Literary Daybook, May 31

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
May 31, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On May 31, Elspeth Hunger, alias Libby Hatch, murders her two young sons Thomas and Matthew on the Charleton Road in Ballston Spa, N.Y.
-- "The Angel of Darkness" (1997)
by Caleb Carr

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1669, Samuel Pepys regretfully made the final entry in his 9 1/2-year diary, citing his deteriorating eyes as cause. Begun when he was a struggling young civil servant, Pepys' diary covers the beginnings of his rise to wealth and influence in Restoration England. It is praised not just as a priceless historical document but for a wealth of character, anecdote and detail that is Dickensian in scope, and just as readable. We learn the devices and dirty linen of those at court; of running from the Black Death and being singed by the Great Fire; of who wore this latest fashion to that popular play; of the best pub for anchovies, and the best for assignations; of the small, perfect things only a born storyteller would notice: "I staid up till the bell-man came by with his bell just under my window as I was writing this very line, and cried, 'Past one of the clock, and a cold, and frosty, windy morning.'"

Pepys may be at his most engaging -- and graphic -- when trying to describe and puzzle out his flirting and philandering. Here the diary shifts suddenly from the large canvas of court and city to a more familiar domestic drama, in which Pepys plays many roles. We might find him in fond recall of how his young wife "used to make coal fires and wash my foul clothes with her own hand for me, poor wretch! in our little room at Lord Sandwich's; for which I ought forever to love and admire her, and do." Or in remorse, and "most absolutely resolved, if ever I can maister this bout, never to give her occasion while I live of more trouble of this or any other kind, there being no curse in the world so great as this of the difference between myself and her." Or, after another late night, doing the two-step:


"... and so, by water home, and there my wife mighty angry for my absence, and fell mightily out, but not being certain of any thing, but thinks only that Pierce or Knepp was there, and did ask me, and, I perceive, the boy, many questions. But I did answer her; and so, after much ado, did go to bed and lie quiet all the night; but [she] had another bout with me in the morning, but I did make shift to quiet her, but yet she was not fully satisfied, poor wretch! in her mind, and thinks much of my taking so much pleasure from her; which, indeed, is a fault, though I did not design or foresee it when I went."

This is a March 1669 entry; as Pepys stops writing in May, and as Mrs. Pepys dies of fever later that year, aged 29, their relationship remains a mystery to all. Pepys lived until 1703, and he did not remarry.

-- Steve King


To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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