“It’s not a diary, it’s a journal!”

great-fire-london.jpg

Not sure what’s got me thinking about high school this week, but what can you do?

With any luck, everyone remembers a teacher in his or her life who made a difference—or at least imparted something interesting or valuable that stuck in the brain more or less permanently. I’ve actually been very fortunate and had several such teachers. Including one whose lasting effect surprised me later in life. Certainly when I was sitting in Miss Carroll’s English Literature class in high school, I didn’t expect her to make the list.

But make it she did. Twice, actually. The first time was for telling me about Samuel Pepys. Pepys [pronounced Peeps, at least by Samuel’s branch of the family] was born in London in 1633, the son of a tailor and one of eleven children. He rose from these beginnings to become an adviser to King Charles II, the acknowledged “right hand of the Navy” and later, a member of Parliament.

samuel_pepys.jpgOf course, none of this would have made him more than a blip on some doctoral student’s radar screen, except for two things: First, he was a prolific diarist, writing huge volumes of diaries for ten years. Second, those ten years encompassed both the Plague and the Great Fire of London.

Our high school textbook, being a high school textbook, focused primarily on these two major events and Pepys’ description of them as they unfolded, told very much as one would in a diary—or today, perhaps, in a blog. Here’s part of a passage from September 2, 1666, describing the fire’s beginnings: “Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .”

But while the textbook stuck pretty much to such matters as this, Miss Carroll—tall, big-boned, imposing maiden aunt Miss Carroll, with her equally imposing bosom and her crooked toothed smile [somehow appropriate for a teacher of English literature]—hinted at another side of Pepys’ diaries with a twinkle in her eye. It seems Pepys, the great man and knower of kings was also a sometimes petty and petulant man [particularly around his servants] and quite often a knower of women who weren’t his wife. And this being his personal diary, he felt free to record it all.

All of which makes for some fascinating reading. I didn’t pursue it at the time, but Miss Carroll had lodged it in my brain. It bubbled up from time to time until finally one evening, I found a slim volume of excerpts in the library. And more recently, I came upon this wonderful website, Samuel Pepys Diary. It contains excerpts and commentary, by year and by topic. And if you seriously get hooked, it contains the entire unabridged diary, all ten years of it. There’s even a cake recipe for the cake that was being baked in the oven of the King’s baker—the oven that started the fire.

Take a look at this wonderfully personal view of history. And if you end up bookmarking it, thank Miss Carroll and that twinkle in her eye.

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