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Peeping on Pepys

How moving Samuel Pepys’ diary off the bedside table changed history on the internet.

Samuel Pepys, by John Hayls, 1666. [National Portrait Gallery, London]

In a 1970 New York Times review of the first unexpurgated edition of the diary of Samuel Pepys,  the literary critic Paul Delany wrote of how easy it is to commune with Pepys, who “experiences and records reality in just the way we do ourselves, as a turbid flow of incomplete, half‐coherent perceptions, connected only in that they all impinge on a single consciousness, our own.” This intimacy came with a price, according to Delany, who warned that modern readers should brace for the “salutary, even shocking experience” of recognizing “in Pepys’ secret life, hidden behind a superficial gregariousness, the degree of our own isolation from our fellows.” 

Reading Pepys in 1970 would indeed have been mostly a solitary endeavor, as it had been since the first expurgated edition was published in 1825, a few years after the publication of John Evelyn’s diary proved there was a market for the genre. The work of transcribing the cryptic shorthand that filled the six bound volumes Pepys had bequeathed to his alma mater, Cambridge University’s Magdalene College, upon his death in 1703, fell to an undergraduate student named John Smith. 

Twenty-six-year old Pepys, a clerk in the office of the Exchequer, had begun the diary in 1660; in his first entry he described his station as “very handsome, and esteemed rich, but indeed very poor.” Later the same year, his acceptance of a different clerkship, this time for the royal dockyards, kicked off a decades-long career in naval administration. Pepys continued recording his daily activities and thoughts until 1669, when he stopped out of concern for his eyesight. 

In the centuries since, Pepys’ diary has developed a double reputation. On the one hand it contains an enormous amount of valuable information about important historical events as well as everyday life in 1660s London. Pepys’ career gave him easy access to high-ranking government figures, which made him a useful reporter of high-level information about political, economic, and military affairs. He also covered the return of Charles II from exile, the Great Plague of London, and the Great Fire of London. Pepys loved being out in the city and talking with fellow Londoners of all ranks; through his diary he takes us with him to shops, church, taverns, neighbors’ houses, and theaters. As a result, his diary is a primary source that has continued to hold interest for historians even as the field has moved away from 19th-century “great man” history and toward examinations of the past through social and cultural lenses.

On the other hand, the diary has a literary reputation largely distinct from its historical value. It is, in anglophone and especially British culture, often held up as being the right sort of book for casual nightly reading: interesting enough to dip into regularly, but not so exciting as to tempt the reader to stay up late. Among the figures that either kept a copy of Pepys’ diary bedside or have recommended others do so are the economist Edith Penrose, the British politician and TV personality Gyles Brandreth, and Arthur Bryant, a Pepys biographer who in the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Pepys deems the diary “probably, after the Bible and James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, the best bedside book in the English language.”

Interested in reading the diary but skeptical of his own ability to commit to finishing it in book form, a British web designer and programmer named Phil Gyford began considering a different way to digest Pepys in 2002. As Gyford himself has explained in interviews, structuring the diary as a daily blog “seemed such a simple and obvious idea that I thought someone must have created such a website already.” Nobody had, and PepysDiary.com launched in December 2002.

Almost immediately, it became clear that the blog format offered readers more than just convenience: it also enabled a giant Pepys book club. “Entries and footnotes are already being annotated by readers who provide explanations and additional information, creating a more communal experience than conventional publishing allows,” Gyford told the BBC in January 2003, shortly after the first entry went live. “So rather than simply publishing a dead — albeit fascinating — text, I now find myself in charge of a far more exciting living read.”

Pepys’ final diary entry, dated May 30, 1669, was first posted online in the spring of 2012. “Thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal,” Pepys wrote. “And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave.” (Pepys would live another 34 years, but, true to his word, he never returned to his diary.) The comments left on the entry by PepysDiary.com readers were similarly funereal. “It’s a bit like hearing of a close friend’s passing,” commenter Stan Oram wrote. Commenter Eric Walla observed that “Sam has been truly alive for us in ‘real time,’ and having the diary come to a close we must ourselves awake and remember how Sam has been gone from us for these centuries.”

PepysDiary.com is now in its 22nd continuous year of operation, a little more than a year into the third “reading” of the full diary. (The second reading ran from 2013 to 2022.) Gyford originally planned to run through the full nine years and five months of the diary just once, which was, in 2002, an incredibly long time to imagine keeping a single internet project functional. In a 2012 retrospective for Wired, Russell M. Davies philosophically compared the emergence of PepysDiary.com to the development of the Clock of the Long Now. He also asserted that the Pepys blog teaches us “that web success can be built with things other than venture cash, spammy PR, and rapid scaling. PepysDiary.com has a community because people found it, hung around and started contributing.”

Perhaps the earliest and most dramatic contribution made by commenters was to challenge Gyford’s choice to pull his text from the most complete copyright-free version available, Henry Benjamin Wheatley’s edition from the 1890s. This edition had been digitized and made freely available online through Project Gutenberg, which was founded in 1971 and began distributing free eBooks through ARPANET more than a decade before the internet existed. The use of Wheatley’s text meant that entries on PepysDiary.com were, initially, pockmarked with ellipses signifying expurgations. 

Many of these passages had been struck because they detailed Pepys’ lively (and not always consensual) extramarital sex life, although plenty were simple mentions of biological functions. One sentence concerning Pepys’ wife Elizabeth’s menstrual cycle from Pepys’ first entry, dated January 1, 1660, originally appeared on Gyford’s website as follows.

My wife …  gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year … [the hope was belied.]

The early comments on this first post broadly expressed excitement for the project, but several readers, unhappy about the elisions, posted the missing excerpts themselves, basing their corrections on the aforementioned 1970 edition reviewed in the Times, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews and published by the University of California Press. It was the first and only exhaustive publication to print all previously expurgated text. It was also still under copyright.

“I got tired of waiting for someone to post the omitted material,” Steve Dodson, a longtime blogger who uses the nom de plume Languagehat, posted several days after the first entry went live, “and went to the library on my lunch hour to find it.” Thereafter, readers with access to the Latham and Matthews edition reliably posted the expurgated material underneath each daily entry, always in chunks short enough to constitute fair use (not a difficult feat, considering that the diary contains more than a million words).

Eventually, in late 2022, Gyford himself began incrementally adding the expurgations from the comments into the body of the text. By the time Gyford embarked on his third reading cycle, at the beginning of 2023, the same passage from Pepys’ first entry had been updated to read as follows. 

My wife … [, after the absence of her terms for seven weeks, – L&M] gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year … [the hope was belied.] [she hath them again. – L&M]

The campaign for the restoration of Wheatley’s elisions — and the de facto freely accessible, digital, unexpurgated edition of Pepys’ diary that resulted — was not the only material change to the website that resulted from reader initiative. Sometimes these innovations were technical, reflecting the site’s immediate popularity among tech-savvy internet denizens. In one notable example, commenter Hugo van Kemenade’s 2016 Python script, which calculates sunrise and sunset times for each day of the diary, was made an official feature of the website in 2023. 

More often, however, the commenters simply share observations, crack jokes, and ask and answer each other’s questions in each daily entry’s comments section. A short but characteristic example is Pepys’ missive from April 3, 1661, which reads in full:

Up among my workmen, my head akeing all day from last night’s debauch. To the office all the morning, and at noon dined with Sir W. Batten and Pen, who would needs have me drink two drafts of sack to-day to cure me of last night’s disease, which I thought strange but I think find it true.

Then home with my workmen all the afternoon, at night into the garden to play on my flageolette, it being moonshine, where I staid a good while, and so home and to bed.

This day I hear that the Dutch have sent the King a great present of money, which we think will stop the match with Portugal; and judge this to be the reason that our so great haste in sending the two ships to the East Indys is also stayed.

Some of the comments left below this entry consist of poking good-natured fun at Sam for his hangover (a commenter named Judy: “I wonder how Sam stood the pain in his aking head”) and the lack of concern he showed for his neighbors by staying up late in his garden tooting his flageolette, a wind instrument similar to the modern recorder (a commenter named Dirk: “Lucky that Sam didn't get any flower pots thrown at his head. Some people need their sleep, you know!”). 

A meatier discussion, however, was kicked off by Vincent’s assertion, based on historical astronomical data, that the “sky must have been very clear” that night for there to have been any moonlight visible, “as [the] new moon was on 30 of March.” Immediately, other commenters jumped in to point out that Vincent had his dates wrong: Pepys used the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian one we use today and on which Vincent’s astronomical information was based. Properly converted, Pepys’ April 3, 1661, would have been the equivalent of “our,” i.e., the Gregorian calendar’s, April 13, 1661, a day on which the moon was in fact very close to full. 

From there, the commenters launched into a wide-ranging discussion on the nuances of Julian–Gregorian conversion and the role of the lunar cycle in Church festal calendars. Vincent left his initial comment about the moon on April 4, 2004; the conversation is still attracting new comments as of April 2024, 20 years and two reading cycles later.

The diary fans community is not limited to PepysDiary.com. In May 2009, Gyford set up the @samuelpepys Twitter account to automatically post snippets from entries at approximately the time Pepys would have engaged in whatever activity is described in the snippet. This continued until August 2023, when, frustrated with Twitter’s increasingly erratic policies regarding automated tweets, Gyford stopped updating the Twitter account; the only social media account now associated with PepysDiary.com is on Mastodon

As is probably unsurprising to anyone who spends time on the internet, the comments left on PepysDiary.com pages differ in length and tone from those responding to its social media posts. The website version of Pepys’ entry of January 28, 1661, in which our correspondent describes being accidentally spat upon by an attractive lady while at the theater — he specifies he did not mind in the least — provoked discussions about the historical meanings of various details of the entry, including a genuine interrogation into the 17th-century etiquette of spitting for ladies. When the same entry was posted on Twitter, on January 28, 2014, and on Mastodon, 10 years later, reactions were more visceral and off-the-cuff, ranging from “what a perv” to the pithy “bro what.”

Sometimes social media commenters respond with visual memes, as a Mastodon user named Kolya did to a section of Pepys’ entry for April 6, 1661, in which Pepys describes cornering and kissing a pretty barmaid.

Although disgust at his sexual proclivities is the subject of many social media users’ interactions with Pepys’ tweets and toots, some of his entries prove fertile ground for readers to self-identify with the diarist, usually in a self-deprecating manner. When it was posted on Twitter in 2023, the opening line of Pepys’ July 19, 1660, entry, which reads “I did lie late a-bed,” was answered by a litany of “Same,” “Me too,” and “Goals.”

Although these social media responses are generally nowhere near as deep or serious as the website comments (somewhat fittingly for Pepys, whose diary shows him to have been equally at home in high and low culture, from Magdalene College and the Navy Office to London’s seediest taverns and playhouses), each one still represents a moment of human connection with Pepys, whether it be one of self-recognition, disgust, or humor. And like the website comments, the social media interactions, at least those posted by public accounts, are just that, public, meaning they are by their very nature not an individual, introspective form of interaction with Pepys’ diary. 

When, in 1970, Paul Delany wrote of the “shocking experience” of realizing one’s own isolation that might strike readers of Latham and Matthews’s edition of Pepys’s diary, he was referring to how, in his view, the “fragmented, dissociated culture of modern capitalism” led to a “disappearance of a communal sense of life,” with the result that as individuals we are each left with “large realms of experience that only we have known” but can never share. As a “massive labor of introversion,” he continued, Pepys’s diary was an early-modern foretoken of the unsatisfying individualism that would dominate the 20th century.

Setting aside the question of whether interacting with Pepys’ diary entries online is necessarily satisfying, the fact that people still enthusiastically engage with and publicly reflect on Pepys’ daily exploits both on PepysDiary.com (which, according to site statistics Gyford shared in January 2024, garnered nearly 3,000 new comments in 2023 alone) and through social media channels is evidence that reading Pepys’ diary does not have to be an inherently lonely experience, despite what Delany predicted.

Every so often, commenters on PepysDiary.com are inspired to reflect on the fact that they themselves are embedded in history, that new readers may find details of their earlier comments nearly as alien as the unfamiliar details of Pepys’ 17th-century reality that the commenters spend so much time dissecting. In one comment left on April 28, 2024, a reader going by the name Keith Knight reflected upon the inclusion of the term “palm pilot” in a first-cycle reader’s comment from 2004. “Some younger people reading this now, only 20 years later,” he wrote, “wouldn’t know what this is, which highlights the issue of grappling with meaning of words and phrases from over 350 years ago.”

In other cases, readers found that reading about Pepys’ experiences helped them to process the global or personal high-stakes moments they were living through in the present day. In a May 2020 comment left on a diary entry dated August 12, 1665, during the deadliest days of the Great Plague of London, a reader named San Diego Sarah wrote of Pepys, “I now understand why he did not document more of the horrors. Like him, I look for diversions from the reality — I'm eating too much comfort food, while Pepys found his comfort in wine, women, and song.” 

Similarly, in September 2009, a commenter named Australian Susan responded to a September 6, 1666, entry in which Pepys described the great pleasure he enjoyed eating a simple meal just after the Great Fire of London was finally extinguished. “Sam describes a universal feeling I can relate to: the best meal I ever had in my life was the fry-up lunch my family ate at a greasy spoon near the Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital after we had had the reassurance that there was nothing wrong with my young son’s heart. To know you have got through something safely and to share companionship and food brings a sense of relief and goodwill.” 

The longevity of PepysDiary.com, combined with its cyclical reading schedule, means that readers sometimes encounter past versions of their own selves. In 2013, one reader wrote of the comments, “They are just as much a diary of a time past as Sam’s is.” Because the annotations from previous reading cycles are preserved with each new round, new readers wishing to leave a comment are likewise confronted with previous cycles’ questions, answers, and musings, which must be scrolled through to reach the comment box. 

At least for some readers, the copiousness of 10- and 20-year old reader thoughts about Pepys is an enormous asset to the site. “The history captured in the annotations, especially those from 2003,” a new reader named 3Lamps wrote in March 2023, soon after the start of the third reading, “is as historically fascinating as the diary itself.”

The poet Dave Bonta, who has been using Pepys’ diary entries as material for erasure poems for more than a decade, has similarly expressed the sense that the collective project of reading and responding to Pepys’ diary online has produced something historically valuable. “Reading (or at least skimming) the copious and informative annotations left by readers ten years ago,” he wrote in an essay for the poetry blog Via Negativa, “gives me a sense of inhabiting three historical periods at once. The diary is no longer just about them, those far-away Englishmen and women of the 17th century; it’s also about us.