Remembering Elisabeth, Pepys’s Wife – Reading the 1663 Pepys Diaries

I have somehow fallen into a January ritual of reading one year of Samuel Pepys’s diaries as my first book of the year, every year. I’ve done so since 2020, starting with 1660. I’m currently up to mid September of this year’s diary, 1663. The diaries are a fascinating glimpse of the every day life of someone who is a fairly ordinary person working their way up in an administrative job. There’s a lot about the navy and the admiralty in the diaries, a lot of interesting stuff about Charles II and the way the court and parliament worked. But for me the really interesting bits are always the human encounters. There seems to be a lot of trouble with turds in Pepys’s world; lots of basements flooded with crap. Sanitation is still a bit random in London in the 1660s. Each year he is intent on bettering himself; always, trying to rise up the ranks. His house is something he’s proud of, he makes alterations, improves it while he is living in it. He helps his father and his brothers out, helping his kin to attain good positions, lending money, sorting out the wills of his relatives. He reads interesting books, he buys scientific equipment; and is interested in the arts, science, astronomy. he loves the theatre but tries to ration himself as it distracts him from work. The working day in Pepys’s age is not 9-5, it is all days, but with life threaded in and around it. he goes to his office at a ridiculously early hour – 4-5 am in summer, but also goes to the theatre midday and out drinking, then returns to his office. He travels all around and about taking coaches, walking, going by water. He is very good at his job, and is, in many ways, god-fearing, attending church regularly and trying to live a good, clean, christian life. Except for the women. Flirtations, sexual misconduct, affairs that he constantly asks God’s forgiveness for, but does not not seek. And he is a complete hypocrite and, sadly, he is cruel to his wife. We know so much about Pepys, we know so much about him as a person, but his wife is known only through his words. Elizabeth was just fifteen when she married Samuel, who was twenty two, in 1655. It isn’t that he disliked Elisabeth, he loved her. He wasn’t cruel to her because he hated her, but, I think, because he felt it necessary to have the right kind of wife. Pepys is insecure about his place, his value. When he was away from her he pined for her. When they were both happy and content they shared a great deal of intimacy. Many of the references in the diaries are about talking to his wife, about all sorts of things, not instructing her, but lying abed on a morning and chatting about life in general. But that doesn’t justify his cruelty. In the 1663 diary Pepys records that she tells him how lonely she is at home, without him and without company and without many friends. She tells him how she wants to learn new skills, have some interests of her own. Pepys is a keen musician, Elisabeth doesn’t seem to have a great aptitude for music, but does like to dance. Pepys hires a dance instructor, male, Mr. Pendleton, to teach his wife and then almost immediately becomes insanely jealous about him. Pepys’ is insecure. He knows he is insecure. He knows he is jealous but can’t seem to help it. He is cruel to his wife. Every time she says aloud that she thinks she is good at something, dancing in this instance, he pulls her down, or at least he pulls her down in the diary, maybe not to her face. He thinks her stupid because she can’t write or read as well as he does, and when she writes a heart felt letter to him telling him how sad she is, how lonely, he throws a fit of anger because she has written it in plain english, and left it where anyone could find it. He tears it up in front of her, he goes through her things and tears up all her letters, including love letters from him, that she had treasured, in front of her. He feels bad about it. But he doesn’t really apologise, or if he does, he doesn’t record it.

It is very difficult to make a moral judgement on him, though even at a time when wives were property and men were in charge of ‘keeping them in order’, people knew what cruelty was, and what unfairness was. He knew when he was being unfair to her, when he was emotionally hurting her and he did it anyway. He records his shame over it, but does it anyway, and keeps doing it, keeps being jealous, keeps being insecure. See also countless affairs, often with the household maids, in Elisabeth’s house. Right under her nose. They never had a family. Elisabeth never became pregnant. As I read through the diaries in my annual time travel period to the 1660s, I often wonder about her and how she felt. She almost certainly had endometriosis, she was often bed bound with period pain. I wonder what she thought and felt, did she feel the years of not having a baby, did she feel devalued by the society, her market value decreased, as Pepys’s property? I wonder how she felt, this ghost in the margins of Pepys’s diaries.

In one passage in the 1663 diaries, they have a blazing row, and Pepys calls Elisabeth a ‘beggar’ because she brought no dowry to the marriage and she responds by calling him ‘pricklouse’ (which vexed him) referring to him being the son of a tailor. A cracking insult. Since I read this altercation I have seen her in my mind’s eye, mad as hell, sitting on the bed with balled fists fuming at him. I wonder what else she was mad at. Pepys records how often she fell out with servants and lady’s maids, probably because she saw his eye turned to them. What a precarious thing it must have been, to live at that time and to be owned and how did those women create a life within the prison of their husband’s lives? I wonder what she would think of me, remembering her and her flung insults, 360 years after she flung them. She died of typhoid in 1669. Pepys had stopped writing his diaries by them, but there are letters to naval captains excusing himself from work for a good four weeks because he is so devastated. After her death he was in a long term relationship with Mary Skinner, but never married her. When he died he was buried next to Elisabeth.

The diaries can be quite challenging; they are, after all, written in a world very different from our own. But at the same time, there’s a thread of human behaviour which simply hasn’t changed and I love that. That the complexities of human behaviour are still complex, that marriage and love and this short span of life in which you try to do your best, and fail and win, that hasn’t changed. Mrs. Pepys, Elisabeth, today I remember you and your life; as a person separate from your husband, though I don’t know you but through your husband’s diaries, I acknowledge your life and your anger and your love and the short span of life you spent on the earth.

Thanks for reading

until next time


6 thoughts on “Remembering Elisabeth, Pepys’s Wife – Reading the 1663 Pepys Diaries

  1. I’m also a fan of the diaries, which I’ve been using for erasure poetry material for the past decade but also do enjoy for some of the same reasons you enumerate – while also always feeling bad for Elizabeth. Hang in there, though: she gets a form of justice toward the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Poetry Blog Digest 2023, Week 2 – Via Negativa

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