I wasn’t going to blog during this strange and troubling time, but all of a sudden the seventeenth century has become the go-to period for historical parallels, and my old friend Samuel Pepys has seen a huge upsurge in interest – even earning the ultimate accolade of an opinion piece in the New York Times. In truth, though, our Sam was about the worst apostle for social distancing one could ever encounter. Here, for example, is part of his entry for 10 August 1665:
By and by to the office, where we sat all the morning; in great trouble to see the Bill this week rise so high, to above 4,000 in all, and of them above 3,000 of the plague. And an odd story of Alderman Bence’s stumbling at night over a dead corps in the streete, and going home and telling his wife, she at the fright, being with child, fell sicke and died of the plague. We sat late, and then by invitation my Lord Brunker, Sir J. Minnes, Sir W. Batten and I to Sir G. Smith’s to dinner, where very good company and good cheer. Captain Cocke was there and Jacke Fenn, but to our great wonder Alderman Bence, and tells us that not a word of all this is true, and others said so too, but by his owne story his wife hath been ill, and he fain to leave his house and comes not to her, which continuing a trouble to me all the time I was there.
Thence to the office and, after writing letters, home, to draw over anew my will, which I had bound myself by oath to dispatch by to-morrow night; the town growing so unhealthy, that a man cannot depend upon living two days to an end. So having done something of it, I to bed.
So thousands might be dying, Pepys knows he might die at any moment and is putting his affairs in order, but hey, let’s have a jolly dinner party anyway. The next day, he’s harassing a woman he’s never met before in one of the countless distinctly non-#metoo episodes which pervade his diary. Meanwhile the churches remained open, and when he went to one on the following Sunday he found it packed – no social distancing at all there, for certain.
Now, it’s good to see the 1660s suddenly become so fashionable, but this has had its downsides. A few days ago, there was a minor Twitterstorm over an alleged quote from Pepys’s Diary:
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!
Full disclosure: I’m not quite so much of a nerd that I know the whole of the Diary off by heart, but I have to say that I smelled a rat at once. For one thing, this quotation was attributed to 1664, when the plague didn’t strike London until the summer of 1665, but for another, it rang no bells whatsoever – and even if I can’t recite the whole thing off by heart, I know the volume for 1665 pretty well because it also marked the start of the second Anglo-Dutch war. So yes, I was 99% certain this passage was a modern invention even before forensic analysis of it comprehensively disproved it – there’s a particular good examination of it here, while the splendid Samuel Pepys Club, of which I’ve been a member for years, suddenly found itself in a social media firefight to set the record straight. Of course, the creation of this passage was perfectly innocuous, but it demonstrated (as if we needed further proof) just how quickly ‘fake news’ gets disseminated, with countless social media users repeating and passing on the quotation as though it were gospel.
But then, Pepys himself was just as gullible when it came to ‘fake news’, and just as responsible for passing it on. (See my published work over thirty years, passim.) Consider the passage from 10 August 1665, above, and the news about Alderman Bence’s wife, while here’s Sam on 23 February of the same year:
At noon to the ‘Change, where I hear the most horrid and astonishing newes that ever was yet told in my memory, that De Ruyter with his fleete in Guinny hath proceeded to the taking of whatever we have, forts, goods, ships, and men, and tied our men back to back, and thrown them all into the sea, even women and children also. This a Swede or Hamburgher is come into the River and tells that he saw the thing done. But, Lord! to see the consternation all our merchants are in is observable, and with what fury and revenge they discourse of it. But I fear it will like other things in a few days cool among us. But that which I fear most is the reason why he that was so kind to our men at first should afterward, having let them go, be so cruel when he went further. What I fear is that there he was informed (which he was not before) of some of Holmes’s dealings with his countrymen, and so was moved to this fury. God grant it be not so!
But a more dishonourable thing was never suffered by Englishmen, nor a more barbarous done by man, as this by them to us.
Of course, the story about the massacre at Guinea by the Dutch admiral was fiction, and although he’s inclined to accept the story, Pepys does display a degree of critical scepticism which, these days, is largely absent from so many of those who believe whatever nonsense they read in a tweet, or in the pages and so-called ‘news’ broadcasts of certain unscrupulous newspapers and TV channels. The uncertainty about whether the source of the story is a Swedish or German skipper suggests that Pepys might be smelling a bit of a rat, especially as it contrasts so markedly with what he knows for sure about De Ruyter’s behaviour. Even more telling is the fact that even if he inclines on balance to accept the story, he provides a form of justification for such a horrific act, namely as revenge for atrocities committed by his own countryman, Sir Robert Holmes. This surely displays a sophistication of critical thought and relative fairmindedness which is so largely absent in these days of ‘my country / political party / pet conspiracy theory right or wrong’. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether people make up Pepys quotations to suit our times, and it’s clearly very good news if more people become aware of Pepys and the 1660s as a result. We can learn a lot from him – except when it comes to #metoo, obviously.
Anyway, stay safe, everybody, and I’ll blog again as and when something comes along which moves me to hammer the keyboard. Meanwhile it’s back to partial self-isolating lockdown, aka the usual author lifestyle!