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Discovering the pleasures of Pepys

The Shorter Pepys, selected and edited by Robert Latham. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1,096 pp. Indexed and illustrated. $28.50. My heroes have always been cowboys -- until I read Pepys, that is.

Samuel Pepys (usually pronounced ``peeps'') is a modern hero, a nonromantic hero. As Arthur Bryant points out in the preface to his three-volume biography (available now from Academy Chicago Ltd.), Pepys created three things: the diary (more on this presently), the civil administration of the British Admiralty, and the rules and administrative principles of the British Civil Service.

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It is, of course, through his diary that Samuel Pepys invaded my pantheon.

Begun on Jan. 1, 1660, just as Pepys began to rise from his obscure origins (his father was a tailor, his family Puritan), the diary covers in great detail his life in London for the next 10 years, the years of Pepys's climb to the top. Pepys wrote his journal in shorthand and, for the sexual escapades, in a silly, Frenchified code.

Pepys wrote, I think, out of self-interest; it helped him bring order to the fluidity of his feelings.

Pepys was vain. But he knew it. He preened. He cooed when all was well. He counted his money. He used his position to protect his accounts. He was a strict opportunist. Pepys was a kind of Puritan Yuppie.

And yet it was Pepys and no other who had the presence of mind, in the face of the Great Fire of 1666 that was consuming London unchecked, to suggest blowing up houses to create firebreaks. They did, and it helped.

It was Pepys who maintained the authority of the Naval Board under the stress of the second Dutch War; the thoroughly documented (indeed distractingly so) and eloquent speeches he gave in defense of the board were considered the greatest speeches of the time.

And in the years succeeding the diary (he kept it from 1660 to 1669), Pepys was elected member of Parliament, appointed secretary to the Admiralty, and elected president of the Royal Society. His ambition as a historian was consummated with the publication of his ``Memoires of the Royal Navy, 1679-88'' in 1690. Along with John Evelyn, Pepys was regarded as the great connoisseur of his time, but it was Pepys who was consulted when Sir Christopher Wren set out to create ``the English answer to the Invalides,'' Greenwich Hospital.

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Still, one reads the diary not for historical notes but for the language. Pepys's complex, protean personality governs the ebb and flow of the great pages as the moon does the sea. ``O altitudos'' and the sublime mix with moans from the depths of depression, but pleasure and contentment are the leitmotif. For Oct. 1, 1661, we read: ``This morning my wife and I lay long in bed; and among other things, fell in talk of Musique and desired that I would let her learn to sing -- which I did consider and promi sed her she should. . . .''

Pepys is given to the superlative. Early in the diary he ingenuously exclaims: ``All being done we went to Mrs. Shipmans, who is a great butter-woman; and I did see there the most of milke and cream, and the cleanest, that ever I saw in my life.''

Richard Ollard has stated that Pepys was essentially an artist. For us that indicates not only skill but depth. Ollard writes: ``Even at the moment of great events Pepys is at least as much interested in his own reactions as in the events that call them forth.'' Pepys's motto, attached to his portrait on the frontispiece of the ``Memoires,'' was ``Mens cujusque is est quisque'' (``What a man's mind is, that is what he is'' -- from Cicero).

To see Pepys's mind as he saw it in the mirror of his diary, we need the diary as it was written. For the general reader, this has not been easy until now. In 1825 a bowdlerized edition was published. I used to pick up various editions in used book stores and wonder what people saw in Pepys. This ``Shorter Pepys'' is a selection of about one-third of the original 1.25 million words. It is ``shorter'' than the full, 11-volume, definitive edition edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews. Even so, ther e are 1,023 pages of diary here, more than enough for a taste. Indexes, maps, and illustrations make it all the close reader needs to discover Pepys for himself.

Pepys stopped writing his diary because he thought he was going blind. Henceforth he censored his notes, which had to be taken down in longhand by a secretary (as opposed to the shorthand he used). Pepys didn't go blind, but the diary was a fait accompli. He left an image of ``himself humming to himself'' (June 30, 1661), remarking that, with work, this too is a success.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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