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The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys: A novel by Jack Jewers

25 November 2022

Caroline Chartres enjoys a diary with gruesome description

WHEN we lived in a Restoration house, I would regularly serve meals inspired by Samuel Pepys’s Diary. Reading this romp, rich in its period detail, makes me thankful that I didn’t adopt a similar approach to laundry: “Great vats of piss stood ripening in the hot sunshine, ready to be mixed with wood ash to form soap. . . Clouds of flies and gnats buzzed around, and I wondered how the women could stand to work in such a vile place.”

After more than a million words, Samuel Pepys stopped writing his diary at the age of 36. This handsomely produced novel purports to pick up where the Diaries leave off, with Pepys plunged into investigating the murder of a commissioner appointed by the King to look into corruption in the Royal Navy.

England is in ferment, in the wake of the Dutch raid on the Medway, and “would-be assassins, suspected Dutch spies, and a secret society of outlaws” make it difficult for Pepys to know whom he can trust — apart from his clerk turned friend and fellow sleuth, Will Hewer.

The author draws extensively on Pepys’s actual diaries, but is careful to say that “my Pepys is not the Pepys. . . I have tried to stay as true as I could to his voice and the world he inhabited [but] my first duty is as a storyteller — not an historian.”

Notable among the handful of deliberate anachronisms is a gruesomely authentic account of the lithotomy to remove Pepys’s bladder stones (which had actually been performed in 1658, and which he celebrated annually with a “Stone Feast” on the anniversary of the operation). But the significant part played by female solidarity and swordsmanship is inspired by the key role of women in breaking the Siege of Chester during the Civil War.

For all its careful and convincing research, there is one entry which strains credulity. The book opens with an account of a fire in a brothel, with “fine gentlemen of the court stumbling about, bare arsed, terrified that someone may recognise them”.

But the observation that “that fellow who went to find his carriage, bollocks swinging in the wind . . . was the Bishop of Southwark” is, frankly, entirely implausible — not, as readers of the Church Times will recognise, because of the improbability of a bishop being found in a brothel, but because the diocese of Southwark, having been part of Winchester until 1877, was not carved out of the diocese of Rochester until 1905. But it’s still a rattling good read.

Caroline Chartres is a contributing editor to the
Church Times.


The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys: A novel
Jack Jewers
Moonflower £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

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