The Dark Side of Samuel Pepys: Society’s First Sex Offender

Written by Geoffrey Pimm
Review by Edward James

Samuel Pepys was a high-ranking, hard-working civil servant, music lover, bibliophile, theatre goer and persistent sex offender, ranging from extreme sexual harassment to occasional rape.

For nine years (1660-69) he wrote it all in his diary, fantasies included, from business meetings to problems with his ‘house of office’ (toilet).  He surely intended to be read by posterity, for he bound the diary in nine volumes with leather covers and bequeathed it to his old college in Cambridge.  His shorthand was a published system he had used as a student.  Remarkably it was not decyphered for 200 years.

The salacious passages were ‘double encrypted’ as Pimm terms it, written not in English but a mix of Latin, French and other languages.  Yet even a schoolboy can translate them, as we did furtively at school in the 1950s. For the latest edition, we had then kept the naughty bits in the original.  Earlier editions omitted them entirely.

Today not only can you read the full text in English, but Pimm gives us a book devoted to Samuel’s sex life. Appendix D lists fifty women with whom he ‘may or may not have had a relationship of one sort or another’.  He definitely had sexual contact with 21 of them.

Does this mean standards were different in the 17th century? I doubt it.  Many rich and powerful men today have probably had inappropriate contact with at least 20 women in the last nine years, but they don’t record it.  Pepys was careful to confine his approaches to servant girls and wives of employees who dared not protest, but even so he had strong guilt feelings and hesitated to write his confessions in English.  Standards were not so different, but Pepys got away with it.