Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Great Fire of London by Samuel Pepys

genre: memoir/diary

When I was in England, I took an amazing walking tour about ancient/medieval London.  My guide spoke several times about a man named Samuel Pepys who kept a diary during the years 1665-1666. These are very important years for the city of London because not only did the plague ravage the city, but Pepys was an eyewitness and recorder of the Great Fire of London 1666.  When I was in the basement gift shop of St. Martin's in the Field, I found a small published copy of his dairy and snatched it up.

It's a short little book, 51 pages, but it is a ridiculously amazing time capsule.  The language is dated, obviously, and the spelling is garbled compared to our day, but it's quite readable.  Granted, he is clearly a nobleman with access to the king and other great nobles - he works for the Naval office and talks often about the weight of his work and how busy it is, especially with a war going on with the Dutch on the sea at the time.  It's truly like going back in time, to read it - his dinner parties and meetings, his traveling up and down river meeting with friends and the constant letter correspondence, it really gives you a feel for what life was like for part of the population.   He is always referencing people I don't know and didn't even ever even try to learn - the one that comes up most often, though, is Sir W. Penn, Pepy's neighbor and the father of the William Penn that founded Pennsylvania!

And then, the fire.   The destruction is inconceivable, he has a wonderful way with words as he describes the horror.   "With one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops..."  You can just imagine the streets teeming with people carrying everything they own, trying to get to safety near the river.

I am so glad I took the minutes to read this.

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