Five Fascinating Facts about Samuel Pepys

Curious facts about the diarist Samuel Pepys

1. Samuel Pepys’ celebrated diary was only deciphered in the early nineteenth century, over a century after his death. The diary wasn’t written in code but in a form of shorthand called tachygraphy. It took a reverend several years to decipher the diary – and this wasn’t done until the 1820s. Partly what makes the diary so entertaining is Pepys’s personality: his confession of his own weaknesses, his refreshing frankness. But the diary is also the chronicle of a busy decade in English history. It’s well-known that Pepys (1633-1703) documents the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and the Dutch invasion, but it’s often the little day-to-day details that make the diary so interesting. Among other things, Pepys’s diary contains one of the first references to a Punch and Judy show in England, and even the earliest known reference to someone in England having a cup of tea.

2. His diary is also a valuable record of the changing English language. Samuel Pepys’s diary provides the earliest examples of the words attacker, catcall, embezzler, frighten, gherkin, good-humoured, and interested. It’s unlikely he coined these words, of course – but his diary is a valuable record of the language during this busy and Samuel Pepysexciting time (Shakespeare died just seventeen years before Pepys was born, and the age of Shakespeare was a golden age in the development of the English language).

3. He wasn’t a fan of Romeo and Juliet. Pepys recorded that he ‘‘saw “Romeo and Juliet,” the first time it was ever acted; but it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do.’

4. Isaac Newton’s 1687 book Principia was licensed for publication by Samuel Pepys. Pepys was President of the recently established Royal Society when Newton’s landmark work of physics was published; as such, he was the one who licensed the book for publication by the Society.

5. Pepys liked to arrange his books not by their subject but by their size. Pepys amassed a large library of all sorts of books and appears to have been something of a bibliophile. In fact, among his possessions at his death was another famous person’s diary – the diary (or, more accurately, the almanac) of Sir Francis Drake, hero of the Spanish Armada.

If you enjoyed these fun facts about Samuel Pepys, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: Samuel Pepys, portrait by John Hayls (1666), Wikimedia Commons.

7 thoughts on “Five Fascinating Facts about Samuel Pepys”

  1. Punch and Judy, a cup of tea and a dislike of Romeo and Juliet, – he is my sort of man. He is the best one on here so far. Streets ahead of Philip Larkin.

    On Fri, Oct 14, 2016 at 3:02 PM, Interesting Literature wrote:

    > interestingliterature posted: “Curious facts about the diarist Samuel > Pepys 1. Samuel Pepys’ celebrated diary was only deciphered in the early > nineteenth century, over a century after his death. The diary wasn’t > written in code but in a form of shorthand called tachygraphy. It took ” >

  2. Interesting article! I read his diaries a couple of years ago, and they are entertaining, if you like history and language! One point about his diaries is that they need to be taken with a pinch of salt; for instance, as Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet” was likely first performed sometime before 1597, and Pepys was not born until 1633, he was not at the first showing; I think it rather refers to his first time in seeing the play personally…
    He would have been an interesting character to know! Thanks for sharing it!

    • Yes, that’s a good point about Romeo and Juliet – we’ll have to add in a gloss to that, because Pepys makes it sound as if he were at the premiere of the play! There were different productions of R&J later in the seventeenth century, so Pepys must be referring to the first night of a new production – perhaps the first one since the reopening of the theatres after the Restoration :)

      • Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre (London) burnt down in 1613, was rebuilt in 1614, and shut down in 1642… Pepys diary covers the years 1660 to 1669; so he must be referring to a showing of the play at a theatre other than Shakespeare’s (and I would be interested to know which ones had licence to produce it); does he mention a theatre by name in the diary?
        It would be fascinating to track down which plays were being played when, in which theatre, for those years!
        I did research on that type of thing, but for the year 1788, for one of the novels I’ve written (The Price of Freedom, Northing Trilogy #1); every shop, shop keeper’s name, and what they sold for how much (which appear in the novel) are historically accurate (I did the same for the 2nd book, set in Bath, and am doing the same for the final book in the trilogy, which I’m polishing right now). I love detective work, and it was fun to track it all down! :-)


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