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Idle Hours in a Library

Idle Hours in a Library
Title: Idle Hours in a Library
Release Date: 2018-02-28
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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dealt with,to which I want to direct attention. Yet it isnecessary just to say that, as documentary evidenceconcerning the inner life of the court andsociety, the inconceivable, the unutterable profligacyof the King and his followers, the irresponsibilityof those in charge of public affairs, thecomplete demoralization of the upper classesduring the early years of the Restoration, Pepys’schronicle furnishes a record that we cannotafford to overlook. His simplicity, insouciance,and habitual self-possession are often more tellingthan the most eloquent descriptions of historians,the most fervid denunciations of moralists.An accidental word of his will often lay barea condition of things which lengthy analysis,supported by innumerable references to authoritieswill hardly make us realize, a few passing93sentences, penned au jour le jour, having frequentlythe power of throwing some circumstance,otherwise almost incredible, into suddenand lurid relief. Indeed, the mere fact that thetemper of moral indignation is not one to whichPepys often or easily gives way, itself lends addedforce to all he writes, and intensifies the meaningof his rare exclamations of horror or protest. IfPepys had any political convictions at all, theywere of the most flexible kind; he did not cultivatethe sort of conscience which has the troublesomefaculty of interfering at unexpectedtimes with its owner’s chances of worldly advancementand success. Brought up under theCommonwealth, and, for a time at least, markedby Roundhead proclivities, he readily and rapidlytransferred his allegiance to the new régime,his only anxiety being, it would seem, lest hisearlier opinions should be resuscitated, withunpleasant practical results. Oddly enough,though the Diary opens in the midst of a greatpolitical crisis—when Monk was marching fromScotland, and English affairs were hangingpoised in the balance of fate,—it nowhere containsany utterance of strong party feeling, anydistinctly enunciated wish, either for the restorationof the Stuarts or for the preservation of the94Commonwealth. When the Merry Monarch wassettled upon the throne, Pepys quietly acceptedthe fact—along with the very desirable office inthe Admiralty secured thereby. You say thatthe spirit thus shown is not a manly, not a nobleone. Alas! no. Pepys, I am afraid, had butone firmly rooted political principle—the principleproverbially associated with the celebratedVicar of Bray, of looking out for himself andhis own welfare. Here, of course, we are stronglytempted to indulge by the way in a little conventionalmoralizing, and to congratulate ourselvesthat in our own days, in enlightened America,the low aims and sordid ambitions of poor oldPepys are quite unknown. But I restrain myeloquence, having other matters on hand. Thepoint I want to dwell on for the moment is, thattestimony to the political and social corruptionfollowing the Restoration, coming from such aman as this, is testimony of almost unique value,on account of the very character of the witness.To lead you through the miry places of theDiary is no part of my present plan; but letme just say that when such a man, albeit unusedto the chiding mood, bursts out with the exclamation,“So they are all mad!—and thus thekingdom is governed!”—when, as sometimes95happens, he speaks with genuine sorrow of whathe has heard, or perhaps seen, in the high placesof the land; when he scatters among his smalltalk and frivolous details sentences full of dismalapprehension concerning the country’s positionand outlook,—then things must have come to apretty pass indeed. Pepys was professionallycommitted to the Stuart dynasty; yet, as hasbeen well said, a splendid eulogy of Cromwellcould be gathered from the obiter dicta of hispages. Certainly, we need hardly travel outsidethe Diary itself, if we seek only to understandand estimate the iniquities and political short-sightednessof those who succeeded Cromwell inplace and power.


But now we will descend from the dignity ofhistory—if these things belong to the dignityof history—to the plane of common every-daylife. Abandoning our quest for edification, wewill wander for a little while about the Diary, forno other purpose than that of deriving whatamusement we may from its personal banalitiesand social tittle-tattle. Pepys tempts us to be asunsystematic and inconsequential as himself.We will assume, therefore, the privilege which,according to Hazlitt, Coleridge so constantly96abused in his conversational monologues—thatof beginning nowhere in particular, and ending,if we see fit, in the same place.

It has been said that in Pepys’s ten years’record there are more than five hundred referencesto dress and personal decoration. I havenot checked the statement, but I can easilybelieve it. This gives, roughly speaking, anaverage of one such notice to each week coveredby the journal. Dress and the affairs of thetoilet were indeed for Pepys always matters ofserious importance, not to be disregarded in themidst of the greatest strain of public events.We learn that at times Mrs. Pepys’s femininedesire for a new gown or some expensive bit offinery gave rise to domestic bickering and husbandlyreproof, and that the money laid out ontailoring and haberdashery occasionally causedan uneasy hour. Yet, with all his thrift, Pepysseems to have had a remarkably free hand whenquestions of this kind stood in the way. Hereports, without remorse, the payment of twenty-fourpounds for a single suit—the best, he adds,“that I ever wore in my life”; and later on,notes the spending of eighty pounds for a necklacefor his wife—though in this case he hasmisgivings. It is sad to relate that, on the97whole, our diarist was much less concerned abouthis own personal extravagances than about theextravagances of his better-half—a fact whichshows us that husbands, like other conveniencesof life, have been improved by the course ofcivilization. At any rate, once noting, to hisgreat sorrow and alarm, a month’s outlay ofseventy-seven pounds on dress and its accompaniments,he adds that about twelve pounds ofthis had gone for his wife, and the small remainingbalance—some fifty-five pounds—for himself.Charity begins at home; but economy, likejustice, often starts next door. Pepys’s maritalparsimoniousness frequently manifests itself invery petty ways; as when, for example, underdate 14th February, 1666-7, he writes—“I amalso this year my wife’s valentine, and it will costme £5; but that I must have laid out if we hadnot been valentines.”

Once upon a time, Mr. and Mrs. Pepys wentto the theatre together, and there they saw“Mrs. Stewart, very fine, with her locks done upwith puffs, as my wife calls them, and severalother great ladies had their hair so, though I donot like it; but my wife do mightily; but it isonly because she sees it is the fashion.” This isall very well as a piece of superior masculine98judgment; but unfortunately our moralist betraysno such scruples when social opinion prescribesa new departure in his own accoutrement. Wenotice with interest in the jottings of the journalthe first appearance, or early reappearance, ofseveral curious customs in dress. Patches wereused by Mrs. Pepys, for the first time “since wewere married,” on 30th August, 1660; and on12th June, 1663, after observing the growth ofthe practice then indulged in by ladies, of wearingvizards, or masks, at the theatre—a practicewe can understand better as we come to knowmore of the character of the performances givenon the Restoration stage,—Mr. Pepys goesforthwith to the Exchange “to buy things withmy wife; among others, a vizard for herself.”On 3d November, in this same year, he reportsthe adoption by himself of the new mode ofwearing a periwig in place of the natural hair.It went a little to his heart, we find, to part withhis own head-gear. However, he was somewhatreassured when, causing all his maids to lookupon him, he observed their satisfaction with theresult; though he notes intense self-consciousnessand some embarrassment when, the nextday, he went abroad for the first time in hisnew guise. About the same period he begins to99shave himself—a performance which pleaseshim “mightily,” as promising to save both timeand money. “Up betimes and shaved myself,”so runs a later entry, “after a week’s growth;but Lord! how ugly I was yesterday, and howfine to-day.”

One is sorely tempted here to reproduce afew of the many passages in which the vain oldchronicler gloats over his handsome clothing,and the imposing figure cut by him at the theatre,or on the promenade, or in church. Butone or two must suffice as specimens:—

“July 10, 1660. This day I put on my new silk suit,the first that ever I wore in my life.”

“Feb. 3, 1661, (Lord’s Day). This day I first begun[sic] to go forth in my coat and sword, as the mannernow among gentlemen is.”

“April 22, 1661. Up early, and made myself as fineas I could.”

“Oct 19, 1662, (Lord’s Day). Put on my first newlace-band; and so neat it is, that I am resolved mygreat expense shall be lace-bands, and it will set offanything else the more.”

“May 17, 1668, (Lord’s Day). Up and put on mynew stuff suit, with a shoulder belt, according to thenew fashion, and the bands of my vest and tuniquelaced with silk lace of the colour of my suit; and sovery handsome to church.”

100Alas, poor Pepys! Where be your lace-bandsnow? your shoulder-belts? your rich silk vests?

The prominence of dress in the Diary may wellsurprise us, but we are scarcely less astonishedby the amount of space given by our busy manof affairs to the most various kinds of pleasureand simple merrymaking. Amongst the gamesin which Mr. Secretary Pepys seems to havefound special satisfaction, tennis, ninepins, andbilliards hold high place; but these, after all, neveryielded him a tithe of the pure enjoyment thathe derived from his more intellectual pastimes,reading and music. Pepys was a genuine musician;and we get the impression from the journalthat his love of music reached the proportions ofa real passion—the only passion, indeed, of hislife. On the other hand, he was not a systematicscholar, though he devoured books with avidity,keeping in touch with the literary output of hisday, and at least tasting all sorts of things, fromCicero, the Hebrew grammar, and Hooker’s“Ecclesiastical Polity,” downward to Audley’s“Way to be Rich,” and the last-published comedyof the popular playwrights of his time. Hereare a couple of sample entries:—

“Feb. 10, 1661-2. To Paul’s Churchyard, and thereI met with Dr. Fuller’s ‘England’s Worthys,’ the first101time that ever I saw it; and so I sat down reading init; being much troubled that (though he had somediscourse with me about my family and arms) he saysnothing at all, nor mentions us either in Cambridgeshireor Norfolke. But I believe, indeed, our familywere never considerable.”

“July 1, 1666. ... Walked to Woolwich, reading‘The Rivall Ladys’[4] all the way, and find it a mostpleasant and fine writ play.”

Pepys’s passing opinions have not much criticalvalue, but they are his own, which is morethan can be said of many literary dicta far morepretentious than his. It is rather instructive tofollow some of his fluctuations in taste. Wenotice—to take a single illustration only—thatwhen the first part of “Hudibras” was issued,he bought a copy for half a crown, having heardit much cried up for its pungent wit; but was somuch disappointed when he came to dip into it,that he sold it again the same afternoon foreighteen-pence. Still every one talked of thepoem, and Pepys began to wonder whether hehad given it a fair trial. So a few days later hepurchased another copy, resolved on closer study.Now, I will venture to say that in this emergency102poor Pepys kept himself by no means free fromthe sham admiration and cuckoo-criticism whichis the bane of our drawing-rooms, and, for thatmatter, of some of our college classrooms, at thepresent day. Had you met him in social gatherings,and had the talk turned on “Hudibras,”as it would almost certainly have done, then,doubtless, you would have found that Pepys,fearful of appearing deficient in acumen or taste,would have little or nothing to say about hisadverse judgment, and might even consent tolaugh perfunctorily at jokes he really did notthink funny, and at doggerel rhymes which inhis heart of hearts he held to be simply stupid.Meanwhile, he confides to his Diary the expressionof his honest opinion, promising himselfthat, on the appearance of the second part of thepoem, he will borrow it from some friend, andbuy it only if, on inspection, it should turn outto be better than the first part. All this is surelyedifying.

Here we ought perhaps to add that, in an ill-advisedmoment, Mr. Pepys undertook to learnto dance. “The

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