If I mention the name Samuel Pepys to you, what immediately springs to mind? Perhaps something along the lines of diary writer, Admiralty administrator, or philanderer extraordinaire? It was certainly a considerable surprise to me when I discovered that he was not only a Fellow of the Royal Society (elected on the 15th of February 1665), but also the Society’s President from 1684 to 1686.

It is a great shame that Pepys had ceased to write his diary before he became President, as it would have been fascinating to read about the Society’s business from his perspective. Fortunately, during the period when he was keeping his diary he attended meetings and socialised with various Fellows, and was also elected to the Society, so we can catch a fleeting glimpse of what he thought about it all.

He appears to have attended his first meeting on 23rd January 1661, and his interest in the Society and its activities was clearly piqued. Subsequent entries in the diary include reports of experimental blood transfusions between dogs at Society meetings, his first reading of Hooke’s Micrographia, a lesson on optics from Lord Brouncker, and some of his own astronomical observations. As we might expect, he provides a detailed account of the meeting at which he was elected, as well as the “club supper” which followed. He also admits his own ignorance of some of the matters discussed at meetings when he was in attendance:

“Here was very fine discourses and experiments, but I do lacke philosophy enough to understand them, and so cannot remember them.” [1st March 1665]

Portrait of Samuel Pepys by Godfrey Kneller

Whilst investigating Pepys’ scientific credentials I thought it might be interesting to see what (if anything) he made of the whole Valentine’s Day thing. I don’t know about you, but I rather feel that people tend to go over the top with all the mushy stuff – though please don’t get me wrong, I’m as much a fan of champagne and chocolates as the next librarian!

Usefully, Pepys makes an entry on 14 February in each of the 9 years covered by the diary, and 7 of these refer specifically to Valentine customs. In 1660, the day opens thus: “Called out in the morning by Mr. Moore, whose voice my wife hearing in my dressing-chamber with me, got herself ready, and came down and challenged him for her valentine, this being the day.”

In 1665 he clearly wakes in a playful mood: “(St. Valentine). This morning comes betimes Dicke Pen, to be my wife’s Valentine, and come to our bedside. By the same token, I had him brought to my side, thinking to have made him kiss me; but he perceived me, and would not; so went to his Valentine: a notable, stout, witty boy.”

From the entry in 1666, it seems that it was possible to pre-determine your Valentine, which seems to be an eminently sensible idea: “(St. Valentine’s day). This morning called up by Mr. Hill, who, my wife thought, had been come to be her Valentine; she, it seems, having drawne him last night, but it proved not. However, calling him up to our bed-side, my wife challenged him.”

Interestingly, Elizabeth Pepys selects a Valentine on six occasions. Two years contain no mention of the festival, and just one sees Samuel with a Valentine of his own, although his wife fulfils that role twice. Given his penchant for other women, this rather surprised me, although it perhaps explains why Elizabeth was so keen to celebrate the festival herself.

If you are interested to know more about Pepys, his world and his diary, I’d thoroughly recommend Claire Tomalin’s acclaimed biography “Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self”. I read it several years ago and really enjoyed re-acquainting myself with parts of it whilst I was thinking about this post. I also discovered a couple of articles in Notes and Records, published in 1963 and 2003 – demonstrating, I think, the enduring interest of Pepys. And as you have doubtless gathered from my copious linkage above, the online transcription of Pepys’ diary is a fantastic resource, and will readily consume vast amounts of your time if you aren’t careful!

I’m not even going to attempt some kind of neat conclusion, but will leave you with a quotation from Melvyn Bragg:

 “Samuel Pepys, a man of so many parts it is amazing that they even recognized each other”

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