“In a sickly time”: Reading Pepys in 2020

Samuel Pepys, Image via Wikipedia. Image file by John Hayls - Walthamstow Weekender (file), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=210769


I have a little bookcase where I have books about London, short story collections and other brief volumes (such as Penguin’s Little Black Classics) thinking of visitors who might want a quick read. Lately this bookcase has been my go-to resource when I can’t sleep.

Last night, unable to go to bed early worrying about everything that’s happening in the world, at work and at home, nearby and faraway, I grabbed one of those Penguins, number 47, “The Great Fire of London”, containing entries from The Diary of Samuel Pepys dated May 1st to June 31st, 1665, and September 2nd to 15th, 1666.

It’s common-place now to think of Pepys as a 17th century protoblogger. I have, in the past, many a time recurred to the Diary in a second-hand two-volume Everyman edition I treasure. I like dipping in and out from it at random.


My copy of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol I., Everyman's Classics

The first half of the little Penguin volume, May 1st to June 31st, 1665, contains many references to the plague. What’s striking to me is how contemporary the account feels- though Pepys was noticeably concerned about the “encrease” of the plague, he also continued his daily life as socially active as ever, kissing people’s hands and all.

Pepys keeps count of the increasing fatalities, and the safety he feels being in the “City” relatively diminishes as the plague gets very close home:

10 June 1665

In the evening home to supper, and there to my great trouble hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City); but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr Burnett in Fanchurch-street – which in both points troubles me mightily.

15 June 1665

The town grows very sickly, and people to be afeared of it – there dying this last week of the plague 112, from 43 the week before – whereof, one in Fanchurch-street and one in Broadstreete by the Treasurer’s office.

26 June 1665

The plague encreases mightily- I this day, seeing a house, at a bittmakers over against St Clements church in the open street, shut up; which is a sad sight.

The last entry from 1665 in the Penguin edition I read last night is from 30 June, where Pepys writes:

Myself and family in good health, consisting of myself and wife – Mercer, her woman – Mary, Alice and Su, our maids; and Tom, my boy. In a sickly time, of the plague growing on.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys is online at https://www.pepysdiary.com/and selections from entries mentioning the plague can be found at http://www.pepys.info/1665/plague.html.


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