ten-page chapter entitled “Sexual adventures”. As usual, no passages are quoted in full, explicit sections being omitted with a line of dots. One phrase relating to an occasion with Mrs. Bagwell is translated from the French, but otherwise, a significant part of the chapter deals rather coyly with Mrs. Pepys’ gynaecological problems. However, other women make brief appearances elsewhere in the book and are dealt with quite frankly for the day – the notorious episode in the coach when Pepys makes Mrs. Mitchell masturbate him is dealt with quite explicitly where her hand “…make me do the big thing” and likewise when Pepys takes Mrs. Borrows to the park “…and there kissed and caressed her so passionately that he came”.

The definitive biography of Pepys in recent years must be Claire Tomalin’s masterwork “Samuel Pepys – The Unequalled Self” (Penguin Group 2002). However, Pepys’ various affairs are dealt with in a brief manner rather akin to entries in an appointment book and where there is elucidation, are sometimes commented upon with what might appear to be a feminist agenda; “…when Mrs. Bagwell offered herself to Pepys, she was acting under her husband’s instructions… the story is a shameful one of a woman used by two bullies”.  This may or may not be true – it is equally possible that Mrs. Bagwell saw an opportunity for her husband’s advancement and suggested it to him, becoming complicit in the plot – the reality is that we have no evidence one way or the other. The disastrous affair with Deb Willett is dealt with in a more explicit way than any previous biographies, with a few diary entries quoted in full, together with translations of a few of the less explicit phrases, but in such a detailed and extensive book, any more detailed examination would probably have unbalanced the work.

Upon his own many admissions, Pepys was a lascivious adulterer. Almost (but not quite) as interesting as the manner in which he chose to record his many sexual affairs is the way in which his various biographers have chosen – or been forced by the mores of their time – to bring those details to a general public with an apparently insatiable appetite for ‘Pepysiana’.