Friday, 19 February 2010

The gift that Pepys on giving

Today was extraordinary. Nathan and I got up early and travelled to Cambridge to meet the enthralling Dr Luckett at Magdalene College. Dr Luckett holds the keys to the Pepys Library which is housed within the college. We met him in his college rooms and he showed us his intriguing collection of 17th Century musical instruments which included a pair of spinets and a viola da gamba.

He then lead us into the Pepys library; a neat, tidy space, with a strange musty smell, bathed in natural sunlight and lined with the imposing oak bookcases or book presses that Pepys commissioned at various points from 1665 until his death. Dr Luckett confirmed the curious fact that Pepys really did invent the bookcase, which still confuses me!

There is something deeply moving about the space. Portraits of Pepys and his contemporaries peer down from the walls. Each bookcase is numbered, and each book within was meticulously catalogued, re-catalogued and often re-catalogued again by Pepys or, posthumously by his nephew John Jackson.

In the middle of the room, a series of display cabinets sit tantalisingly underneath velvet covers, and with a theatrical swish, Dr Luckett revealed the contents of one of them. My eyes took a moment to readjust before I realised I was staring at the very last entry of the diary; that sad, sad passage from May 1669, where Pepys reveals he has to stop writing for fear of going blind. And indeed, when compared with other diary entries, the shorthand is considerably larger and less tidy; a sure sign of a man suffering with his eyes; or in the case of Pepys, suffering from a lousy ophthalmologist, who repeatedly misdiagnosed his condition.

A second journal, alongside the first, displayed part of Pepys’ account of the Great Fire. It was written neatly in a brown ink that seemed unfaded by time, protected I suppose by so many years in obscurity. Next to this lay a tutorial for translating the unusual shorthand Pepys chose to write his diaries in. This particular book had always been in the collection; clearly catalogued and labelled. If only the Reverend John Smith had known about it. He spent 2 and a half years deciphering the symbols from scratch; albeit with incredible accuracy.

Dr Luckett then led us to another cabinet to uncover a selection of Pepys’ music, including recorder tutorials and flageolet music that he may well have played with his wife. More exciting was the music to Beauty Retire as transcribed by Cesare Morelli, Pepys’ latter-day live-in musician consort.

It was at this point I asked if I might be shown the first page of the diary. Dr Luckett smiled wryly, took a key, opened bookcase number one, and a second later I was holding Pepys' very first journal in my bare hands. There are few words to describe the feeling. It was intensely emotional. I felt a bit shaky. I opened it carefully, terrified I’d rip something. The first page was beautifully neat, like the writing you do at school on the first page of a new exercise book. A few words in longhand jumped out of a mass of squiggly symbols; Axe Yard, General Monck. The book was much smaller than I'd expected. Smaller than the other journals on display. It had an energy. A strange sort of magic. I was holding Pepys’ most closely guarded possession. A book that rarely left his side for over a year.

350 years ago on this day, Pepys was also with his books, a fledgling selection, which he was stacking in neat piles in his study. Later on he drank a pint of warm herb-infused ale (purle) before going to church, it being a Sunday, to hear a sermon which extolled the virtues of remaining a widower post the death of a spouse (a regular occurrence in those days). Perhaps Pepys subconsciously took this advice, because after the death of his wife at the end of 1669, he remained a widower for the rest of his life, despite being in the prime of his life.

Later in the day, Pepys meets up with his father to discuss a trip, funnily enough, to Cambridge with his brother, John; which would, no doubt include a visit to Magdalene College. Pepys adds that it was raining hard all day, so his wife borrowed his mother’s French mantle and his brother’s hat. Knowing Elizabeth’s penchant for stealing items of clothing, I’m sure neither found their way back to their rightful owners.

Benjamin with the diary

1 comment:

  1. A truly impressive room. (I had all of twenty minutes before closing time the day I was there.) You wish you had the keys to all the cabinets, to pull out volumes at random, to page through Sam's books and try to remember which ones you read about as they came into his possession.