Book cover
The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there
L P Hartley

This site has a number of members whose depth of knowledge and willingness to share insights gives us a privileged inside track on the diaries and their times. I imagine, however, that there are also lots of members like myself who have an outline grasp of 17th Century politics and literature but would like to understand more of what it was like to live through that tumultuous period and don’t quite know where to start. This book may help.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain is written as a manual to help you, the traveller, to manage your stay in England and Scotland during the years 1660 to 1700. It is an erudite and entertaining account, drawing, of course, on Pepys for information on how the British live, but also using a range of other contemporary and modern sources.

There is a good deal about London; what the place looks and sounds like, how one best navigates its crowded streets when there is only one bridge and when one of its busiest thoroughfares has a pinch point only 11 feet wide. What are the advantages – and dangers – of travelling on the river? How much does travel cost?

There’s also intriguing information about what people wear, how they keep clean, what (and how often) they eat and drink, with details not only about the aristocracy, the rich and Pepys “middling” social class but also about the rural and urban poor.

Ships and shipping have particular attention, with explicit acknowledgment to Pepys for his role in stabilising and expanding the British navy. I was intrigued to learn of the hazy boundaries between the definition of cargo vessel and war ship and to learn more of the different lives on board a war ship for the captain, officers and men. The smell of the different sections of the ship are all too memorable.

Most fascinating though are Mortimer’s attempts to help the traveller see life from the locals’ point of view. 17th century husbands have absolute legal control over the lives of their wives and children. Infant mortality runs at 21% (0.4% today) and women who have six children have already run a one in ten chance of dying in childbirth. This is a world where violence, sickness and early death are familiar to all social classes. Political and civil uncertainty is a fact of life. There is an appetite for bear baiting, street brawls and duelling. Crime control is tenuous but punishments severe and delivered often as a public spectacle.

It is a very different world from our own and difficult for the 21st century person to wholly understand - but this book, well researched and vividly written – is perhaps a step in the right direction.

[I make a small amount if you buy from some of the or Amazon links, but it would be even better if you buy direct from your favourite independent bookstore! P.G.]

1 Comment

Third Reading

徽柔  •  Link

A really intriguing book,with a lot of materials from Pepys' diaries. More about fun facts concerning everyday lives rather than society analysis.

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