‘ . . .It was the worst of years.’

Bleak Days

COVID-19 virus. Mutant C-19 viruses. Impossible vaccine hurdles. Isolation. Weather. Insurrection. Intolerance. Narcissism. Ineffective leadership. We’ve made it to mid-February. Of all the above the weather is most likely to be resolved first, but that is cold comfort right now with a continuous cover of snow that looks to be extended if forecasts prove correct. It is so easy to feel discouraged.

But I read, and reading places my own life in perspective. I’ve been thinking of Samuel Pepys’s Diary. I know I have a copy somewhere but could not find it, and online I found Phil Gyford’s site that uses the text from The Gutenberg Project, which makes available free online the text of out-of -copyright classic publications. Reader comments at the end of each day’s entry are enlightening.

I have read excerpts but never the entire work. I am hooked. Pepys diary begins in 1660 and records momentous times: the ending of the English Civil War; the failure of Richard Cromwell to form a stable government after the death of his father, Oliver; the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, claimant after his father Charles I was executed, ascending to the throne; the Second Pandemic of Bubonic Plague that began in the 1300s and returned periodically to kill anew; the Great London Fire.

It was a time of great instability. In Pepys’s social class people socialized with their friends (they TALKED with one another), they married, babies were born and people died of war wounds, of accidents, of disease and, the fortunate, of old age. In the lower economic classes people socialized with their friends (they TALKED with one another), they married, babies were born, and people died of war wounds, of accidents, of disease (an equal opportunity leveler but the poor were far more likely to be malnourished, overworked and suffer other privations that made them more susceptible) but the fortunate still died at advanced ages. Not so much has changed today, it seems, though the particulars are different.

Samuel is 26 when the diary begins, a civil servant under the patronage of Lord Montagu. His job in the Exchequer rests on the political survival of this aristocrat, and in this time nothing is certain. Terms for restoring Parliament, pardons for combatants, retention of titles and lands are being negotiated, everything is up in the air. Who’s in? Who’s out? Where to place your bets? Some who backed the wrong horse are being dispatched to the Tower for their sins.

The political state of affairs bears an uncanny resemblance to our own times. There is no telephone, no television, no internet to carry the news of the day so one depends on social contacts and a pint of wine at the local pub or a dinner with relatives and friends in one’s circle; Pepys’s circle was wide.

Early on, one of his friends is diagnosed with smallpox, another killer disease that ravaged the population, but finds herself instead the victim of a lesser pox and is soon back at cards again.

Before Covid-19 tests were widely and immediately available there were also missed diagnoses. It seems still true that the more things change the more they are the same.

© Feb. 17, 2021