Warty and nigh perfect

The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys - The Diary of Samuel Pepys
June 23, 1995

The publication in paperback of the complete Latham/Matthews edition of Pepys's Diary deserves a particularly warm welcome. Harper Collins have not compromised the exceptionally high standards of production that distinguished the hardbacks, and they have achieved this while offering the volumes at a remarkably reasonable price. The only sadness is that Robert Latham himself, who died on January 4 this year aged 83, was apparently unaware of an impending event at which he would have rejoiced.

He would have rejoiced because his whole aim was to make the diary available both complete and in as accessible a form as possible, and for Latham accessibility was a comprehensive concept: it included a maximum of editorial help with a minimum of academic fuss, a clear type face, an affordable price. Beyond that, despite the artistry which he applied to the creation of his Shorter Pepys, he was a believer in Pepys whole and entire, not merely warts and all, but all the warts. The Shorter Pepys is a superb piece of joinery, but for precisely that reason not a text from which a serious student could quote, and ultimately a frustration to the reader who learns that there are three-quarters of a million more of the diarist's words locked up in the editio princeps.

Latham would also have enjoyed the fact that the purchasers of the paperbacks are probably on to a better thing than they know. It would be idle to rehearse the litany of praise which greeted the appearance of the original volumes, and everything that was written then stands scrutiny today. But it could not be said of the original printings, as Bishop Louth said of the Foulis folio Homer, that there was only one error, the omission of an iota subscribed to a dative. (Afficionados of historical continuity might, however, like to know that the hardback Diary was bound, though not printed, by Foulis). There were errors both of transcription and (very occasionally) of annotation. They were essentially trivial and, as Gibbon said of Bishop Louth, "how could a man of taste read Homer with such literal attention?" Most stem from the difficulties Latham experienced in coping with Matthews's arrogantly raw transcript. But, wherever detected, they were meticulously corrected in later impressions, this made possible by the fact that the Diary was one of the last books of its kind to be printed without the benefits of modern technology.

As a result it unintentionally conforms to a Pepysian precept: the latest impression is better than the first. Since the volumes came out asynchronically this makes them, at least in theory, a bibliographer's nightmare, particularly as there is also a list of corrections in the index volume which fails to report fully such silent adjustments - to take perhaps the most vexing example, proud owners of a first printing of volume II may be labouring under the illusion that it was Theodore rather than John Goodgroome who set about teaching Pepys the song La cruda la bella on June 25 1661. Nor are corrections always corrections: connoisseurs of the bottle-scarred veteran effect (and of hubris) are commended to look at what has happened to volume III, where an uncharacteristic slip in Pepys's Greek, when quoting from Epictetus, miscorrected in the first and subsequent printings, was corrected in Corrections and there misprinted, a neat demonstration of what Pepys was using Epictetus to reinforce: "Some things are in our power; others not".

Owners of the paperback edition have the benefit of all the corrections that is has been necessary to make, and they are few in number. The obvious but unanswerable question is : will it have to be done again? Who knows how much elementary knowledge of English history will have been consigned to oblivion in the next 50 years, so that an annotator, confronted with the Restoration, might have to start from scratch? But I resist that kind of pessimism. What might need attention is the index. It is a masterpiece, in that it can be read for pleasure and in that it is instantly informative about specific topics. But its very topicality inhibits its use for purposes that were unconsidered by the compiler. There are times when, the more mindless an index is, the more useful. This index was made with all of Latham's analytic skill. Ninety-nine per cent of the time it is perfection; the missing one per cent might be taken as the craftsman's tribute to the Divinity.

Richard Luckett is Pepys librarian, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Volume Eight - 1667

Editor - R. C. Latham and W. Matthews
ISBN - 0 00 499028 5
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £10.99
Pages - 6

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