Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Story of a Fashionable Book

On 26th December 1662, twenty-nine year old Samuel Pepys met his friend Mr Battersby, who recommended ‘a new book of Drollery in verse called Hudibras.’  Eager to keep up with the newest things, Pepys promptly went out and bought the first volume for the considerable sum of two shillings and sixpence.  But he was disappointed.  ‘When I came to read it, it is so silly an abuse of the Presbyter-Knight going to the wars, that I am ashamed of it; and by and by meeting at Mr Townsend’s at dinner, I sold it to him for 18d’.  (And that was a loss of a whole shilling!)

HUDIBRAS is a mock epic by Samuel Butler which makes satirical fun of the Puritans and Presbyterians who had so lately held power in England.  It tells the story of Sir Hudibras, a stupid and arrogant knight errant on whom the poet lavishes absurd amounts of praise.  The book was a huge success, with pirated copies and spurious continuations springing up even before the author could bring out the second and third parts.  With Pepys, however, it completely misfired.  He failed to see what was so funny about it. 

By February 1663, though, poor Pepys was having second thoughts and rather regretted his decision.  Since everyone praised the book so highly, perhaps he had been too hasty in getting rid of it?  Off he went: ‘To a bookseller’s on the Strand and bought Hudibras again, it being certainly some ill humour to be so set against that which all the world cries up to be an example of wit – for which I am resolved once again to read him and see whether I can find it out or no.’

Perhaps buying the book for a second time made him determined to persist, but it didn’t make the task of wading through it any less of a chore.  And now he became more cautious.  Nine months later, on 28 November, he walked through St Paul’s Churchyard, famous for its bookstalls, ‘and there looked upon the second part of Hudibras; which I buy not, but borrow to read, to see if it be as good as the first, which the world cries so mightily up, though I have tried by twice or three times reading to bring myself to think it witty…’

But borrowing it made no difference, either to his opinion of the book, or to his obvious desire that – somehow – he might learn to like what everyone else liked.   

For, on December 10th, having decided to spend the immense sum of three pounds upon books, he went back to the booksellers, ‘and found myself at a great loss what to choose.’  His real temptation was to buy plays, but he could never quite rid himself of the feeling that plays were somehow rather sinful, so at last… ‘I chose Dr Fuller’s Worthys, the Cabbala or collection of Letters of State – and a little book, Delices de Hollande, with another little book or two, all of good use or serious pleasure, and Hudibras, both parts, the book now in greatest Fashion for drollery, though I cannot, I confess, see enough where the wit lies.’

By now, Pepys has bought Hudibras three times – even though he simply cannot get on with it.  This goes to show how success breeds success, of course.  Hands up who bought the latest Dan Brown just to find out what all the fuss was about? 

It would be nice to record that Pepys finally managed to enjoy his purchase, but I fear he never did.  At any rate, the last reference he makes to Hudibras is in his diary entry for January 27th, 1664.  ‘At noon to the Coffee-house, where I sat with Sir William Petty, who is methinks one of the most rational men that I ever heard speak, having all his notions the most distinct and clear; among other things saying that in all his life these three books were the most esteemed and generally cried up for wit in the world – Religio Medici, Osbourne’s Advice to a Son, and Hudibras.

And there we are left.  Pepys makes no further comment – but can’t you just sense him scratching his head…?

Image courtesy of James Smith Noel Collection


  1. I never bought the Dan Brown, but God knows I've struggled almost as hard as this with Ricky Gervais...

  2. Ooops, I did buy the Da Vinci code and apparently I've helped it become one of the most frequently seen books in charity shops. I didn't find that as huge a disappointment though as Life of Pi - still, I didn't spend any money there as it turned up in a huge box of books from Freecycle.

  3. I confess I did buy the Da Vinci Code, for no better reason than that I heard A LOT about it. And no, I never finished it!

  4. I also bought the Da Vinci Code- but not when I worked in a bookstore and got a 40% discount, and not when it came out in mass market. I waited until it was sold for 25 cents on the used book table at the library. I believe I paid the correct price for it (and helped the library a little!).
    I normally ignore books that are such huge sellers because I can't help feeling that if everyone likes them, they must be pretty run of the mill escapist fare, and as I get older, I resent wasting my valuable reading time on something that I have to slog through mundanity to finish.

  5. Ah well, see: Pepys could have done with your tough attitude, Jo.
    My husband slogged through it, but he ceased to suspend his disbelief when, by security red lighting in the Louvre, the hero comments on the heroine's beautiful green eyes. And you can't see green in a red light.

  6. I don't think I've done it with books because I find hype off-putting. Will be unlikely to read White Teeth for instance.

    But I was desperate to get a Googlewave Invite and now I'm on GW never use it and can't quite see the point!

    Is that the same?

  7. I'm not always so tough. I bought all the TWILIGHT books (in h/c) because I thought I should read them. Did. Didn't get the appeal. Read them all again. Still don't understand the hoohah and wish she was less verbose, and still can't help thinking, like Pepys, that I am missing something.

  8. :0 Pepys is great fun to read, and I keep saying that someday I'll read the full diary. The entries I best remember are those that have the charm of the mundane. The time he came home out-of-sorts and kicked his wife's sewing basket, and the (relatively mundane for him, but shocking for us) public hanging, drawing and quartering of a general. I'm the nosy type that loves journals and diaries! Can't help but laugh at his experience with Hudibras.