Putting Samuel Pepys on the couch

Every diarist turns a new page at new year, which is when the Restoration's chronicler started. He's remembered for what he saw, but he unwittingly preserved the disturbing things he felt
December 14, 2016

Sitting on the porch of a New England hotel in 1979, I told my dad I was bored. He took a big slurp of his third gin martini that evening and said: “Write a diary.” So I did. I still do.

On 1st January, we diarists all over the world will open a deliciously blank book and begin chatting to our old—perhaps our only—friend: the page. We’ll be communing with our future selves, who will one day look back fondly on these words. Those of us with grandiose fantasies might feel we are addressing some awe-stricken future audience, admiring of our wit, perspicacity and wisdom. Not me—my younger sister has instructions to incinerate my diaries immediately on my death (Grace, they’re in the attic).

Some of you will be sane enough not to need a papery friend/shrink/accountant, but you might nonetheless be the kind of voyeur who will start 2017 absorbed in someone else’s diary—magazine editor Alexandra Shulman’s Inside Vogue: A Diary of My 100th Year is out in time for Christmas… For readers, diaries have obvious appeal as the thinking person’s reality television—a glimpse into the minute details of someone else’s life. Just as the ash of Pompeii preserved the details of daily life in the late Roman Empire, so diaries preserve the intimacy and the mundanity of the writer’s moment—and none better than those of my diary idol Samuel Pepys.

Pepys is famous for his epic descriptions of the Plague and the Great Fire of London and for what the editor Robert Latham describes as his “talent for living.” The diaries are full of food and drink (including a surprising new drink from China, called tea), scientific discovery, dancing, singing, travel and sex. Pepys often depicts himself as an absurd character—whose wig catches fire at an event, who is desperate for the loo at the coronation, who wakes terrified in the night thinking his pillow is a ghost, and who buries a whole Parmesan to save it from the fire.

Here he is on New Year’s Eve 1662: “…and thence into the room where the ball was to be, crammed with fine ladies, the greatest of the Court. By and by comes the King and Queen… and they danced the Bransle. After that, the King led a lady a single Coranto and then the rest of the lords, one after another, other ladies very noble it was, and great pleasure to see… Having staid here as long as I thought fit, to my infinite content, it being the greatest pleasure I could wish now to see at Court, I went out… Thus ends this year with great mirth to me and my wife.”

Any reader would be gripped by that kind of immediacy. But what about the writers? What are they up to? For Shulman, and political diarists like Alan Clark and Tony Benn, it is straightforward enough: they know they’re writing to be read, for posterity. But for the rest of us writers, including Pepys, the whole appeal of confiding in a diary is that this is a place where our secrets are safe. Pepys took great pains to ensure that his diaries were never read (and published diaries weren’t a thing). So his motivations for writing deserve real examination. What, really, might have been driving him?

In psychoanalytic terms, this personal diary might be seen as a maternal container, a manic defence against envy, existential angst and mortality, and—most significantly—a kind of doppelgänger, who carries his most shameful traits, so that his public persona doesn’t have to put up with them. Of course, not everyone writes for the same immediate reason—whereas Pepys was a busy man with a demanding job in the civil service, Anne Frank wrote partly out of boredom.

But did she write partly in order to preserve a sense of herself in an increasingly senseless world? Many diarists do, I suggest, share this underlying motivation. Each entry is a point of authentic contact with our real selves, a confirmation of inner existence when our outward personality feels, at best, nebulous: we write as a way of clinging to reality. So a diary gives us the raw material to reconstruct not only how things in the outside world looked, but also the diarist’s inner world.

Pepys is often remembered for his sharp observations about other people (his view, for example, that as Major-General Harrison prepared to be hanged, drawn and quartered for signing Charles I’s death warrant, he appeared “as cheerful as any man could do in that condition”). But also preserved is evidence of what was happening on the inside, in his own unconscious mind. Examining what we can glean of Pepys’s unconscious reveals a fragile man struggling for substance in a world whose transience filled it with terror. Although the thought would surely have appalled him, his diaries give me everything I need to put him on the couch.

Pepys’s decade of keeping a diary began at New Year in 1660 when he was 27 and ended in spring 1669. The diary is an amazing insight into someone desperately trying to keep his head above water. Despite his ravenous enthusiasm for life’s diversions, which has made him a celebrated icon of the pleasure-loving Restoration era, Pepys is consumed with guilt and anxiety.

His enthusiasm borders on mania and his activity for a whole decade is so frenetic that it is hard to believe he is not on the run from some inner turmoil, a disquiet detectable under a thin veneer of bravado. (Although famously he ended many entries with the phrase “And so to bed,” he only ever gets a few hours’ sleep a night.) Chronically anxious and neurotic at every stage, he seems towards the end of the diaries to be suffering from what might now be called post-traumatic stress disorder as his mind fragments to a debilitating degree.

Claire Tomalin’s rather disparaging biography claims Pepys wrote out of hubris, seeing himself as a “valuable and glorious subject for exploration.” But to me the diaries don’t suggest a self-aggrandising man at all, more someone manically ordering his life’s balance sheet and describing the chaos around him to make it manageable. His various addictions and enthusiasms provide him with a hell of a lot to manage.

In an effort to scotch his raging hunger and greed, Pepys is a workaholic (all addictions to some degree are a defence against thinking), and he frequently worries that he is an alcoholic, too, and often resolves to give up drink, “I being now so out of order that I durst not read prayers for fear of being perceived by my servants in what case I was.” (29th September 1661). On top of that he is plainly a sex addict, groping almost every woman he can lay his hands on and relating the episodes with huge delight in a jumble of languages: “je l’ay foutee sous de la chaise deux times, and the last to my great pleasure; mais j’ai grand peur que je l’ay fait faire aussi elle meme,” (16th January 1664), which translates roughly as: “I fucked her twice under the chair… but I greatly fear that I made her come as well.”

When Pepys fears that his life is directly threatened, during the plague and then again in the months after the fire in 1666, he defends himself with sexual activity. For example, on 16th September 1668 he reports touching the breasts of his maid Jane while he is getting dressed.

But his anxiety cannot be groped away. Pepys leaves the house: “…and do see a hideous sight, of the walls of the church ready to fall, that I was in fear as long as I was in it. And here I saw the great vaults and underneath the body of the church. No hurt, I hear, is done yet, since their going to pull down the church and steeple; but one man, on Monday this week, fell from the top to a piece of the roof of the east end that stands next the steeple, and there broke himself all to pieces.”

He is talking about the burnt-out ruins of St Paul’s, under which he sees the remnants of the early medieval churches on which it had been built. He feels a deep horror at the destruction of a building he felt was permanent, and also of the stripping away of outer finery to reveal the inner “body.” Coupled with the story of a workman’s demise, he feels the building’s loss as a death, as if the whole edifice of his personality is falling down.

For Pepys, the site of St Paul’s is the Ground Zero on which he concentrates all his horror at life’s appalling transience and random brutality. Only two days before, he tells a story about a man who sank into the ground in Cannon Street in the same ruins: “strange how the very sight of the stones falling from the top of the steeple doth make me sea-sick” (14th September 1668). This sense of imminent destruction lurks on the page, supporting the idea that the diary itself is an effort at self-preservation.

And Pepys seemed to feel an urgent need to preserve some version of himself not seen by the world at large. Throughout the diaries, he is concerned to show himself publicly in the best possible light, and works hard on his own appearance, that of his household, and his public image in general. He clearly uses this outer self to deal with, or rather, to hide from internal trauma.

On hearing of his mother’s death in March 1667 he weeps, but then writes: “recollecting myself, and indeed having some thoughts how much better, both for her and us, it is then it might have been had she outlived my father and me or my happy present condition in the world, she being helpless,” (27th March 1667). He puts his household in mourning, the under-maids in “hoods and scarfs and gloves,” and he goes straight to his tailor (always a source of solace for Pepys, whose father was in that trade). Two days later he buys two periwigs, “mighty fine.” Finally, he writes: “I to church, and with my mourning, very handsome, and new periwig make a great show,” (31st March 1667). He then seeks out one of his regular women, Betty Martin, for sex.

It seems clear here that Pepys, unable to mourn for his mother, slaps on the appropriate appearance, both arguing himself into believing her death to be a good thing and hiding the unsavoury aspects of grief with finery and sexual activity.

In many ways we can treat this Pepys in his bewigged grandeur as a Freudian double, defined by Sigmund himself as “an insurance against the destruction of the ego, and the energetic denial of the power of death.” Religion’s imagined immortal soul is merely one of many manifestations of a defence which, Freud says, is “sprung from the soil of unbounded self-love, from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child.”

Freud points out that the danger with this defensive system is that if your double, or false self, is too convincing and overwhelming, then the hidden real self, or original self, becomes endangered. “From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.”

For Pepys the diary really does represent a kind of psychic double, a way both of representing his true self (including shameful incidents that require his titillating cocktail of languages) and—at the same time—of distancing himself from that real self, by writing it down.

The harbinger of death for the diary is detectable as far back as April 1662. This is when Pepys first mentions problems with his eyes: “I was much troubled in my eyes, by reason of the healths I have this day been forced to drink.” He brings it up over the next few years, blaming alcohol, candlelight, too little light and too much light. But in 1667, still suffering from terrifying dreams of the fire, Pepys begins to unravel. The disintegration centres on his fear of going blind. This fear is sporadic throughout the diaries but finally all-consuming. Between 1667 and the end of the diaries in May 1669, he refers to his eye trouble some 110 times, trying various cures from being bled to taking eyedrops, administered by an old woman in a shop. When he finally gives up writing the diary, he blames his eye trouble, a problem I believe was at least in part psychosomatic.

Though he may well have had an eye condition of some sort (from 1668 his handwriting becomes visibly bigger, though not for long, for in the documents that postdate the diaries, his writing is normal in size) but in the more than 30 years of Pepys’s post-diary life he never did go blind and he was writing and reading until a few days before his death in 1703. There is no question that Pepys equated fears for his sight with fears of death itself, an identification very familiar in psychoanalysis.

In 1919 Freud discussed “the terrifying idea of being robbed of one’s eyes,” in his essay “The Uncanny,” equating fear of blindness with fear of annihilation and of castration anxiety (for Freud a fear common to all during childhood). “A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated. The self-blinding of the mythical criminal, Oedipus, was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration,” Freud writes.

Pepys had a close encounter with castration—literally. Just before starting the diaries, he survived a horrific operation to remove kidney stones via the perineum. It could have killed him, and may have caused his infertility—a major theme in the diaries. At their beginning, the Pepys house on Axe Yard near Downing Street had a room that he and his wife, Elizabeth, referred to as “the nursery.” It was never to be occupied by children.

If seeing is one great Pepysian preoccupation, then being seen is another—a fear that grows more acute after he is caught by his wife with his hands up his 17-year-old servant Deb Willet’s skirts in October 1668: “the greatest sorrow to me that ever I knew in this world.” His sorrow is not so much guilt as at the exposure of his private self, which until now had only been revealed in the diaries. It is this intrusion that begins to tear the Pepyses apart, and that eventually causes him to stop writing.

Interestingly, there are workmen in the house during this period and he states “we are all in dirt,” (29th October 1668). And for another five weeks Elizabeth, to Samuel’s horror, does not wash herself. Pepys describes this condition also as being “in dirt.” But it is not hard to see who is really in the shit.

On 30th October, he decides he will not speak to Deb, “but resolve to be mighty strange in appearance to her.” By this he means that he will be reserved, but the turn of phrase draws us into the all-pervading theme of how and if things are seen. By 3rd November no reconciliation has been effected, and the Pepyses have been awake rowing night after night: “So home, and there to supper; and I observed my wife to eye my eyes whether I did ever look upon Deb; which I could not, but do now and then (and to my grief did see the poor wretch look on me and see me look on her, and then let drop a tear or two; which doth make my heart relent at this minute that I am writing this, with great trouble of mind, for she is endeed my sacrifice, poor girl); and my wife did tell me in bed, by the by, of my looking on other people, and that the only way is to put things out of sight; and this I know she means by Deb.” Elizabeth is telling her husband that he must stop seeing, a very direct endorsement of the Freudian equation between eyes and penis, since what she is really saying is that he must stop having sex with other women.

"Elizabeth emerges as an all-seeing castrator, terrifying her husband with murderous threats"
He manages to keep himself in check for only three days before he loses control and goes in search of Deb. “So I could not be commanded by my reason, but I must go this very night; and so by coach, it being now dark, I to her, close by my tailor’s and there she came into the coach to me, and yo did besar her and tocar her thing, but ella was against it and laboured with much earnestness, such as I believed to be real; and yet at last yo did maker her tener mi cosa in her mano, while mi mano was sobra her pectus and so di hazer with grand delight” (18th November 1668).

This metaphorical blindness—both to the nature of his own sexual obsession, and also to the effect he is having on his wife—surely demonstrates that his eye problems were substantially psychosomatic. Having sworn to his wife that the Deb affair is over (on the same day of the mutual masturbation with Deb in his coach) he writes, in an astonishing feat of self-deception: “my heart full of joy to think in what a safe condition all my matters now stand between my wife and Deb and me.” Pepys is turning a blind eye to the truth of his situation, a condition psychoanalyst John Steiner describes as the ability to access reality at the same time as choosing “to ignore it because it proves convenient to do so.”

Elizabeth did not turn a blind eye. From a put-upon house-wife with a philandering husband, Elizabeth emerges as a (justified) all-seeing castrator, terrifying her husband with murderous threats. When her husband then confesses he’s continued to see Deb, Elizabeth threatens to slit Deb’s nose (another castration-like threat). Not only does Elizabeth keep watch over her husband’s eyes, she also watches his dreams, a terrifying intrusion for Pepys, who, at the best of times, does not want his unconscious self seen by anyone other than the diary page. “She being ever since our late difference mighty watchful of sleep and dreams, and will not be persuaded but I do dream of Deb, and doth tell me that I speak in my dream and that this night I did cry ‘Huzzy!’ and it must be she… I do not know that I dream of her more than usual, though I cannot deny that my thoughts waking do run now and then against my will and judgment, upon her” (5th December 1668).

This fascinating passage attests to the fact that dreams were known to be the keepers of the unconscious a long time before Freud. And Elizabeth does not stop at observing her husband for signs of betrayal, she also comes closer to the source of the problem. “I do often find that in my dreams she doth lay her hand upon my cockerel to observe what she can” (7th February 1669). Not only are both Elizabeth and Samuel aware that our unconscious can give us away, they are also aware that our bodies will reveal what we might strive to conceal.

From December 1667 he mentions his eye problems almost daily and is markedly depressed, denigrating everything he sees at the theatre and finding almost everything lacklustre. Although he dismisses performances from a critical point of view, he adds: “it is with great trouble that I now see a play, because of my eyes, the light of the candles making it very troublesome to me” (14th April 1669). This is hardly surprising since it is at the theatre that Elizabeth keeps closest watch on him.

Finally, on 6th May 1669 he blames his ill-fated diary: “My eyes being bad with writing my journal.” The diary, which started as a way of protecting himself from existential angst, has metamorphosed into a physical threat. In exposing his true self on paper, Pepys has begun to fear that his chaotic, fearful, manic and envious diary-self is consuming the outward persona he presents to the world. He knows that if his preferred self—the faithful husband, the handsome periwigged clothes horse, the successful civil servant, the gourmet—is to live, the other must go. “And so I betake myself to that course which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave—for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me” (31st May 1669).

This passage was written as though death were just round the corner, which, for one part of him, it was. It displays Pepys’s decision to get rid of the aspects of his life that are not suitable for public view, to destroy the pleasure-seeking diarist and hand himself over to the presentable self he has created to face the world. That year he became MP for Harwich.

It is agonising for us, the voyeurs he never imagined might intrude on him, not to know his reaction to his wife’s death a year after the diary ends. There is something infinitely sad too that the man “all the world” today knows so well is the shameful, chaotic, lecherous, frantic man Pepys was so terrified of revealing and fought so hard to conceal. The diabolical diary double, his true self, won out in the end.