16. Samuel Pepys's Diary

Object type: Personal diary, in six volumes

Materials: Tooled leather, gold leaf, paper, ink.

Location: Cambridge, Bibliotheca Pepysiana 

Image by Curator.


Thomas Rawlins, Kineton Valley Medal, 1643.  Material: Silver; Size: 1.5” diameter; Weight: 184 grains.  © Birmingham Museums Trust, AN 1885N1531.

Sometimes you can say that something has been lost.  This is the case with William Hay’s bladder stone (Exhibit 15).  It was blasted to dust in the Blitz—was clearly, in other words, lost, never to be recovered.  But other things aren’t so clear.  I recently discovered a coin that everyone believed to have been destroyed.  This was a certain, celebrated medal owned by John Evelyn, which was widely reported to have been consumed in a fire; the British Museum, which owned the only other known copy, quite reasonably called it unique.  But when I discovered Evelyn’s coin (right)—or, in any case, found it in a museum’s holdings—the curator pointed out to me that the coin had, in fact, never been missing.  I could not even say that I had found it.  It was right where it was meant to be.  It is just, he insisted, that nobody had bothered looking for it. 

Samuel Pepys, oil on canvas, by John Hayls (1666).  Now at the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 211).  Photo by author.

This seems like a small but important distinction, for systems remember things that people forget—and forget only because they lose interest.  A related case may be made for the diary of Samuel Pepys.  Pepys was one of the first people to build a lucrative career as a bureaucrat—a sort of pioneer, in this way, though it would be the rare person who would thank him for it.  He was a man who, as much as anyone else, helped to modernize Britain’s navy.  He was a bit of a bibliophile, who left his somewhat curious, definitely idiosyncratic library to his alma mater—where no doubt generations of students spent bits and pieces of time dozing or puzzling over his odd collections of ballads and naval treatises.  And he sat for what would otherwise be a mostly unremarkable portrait by John Hayls (left), which might, like Evelyn’s coin, have sunk contentedly into oblivion in the same way as other portraits of statesmen and functionaries.

The Pepys Library today.  Image copyright BBC.  A bookcase of the same cabinet-maker may be seen in this museum in the space labeled Metaphor.

The Naval Office, perhaps the portrait, and the Library: these things are what Pepys was mostly known for, until someone bothered to decipher his diary—or, not decipher, exactly, for it wasn’t in code.  It was in shorthand, however—a clunky shorthand that had passed out of use for centuries.  It took John Smith, a rector and sometime logophile, three years to transcribe its six volumes into longhand, puzzling away at the obsolete orthography evidently unaware (so the story goes) that the key to the whole problem, a brief history written in shorthand but transcribed by Pepys himself, lay unobserved just a couple of shelves above.  It isn’t, in other words, that it was ever lost; the librarian of the Bibliotheca Pepysiana knew where it was all along.  And it isn’t that it was in code.  It is only that nobody thought to take the trouble to transcribe a diary (of what sort was unclear) of a man best known as the favored and dutiful son of Magdalene College, Cambridge, who made his mark in the world as a highly successful paper-pusher.

None of these things would give you any clue as to the gorgeous contents of the diary—not the books, nor the library, nor even the institution that housed it; not the public life of the man or even the tokens he left behind.  We might say that one cannot judge a book—well, you get the idea.  Outsides and insides often have only an uncertain relation to one another.  And I’m not going to say much about the diary generally—for there is already a rich community of scholars and enthusiasts (see Phil Gyford’s award-winning website, for instance) who have lavished their time on Pepys’s jottings.  What attracts them, mostly, is the intimacy the diary makes possible.  Even though Pepys wasn’t the only person to write in his own diary (see Aaron Kunin's remarkable study), it nevertheless became a critical mechanism for Pepys to come to terms with himself.  It was a mechanism of interiority, with which Pepys was able to come into being as a person with an interior.  He was, in other words, able to turn the mechanisms of a budding bureaucrat—not least, the diary or ledger—into a balance sheet of his mind.

My interest is in figures of inwardness—of which one seems to me to take pride of place.  On March 26, 1658, Pepys underwent a rudimentary lithotomy to remove a urinary calculus from his bladder.  His diary begins with a return to this moment, first blessing God that he was “in very good health, without any sense of my old pain but upon taking of cold.”  It is only then that Pepys remarks on the state of things as they are, indicating his own relationship in space and his relationships to other people: his address and the state of his small family.  A general absence of pain is the occasion for beginning the journal; this absence is the object around which his calendar of years gravitates and collects.  Put differently, the excuse for the regular rolling of the days of the diary is the absence of an overriding embodiment.

Lithotomy instruments, from Pierre Dionis,  Cours d'operations de chirurgie  (Brussels, 1708).  Image courtesy Wellcome Trust, L0017240.

Lithotomy instruments, from Pierre Dionis, Cours d'operations de chirurgie (Brussels, 1708).  Image courtesy Wellcome Trust, L0017240.

Time pools around the operation; in the way that trauma is signaled by repetition, March 26 would become for Pepys a regularly marked anniversary.  And no wonder—for though lithotomy (that is, “cutting for stone”) was perhaps the first surgery to become more-or-less routinized, it was nevertheless a shocking experience for anyone to have to have gone through, wide awake but otherwise immobilized.  (See, for instance, Riches, "Lithotomy," 1967.)  The surgeon, perhaps a specialist in just this one procedure, arrives with his own instruments, specially hooked, sharpened, and curved for the repetitive extraction of mineral bodies from flesh (right).  He meets his patient; he immobilizes him in precisely the way that he has immobilized countless others.  He makes quick work, because he is an expert in this sort of thing.  In other words, the seventeenth-century version of the lithotomy, what was called the Marian Procedure, was a striking crossing of public with private.  Judith Butler once mooted the possibility of a more general history of the meetings of flesh with sharp objects; she was thinking of the way that medical talk meets embodied feeling, when way impersonal technical practices “out there” cross with the highly personal qualia of pain that are irreducibly “in here.”

March 26th, the anniversary of the event, became for Pepys an opportunity to mark his deliverance.  As conditions allowed, Pepys organized reenactments of the conditions of his surgery, inviting the principal actors in the event to an annual feast.  It is unclear how far he went; certainly he did not go so far as to act out his surgery, trussed up and waiting for the knife, but he probably did proceed so far as to remember the event and relive it in anecdotes and narratives—for anecdotes themselves cut like knives.  We know in any case that Pepys’s commemorative feasts were not unique; at least one other lithotomy survivor is known to have organized similar commemorative celebrations.

The central exhibit of Pepys’s celebration was his stone. Pepys kept it as a visible souvenir of a series of intimately experienced events that, prior to his being cut, had no visible content.  On August 27, 1664, six years after the operation, he visited a case maker in St. Paul’s Square to commission a small, custom-fit box or chest.  What he came to call his “Stone-case” cost twenty-four shillings, “a great deal of money.”  But it was worth it, he remarks, for it became the central reliquary of what he called his “deliverance,” the casket of material relics from his own passage from sickness to health.

My interest is in the protective case that Pepys had built—one of a number of cases that Pepys took intense interest in over the course of his life.  Pepys’s library was one such case; he lavished care on the arrangement of the library and especially on its book-cases, on the sizes of his books and their order.  It is a particular feature of his library that it was exactly 4000 books—neither more nor less—which meant that adding a volume meant subtracting one somewhere else.  Yet more, the books were arranged and numbered by size, which meant reordering and renumbering every time a volume was replaced.  Such a machine, what is now the Samuel Pepys Library, offered a compendium of learning that he kept up-to-date until his death, and, indeed, beyond; his will spelled out the books to be added, and subtracted, with the numbering system accordingly reordered.  But looked at differently, it offered an artificial object of completeness, an envelope or case that could be made comfortably to contain a world of discourse.

A stone case containing a flat, ovoid urinary calculus, bearing the legend "Extracted November the 4th, 1725.  Photo courtesy Royal College of Surgeons, from the (John) Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London.  Case 11, Bay 4; Object  RCSHM/Z 85.

A stone case containing a flat, ovoid urinary calculus, bearing the legend "Extracted November the 4th, 1725.  Photo courtesy Royal College of Surgeons, from the (John) Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London.  Case 11, Bay 4; Object RCSHM/Z 85.

Such is the case with Pepys’s stone-case, his little box for what would otherwise be medical waste.  Put differently, Pepys has made his own experience external in order to learn to dwell in it with a difference.  From body to box, case to case, Pepys’s stone has undertaken a translation from blind embayment in the body to surrogate embayment in a container.  We can imagine Pepys only bringing it out for special occasions, opening it, extracting the stone—performing a little ritual that remembers the opening of his body.  Nor was he alone in this; similar cases exist, including two at the Royal College of Surgeons (see left)—which, like Pepys’s, record the date of the deliverance.

Inwardness is like this; it requires something outward, a little machine or architectural contraption, to provide a way of encountering it.  I have much more to say about Pepys’s interest in rituals like this—in the diary as such a ritual, and his library, and even his interest in anatomy.  These are discussed in more depth in the exhibit catalogue.  Instead, I only want to remark that recent evidence has come to light; it seems probable that Pepys only thought he was a lithotomy survivor; his death almost certainly resulted from surgical complications, though forty-five years intervened.  At least one twentieth-century physician speculates that Pepys was sterilized by the operation, so he may have had less for which to be grateful than he believed.  

What is more, while Pepys “blessed . . . God” every year for “continu[ing] free” of the stone, he was in fact carrying seven additional stones in his left kidney when he died.  The report is signed by the physician who led the autopsy; this was Hans Sloane, the future founder of the British Museum, who would, roughly half a century later, receive Hay’s bladder stone into his collection.  A physician and virtuoso like William Hunter (see Exhibits 16 and 19), and a leading member of the Royal Society (like Pepys), he too composed a collection of human calculi, possibly for the purposes of publishing a study.  What he thought, when he gazed on Pepys’s impacted kidney, is unknown; nor do we know whether he had seen Pepys’s stone, nestled in its little custom case.  But Sloane’s autopsy report seals Pepys’s life in a way that Pepys would have recognized, for it reverts to the key terms that launch the diary; it is a striking crossing of public medical discourse with the most private details of a man’s daily life, a final document in the excavation of inwardness.