Samuel Pepys – “The Diary” (fragments)

After yesterday’s post I checked the birth dates of Samuel Pepys and his wife, and I learnt that they were much younger than I thought. Somehow the portrait conventions, all these elaborate dresses and hairstyles, make people of the former eras always look “old”, while in fact Pepys wrote his diary between the ages of 27 and 37. His wife was seven years younger than him (she died, poor soul, of typhoid fever, when she was 29, just a few months after he ended writing his diary. The events described in this post took place when he was 35 and she was 28, so they were not a middle-aged bickering  couple, but quite young people. Heck, today they would just start considering “becoming exclusive”. (I just checked, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, Deb Willet at the time of these events was just 18.)

But in Pepys’s world, they “became exclusive” thirteen years ago, with of course the cultural assumption that faithfulness for a wife was obligatory, while for a husband it was just a nice ideal to aspire to. In fact, the cultural assumption was enshrined in English law, which stated that a husband could divorce his wife for adultery, while a wife could not. So the marital spats between Mr and Mrs Pepys, which AFAIR were a regular feature of their domestic life, make me rather sad. She could throw tantrums and make various threats and he could be all remorseful and swear never to cheat on her again (and perhaps even really mean it), but the truth of the matter is that at the back of their heads they both knew he had the upper hand in the conflict.

So the story is: Mrs Pepys does not want her husband to go out, because she is afraid he is going to search for Deb Willet, which he swears he won’t do, and of course as soon as he is out of door he heads to the place where he heard she might be staying. After a whole day spent in search of her (he sends somebody who thought knew somebody who worked as a porter for her landlord etc.), interspersed with popping in at his workplace now and then, he finally learns about her whereabouts and hires a coach to go to her, because by that time it got dark. She comes in the coach and he persuades her to give him a hand job (as usual, Pepys resorts to a mixture of Spanish and French words to describe the act), after which he gives her a sermon about how she needs to guard her honour. In Pepys’s curious definition, it means not doing it wtih any other man but him. It’s funny, but also I think what a great deal of men define as “a decent woman” nowadays, even if they don’t admit it. He gives her some money and the directions how to contact him secretly. He goes home, tells his wife some nice story about what kept him so late and goes to bed.

The next day Pepys works from home and he is in very good mood all morning, thinking he managed his affair with Deb just fine. When before the lunch he goes to see how the redecoration of one of their rooms goes on, he notices his wife’s sour face. She starts to accuse him of going to see Deb Willet yesterday, he first denies it, knowing that she can have no proof, but finally admits to ease her and his mind and also to relieve his conscience. (I think the cheaters who go all “see, I told you everything, I am so honest and have such a sensitive conscience” are not worse than plain cheaters.) Elizabeth makes various threats to slit Deb’s nose, and to leave her husband, and demands money of him to make her leave quietly instead of publicizing his affair. So she yells, he apologizes, and finally he decides to call in his clerk William Hewer, who by this time was pretty much his friend, and poor Hewer is forced to play the role of the child who cries and says “Mommy, don’t leave Daddy!” (The Pepyses didn’t have children; Pepys did live the last years of his life in Hewer’s house and made him the executor of his will, so I think the comparison is quite apt.) Finally Elizabeth makes Pepys swear he will never see or speak with Deb again. After that they have supper and pretty good make-up sex. In the middle of the night Pepys goes to his room to pray on his knees to God to give him strength to stop cheating on his wife, because he really hates when they quarrel, although he notices mournfully that “God knows I cannot yet [pray] heartily”, which sounds awfully like St Augustine’s prayer “Lord, make me pure, but not yet”. He is so depressed by the whole business that he cannot even enjoy the new upholstery in his room. As the Helpful Footnote points out, God didn’t send Pepys his grace and he did continue to pursue Deb, but apparently they never consummated their affair.


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