28 Apr 2015

Knowing Samuel Pepys

(L)et them get the spirit of history into them by reading, at least, one old Chronicle written by a man who saw and knew something of what he wrote about, and did not get it at second-hand. These old books are easier and pleasanter reading than most modern works on history, because the writers know little of the 'dignity of history'; they purl along pleasantly as a forest brook, tell you 'all about it,' stir your heart with the story of a great event, amuse you with pageants and shows, make you intimate with the great people, and friendly with the lowly. They are just the right thing for the children whose eager souls want to get at the living people behind the words of the history book, caring nothing at all about progress, or statutes, or about anything but the persons, for whose action history is, to the child's mind, no more than a convenient stage. A child who has been carried through a single old chronicler in this way has a better foundation for all historical training than if he knew all the dates and names and facts that ever were crammed for examination.
Charlotte Mason, Home Education p282

On Saturday afternoon, Jemimah, her daddy and I went to see the new movie, Cinderella. We'd heard good reports, and the film more than lived up to the hype. I'd recommend it, if you get a chance to go. There are lots of lovely moments, but a highlight for Jemimah and me was when we realised that the book the grown Ella was reading aloud to her father was none other than our very good friend, Samuel Pepys. Mr Pepys has a very distinctive voice, and Jemimah and I both recognised his style immediately. It was a joyful and very satisfying homeschooling moment for us both.

Samuel Pepys caused me a little bit of grief when I realised his diary was scheduled in AO8. His story is so important, his writing style is so captivating - straightforward, lively and chatty, he is a pleasure to get to know, and you can't help but like him. But...our friend Samuel was not always an upstanding citizen. He drank too much, and he was rather an unpleasant, violent drunk. He frittered away his money on frivolous pursuits. He was a womaniser. Although he loved his wife, he fell hard and often for barmaids, actresses, duchesses, maids, and the wives of his friends. He is also remarkably frank about his own faults and weaknesses, and he records his dalliances in agonisingly embarrassing detail. In fact, Samuel Pepys was so explicit, that the first unabridged version of his diaries wasn't published until the 1970s (so you needn't worry about Cinderella - I'm sure her version was quite clean). My concern was how I could introduce my daughter to this charming rogue, and how much I really wanted her to know about him.

Pepys was born in London in 1633, and he kept his diaries for ten years through some of the most fascinating years of English history. He was involved in the Restoration of Charles II, he was an eye witness to the Plague, the Great Fire of London, and the execution of great men including Charles I. Concerned about the frankness of his writing, AmblesideOnline choose to read only a very short excerpt of the diary, covering the Great Fire and the Plague, but although these events were undoubtedly important, I feel that the major value in reading Pepys is learning about the minor events of his everyday life in 1660s London - the food he eats, the books he buys (he was a bibliophile, and I love reading the titles he purchases and his 'book reviews'), the fashions of his wife’s clothes (what were the ‘patches’ that the women wear on their cheeks?), the games they play, his dealings with his servants, his impressions on the plays he attends, the renovations of his house. I wanted more of Samuel Pepys than just a few pages.

After much consideration, I decided on using this entertaining dramatisation of the diary adapted by Hattie Naylor, and produced by the BBC. It is over 12 hours long, and is contained on 11 CDs. This is not for purists – portions of the diary are read, but in between, the events are acted, and are imagined, not factually accurate. There is some bad language – Pepys was extraordinarily fond of the word t*rd for excrement, and uses it liberally to describe the product of both man and beast. There is also much womanising and typical Pepys behavior. Since I am listening to this production with Jemimah, I have not found the content too extreme, but he was a very naughty boy, and it still shows in this production.So far we have listened to four CDs and are enjoying it very much indeed.

In addition to the CDs, Jemimah is also dipping into this book, Voices from the World of Samuel Pepys by Jonathan Bastable. Using Pepys' diary as its main resource, the book also quotes from other first-hand accounts of the day to give us a well rounded account of 17th century London.

As Jemimah learns about Samuel Pepys this year, I hope that this era of history is brought vividly alive as she learns what living in London was like – church, theatre, coffee houses, taverns, books, fashion, music, politics and home-life. When she reads her dry outline of 17th century England, this is what I want to remember. Not lists of dates; real men and women, with real families and real lives. That's really what history is all about, isn't it? To me, this is the value of getting to know Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys.
The fatal mistake is in the notion that he must learn 'outlines,' or a baby edition of the history of England, or of Rome, just as he must cover the geography of the world. Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age. Let him spend a year of happy intimacy with Alfred, 'the truth-teller,' with the Conqueror, with Richard and Saladin, or with Henry V.––Shakespeare's Henry V.––and his victorious army. Let him know the great people and the common people, the ways of the court and of the crowd. Let him know what other nations were doing while we at home were doing thus and thus. If he come to think that the people of another age were truer, larger-hearted, simpler-minded than ourselves, that the people of some other land were, at one time, at any rate, better than we, why, so much the better for him.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education pp280-1

Here's part of the dramatisation telling about The Great Fire of London.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we both do.  Meet 'our' Mr Pepys.


  1. I did wonder, when you mentioned you'd be doing pepys this year, what you were going to do about the naughty bits. ☺ Happy to know there was a solution. He is great fun.

  2. He is fun, isn't he? Like I said - a loveable rogue.

  3. I have a copy of his diary from around 1900. The naughty bits are out but unfortunately, so are some most interesting every day life things that were considered taboo in 1900? We were excited when we caught that in Cinderella as well. I really want to check out your recommendations for my next up for that year.

  4. Interesting about Cinderella! Good catch you two.

  5. So have you cut something else you make time for this, or have you added it to the free read pile or...?

  6. Claire, Pepys was already scheduled, only the readings weren't specified. I've kept it as a scheduled book, but we're listening to it in the car on the way to dance, and we sort of discuss it at the time in lieu of narration. Make sense?

  7. Jeanne, this is wonderful! Seventeenth-century England was my focus in graduate school, and I love Samuel Pepys. The CD collection sounds perfect. And we have our drive to Maine coming up in a month or two...

  8. I appreciate this kind of post so much from you. They educate me. I am an uneducated product of U.S. public schools, daughter of uneducated migrant farmworkers, wanting to do better for my children. I am learning so much alongside my children doing AO, but your insights into the years that are just ahead of us really help me to prepare. Thank you.

  9. This post really interested me, so I ordered a copy of his diaries for the future. When I came home I also discovered that I'd had a book about him on my shelves for years. Awesome!!


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...