One of the passions of my reading life—which might seem strange for a youngish man—has been devouring and re-devouring the complete diaries of Samuel Pepys, which, when stacked on top of one another, rise above my knee. If you are late to the Pepys game, it suffices to say that our man, who was born in early 1633 and went on to be England’s chief administrator of the navy and a member of parliament, was king of the diarists. Day in, day out, he kept a record of his life from January 1st, 1660, and continued to do so for about 10 years. He likely wrote for posterity, but he also seemed to write with a maxim in mind: If it was true, he would say it. And so, we have him complaining with regularity about his wife, the cat he contemplates drowning, and his weakness—for Pepys was a born peeper—for young, comely actresses.
Strange as my passion for Pepys may be in the age of the meme and an apparent war on literate expression, it has nothing on how obsessed Pepys became with the plague that ravaged Albion circa 1665 – 66. His morbid fascination teaches us something about how we choose to view our own—albeit less gruesome—pandemic in the current age. And that choice is crucial to how we process the horror and adversity of our current circumstances and also the opportunity those circumstances offer for growth. This latter theme was one to which Pepys returned repeatedly, just as he returned to the charnel houses alongside the Thames.
The plague was likely to smite you if you numbered among London’s poor. In most cases, the rich fled the capital, or, like the poet John Wilmot (the Earl of Rochester), they scraped by on luck—Wilmot survived because he happened to be imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time, locked away from the death in the streets. Pepys, on the other hand, could not stay away, despite enjoying the financial means to sit out the plague had he wished to do so. He believed, ardently, in living his life, even as the city’s population grappled with a mysterious threat not dissimilar to the one we face today. And as I watched American college students on spring break, oblivious to the gathering danger and drunk out of their minds, I thought of Pepys mingling among them.
The bubonic plague was carried into human populations by fleas, and these creatures, Pepys boasted in his diaries, did not appear to like the taste of him. If you shared a bed with Samuel Pepys—and Pepys was a bed-sharer—you would awaken the following morning covered with bites, while he would be untouched. Presumably, this gave him the confidence to venture back into London to observe the dead and the dying, where he passed the days trying to reason out causes as he watched humankind twist in a fetid wind of its shared mortality. He even visited the plague pits where the corpses of those who had succumbed were dumped, like a harrowing scene from Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog. He charted the pitiless spread of the plague much as we have charted the advance of our own pandemic, its arrival in one’s home and that of one’s neighbor discussed like a dreadful houseguest. Bram Stoker must have seen these accounts, for he discussed Dracula’s overland and sea journeys in the same vatic language.
“The plague is got to Amsterdam,” Pepys wrote, in fall 1663, “brought by a ship by Argier.” He might as well have been describing a meeting of Biogen employees at the Marriott Hotel here in Boston. He went to his favorite coffee house before the quarantines descended, to get plague-related news and the latest details of the spread. Regarding prospective methods of combat, there are “some saying one thing, some another,” he recorded. Pepys, like Montaigne, was a brilliant observer, and he excelled at observing himself, be it inwardly—the darkening of his mood, for instance—or externally. No author ever wrote more vividly about the disgusting realities of living within the human body.
But Pepys was even better suited to assessing our shared humanity. He wrote with pith, and it’s tempting to believe he was doing so because keeping a daily diary is in some ways a grind. There are times you want to get in, get out, say you did your day’s work, and he often concluded his entries by announcing that he was retiring to bed. The hue changes, however, in the summer of 1655, as doubt and the plague creep in: “To the office to finish my letters, and then home to bed—being troubled at the sickness, and my head filled also with other business enough, and particularly how to put my things and estate in order.”
Pepys’s journal was his blog, and what he saw in the streets of London was his social media—a more valuable form than our own, because his observations yielded truths, rather than cultivating doubts. We don’t always know who or what to trust on Twitter or Facebook, where attention seekers compete to inflame fear and suspicion with hearsay and accusation. Pepys was not like this. He viewed the plague, even if it was going to rub him out, as an opportunity—an opportunity to hone his powers of observation, and to expand the scope of his thoughts beyond the quotidian; an opportunity to become, if not a metaphysical thinker, then at least a thinker of greater sophistication and nuance. He wrote to find answers, and he recorded his fears and anxieties honestly, not to conquer but to master them. To master fear is to learn to live with it, knowing that it exists for a purpose.
And so Pepys took terrible risks as he went about his life. He missed no business, be it work-related or pertaining to social matters, as when he oversaw the courtship of a prospective couple, a kind of referee of love in a time of death. As the plague ravaged the city, he began to regard death with a particularly Pepsyian form of insouciance. He focused on his tasks—the Royal Navy continued to expand—and appeared to realize that those who had abruptly adopted a streak of piety would likely discard it as soon as the scourge had passed, if it ever did.
Pandemics are seldom as ostentatious as the Reaper making his rounds, but they rend the fabric of society with a comparable—or even greater—level of efficacy given their subtlety. In Pepys’s time a scarlet cross on the door denoted an infected household and sentinels stood guard outside to keep people inside. Amid this horror and pestilence, the plague seasoned him as an observer, which is why he persisted in returning to locales that jeopardized his life. His family thought he was crazy to go, but go he did. Pepys seemed to believe that his inner life counted for vastly more than what might befall his material body, and that this justified the risks he took.
We can compare this attitude to the frivolities of today’s observers—those people who post ceaseless updates about COVID-19, not out of concern, nor to disseminate valuable information, but to satisfy their own internal emptiness. They simply want us to look at them, and so they cloak their intentions in something that seems salutary and humanitarian. These are the same people who routinely tell us how busy they are, but when afforded time in quarantine to do as they wish, do not start the novel, do not plan that new business they are always talking about, don’t read aloud to their kids, do not reconnect with their partner. Instead, they say they are stir crazy, bored, and craving community, by which they mean the approval bestowed by “likes” on social media.
Pepys was on to these people—he identified a strain of disease in his world and time that has grown exponentially in the centuries since. A friend came to visit Pepys in his rooms and pulled up a chair by his nightstand. “Lay very long in bed, discoursing with Mr. Hill,” Pepys recorded, “of most things of a man’s life, and how litle merit doth prevail in the world, but only favour—and that for myself, chance without merit brought me in, and that diligence only keeps me so, and will, living as I do amongst so many lazy people, that the diligent man becomes necessary, that they cannot do anything without him.”
You can feel his soul sag. Even Pepys, as Pepys has the self-awareness to realize, landed his gig through luck not skill, though it is the latter that ends up requiring him to do more work than his fellows, because it is he who can keep their operation running as it does. The realization is an enervating one, hence this long conversation, which I have always imagined dragging on for several hours. Pepys came to value the stifling of the plague because he wanted to be a better, more industrious man, and wanted to keep proving himself to himself, even as he mourned the terrible loss of life and feared for his family. But he also feared the life unlived—the life of mere existence.
Pepys could empathize and also yearn to out-perform those with whom he empathized. He could regret death, and still perceive the opportunity it offered. Out in the world, on his many walks, his observational trips and plague excursions, he was able to inhabit internal parts of himself that had hitherto lain dormant and untouched. “Thus ends this year, to my great joy, in this manner,” he wrote on New Year’s Eve, 1665. “I have raised my estate from 1300l in this year to 4400l. I have got myself greater interest, I think, by my diligence; and my imployments encreased by that of Treasurer for Tanger and Surveyor of the Victuals.”
Samuel Pepys was no toilet paper price-gouger, and if he was an opportunist, he was an opportunist of the soul. Many people, of course, saw the plague as a matter of life and death, in which they had no say. Fortune would preserve them, or money if they could escape the geography of mortality. For Pepys, the plague offered a different challenge—the chance to become something he had not been, which in turn fired the rest of his duties, interests, and passions. What was a pandemic to all, became something endemic to him, both spread and containment at once.
Colin Fleming’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, VQR, the Atlantic, Slate, Salon, Rolling Stone, and the Daily Beast. His forthcoming novel Meatheads Say the Realest Things will be published by Tailwinds. You can follow him on Twitter @colinfleminglit.