Pepys wrestled with some of the same questions confronting us today, but approached daily life in a pandemic rather differentlyby John Phipps / April 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
One of the more curious effects of this pandemic has been the sudden return to cultural relevance of the 17-century naval administrator and diarist Samuel Pepys. In the week before lockdown, as the public was urged to stay indoors and the newspapers printed disbelieving photographs of rammed parks and high streets, a quote began circulating on Twitter that felt like a warning from history:
On hearing ill rumour that Londoners may soon be urged into their lodgings by Her Majesty’s men, I looked upon the street to see a gaggle of striplings making fair merry, and no doubt spreading the plague well about. Not a care had these rogues for the health of their elders!
– Samuel Pepys, 1664
The quote is fake: there was no “her majesty” during the reign of Charles II, nor was 1664 a bad plague year. Putting those to one side, the hey-nonny flourishes of the language—“a gaggle of striplings make fair merry”—are a far cry from the glinting cut-and-thrust of Pepys’s prose. In fact, the quote came from the Twitter account @pepys_diaries, one of several Pepys impersonations that have sprung up in recent weeks. (Full disclosure: disconcerted as I am to be a part of this sniggering cottage industry, I should admit that I regularly impersonate Pepys for independent magazine the Fence.)
It was a well-intentioned joke, whose authors can’t be blamed for it being shared out of context. In truth, the real Samuel Pepys would likely have been the subject of his fake avatar’s disapproval. With Pepys impersonators suddenly ten-a-penny, it’s worth thinking about how the diarist actually lived when the plague was at its peak.
Nothing pleases us more than seeing our own views in the mouth of a venerated historical figure. We’re not alone in this. Fake authorship is an old and inevitably political game, one that Pepys’s forebears and contemporaries played deftly. One of the most popular books of Pepys’s own youth was the Eikon Basilike, a series of devotional letters and texts that were printed, billed and sold as having been written by Charles I before his execution. Historians doubt Charles is the true author—but under Cromwell’s protectorate the book sold like hot cakes.
Pepys’s plague came in 1665, a descendant of the Black Death, now known as the “great plague of London.” It was the…