“…do lament the condition we are in, by a negligent Prince and a mad Parliament.” — Samuel Pepys
Reading these entries with the benefit of nearly four centuries of hindsight, we know that London recovers, and that Pepys’ worst fears are not warranted. He survives with his wife and family relatively unaffected, and by November of that year the number of deaths in London are beginning to fall at a rate significant enough to provide him with the hope of the worst having passed. Pepys’ thoughts then turn to speculating on the future. “It is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwiggs,” Pepys writes, “for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.” As trivial as this thought might first appear, it is deceivingly perceptive; what Pepys is really asking is “what will London look like after the crisis has passed?” His is a very literal interpretation of the question, regarding the fashion. But at the same time it is strikingly, if unintentionally, insightful: a periwig identified one as a member of a particular class, moneyed enough to afford the latest styles. After the periwig, how will class—that is, one’s identity—now be made visibly known? More generally, Pepys touches upon the rewriting of our shared cultural vocabulary the crisis has forced upon society, enquiring into the signs and symbols to be used to navigate this new, post-plague world. What Pepys is asking, in other words, is what will be valued?
This is a question many of us are beginning to ask ourselves, with some hoping that our current crisis will engender a revolution in personal values, national politics, international relations, even a kind of shift in global morality away from consumer driven capitalism. It is a noble thought to help palliate the torrent of catastrophic news. And so how did the world look to Pepys after the Great Plague and the Great Fire? Well, much the same as it did prior. The King and his aristocracy are debauched, the poor suffer, and the country is the worse for it. “The kingdom is an ill state through poverty; a fleete going out and no money to maintain it, or set it out; seamen yet unpaid and mutinous when pressed to go out again. So we are all poorer, and in pieces—God help us! while the peace is like to go on between Spain and France; and then the French may be apprehended able to attack us. So God help us!” Yet Pepys is still Pepys, in all his flawed brilliance. His taste for life and love undulled, as hopefully ours will be, no matter how long we are forced to be served this horrific, TV-dinner version of the world.
For part I of Thomas Moody’s report, click here.