Gender Roles, Love, and Marriage in Seventeenth Century England

Samuel Pepys’s Diary is often studied for its first-hand account of important events in London’s history. Pepys records information on the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy, the Plague, and the Great Fire of London, and readers are able to gain a greater understanding of this tumultuous time period through his writing. The Diary, in addition to being a useful piece of historical literature, is a useful tool in dissecting gender roles of the seventeenth century. Along with recording important historical events, Pepys includes smaller details about his life. Details about his marriage, his affairs, and his feelings about both of the aforementioned subjects reveal the restrictive nature of gender roles and the patriarchal institution of marriage of the time period. Pepys was a middle class man with a position in public office, and it could be said that he is a model citizen of the seventeenth century. Therefore, by examining the marriage of Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys, readers may gain an understanding of the restrictive and double-sided nature of gender roles in a middle class marriage during the late 1600s.

Even in modern criticism of The Diary, readers insist that Pepys seems to, on some level, love Elizabeth, despite his committing numerous acts of adultery and abuse. It is, therefore, crucial to reexamine the definition of love during the seventeenth century in order to evaluate the dynamic of the Pepys’s marriage. If Pepys loved his wife, why did he have numerous affairs? Why did he physically abuse his wife? Why did he feel guilt for his actions but continue to do wrong? All of the previous questions can be answered by evaluating the role of gender in the institution of marriage as it was perceived in the seventeenth century. With London being a patriarchal society, the men held the power in marriages, and women were often thought of as possessions. For middle class men like Pepys, a wife was as important of a possession as nice suit or house. Claire Tomalin, in her book Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, discusses the concept of marriage at the time: “Marriage was meant to be a step on the social ladder” (50). Likely, it was not love that drove Samuel and Elizabeth to marry in the first place but societal norms.

Alice Clark, author of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, argues that Samuel Pepys married as a result of capitalism. She writes, ‘That men did not at this time regard marriage as necessarily involving the assumption of a serious economic burden, but on the contrary, often considered it to be a step which was likely to strengthen them in life’s battles, is also significant” (39). During the time period, women were nothing more than possessions that could be used to advance ones’ social status or well-being. It is likely that Pepys married for the appearance of having a wife rather than actual love. Samuel’s treatment of his wife brings forth the problematic nature of the gender roles of the seventeenth century. It was understood that the wife was supposed to bear children and care for them, and the husband was supposed to take care of the family finances. From the beginning of the novel, Samuel hints toward his wife’s inability to fulfill her role. He writes about his hoping for a child but his wife not becoming pregnant. While he does not delve into the subject, it can be understood that he is unsatisfied with their childless union.

His dissatisfaction may be the source of his adultery. Throughout The Diary, readers learn that Samuel is a womanizer. He often lusts after women, fantasizes about them, and harasses them. Through Samuel’s interactions with other women, readers gain an understanding of his perception of women as sexual objects and his disdain for his wife. Samuel’s affair with Betty Michell most efficiently brings forth the idea that the adultery was founded on dissatisfaction with Elizabeth’s inability to fulfill her wifely role. In his Diary, Pepys writes about a scandalous moment with Betty Michell while in the company of his wife: “I did come to sit ‘avec’ Betty Michell, and there had her ‘main’, which ‘elle’ did give me very frankly now, and did hazer whatever I ‘voudrais avec la’, which did ‘plaisir’ me ‘grandement’, and so set her at home with my mind mighty glad of what I have prevailed for so far” (2213). Writing in a sort of secret language, Pepys knew that he was doing something wrong when forcing himself on other women. This act of pursuing another woman while in the presence of his wife demonstrates Pepys’s lack of satisfaction in his marriage.

Pepys’s infatuation with Betty Michell continues to bring forth his underlying dissatisfaction with his wife. At one point in The Diary, shortly after forcing himself on Betty, he pretends that she is his wife. Pepys writes, “the mistresse of the shop took us into the kitchen and there talked and used us very prettily, and took her for my wife, which I owned and her big belly, and there very merry, till my thing done, and then took coach and home” (2219). It seems as though he is pleased with the idea of having a pregnant wife. This could reflect on his dissatisfaction with his wife’s inability to bear him a child. The prevalent gender roles of the time dictated Pepys’s actions. It was not uncommon for men to be rather forceful with women. Pepys would definitely be considered a pervert by today’s standards, but treating women in such a vulgar manner was not necessarily wrong during Pepys’s time. He very much treats the women that he sees as objects of his desires; he judges their beauty and lusts over their appearances. He treats his wife, however, as a possession that he has control over, like a piece of property.

There is a definite difference between the way Pepys views the women that he lusts after and the woman that he is married to, but it is certainly not a difference in respect. In “The Irrepressible Pepys,” author Brooke Allen asserts that “Pepys was a domestic bully” (19). Pepys writes about one particular instance of his physical abuse in his Diary. He writes, “Thereupon she giving me some cross answer I did strike her over her left eye such a blow as the poor wretch did cry out and was in great pain, but yet her spirit was such as to endeavour to bite and scratch me” (1479). Rather than being sexually abusive to his wife, as one might expect of such a lecher as Pepys, he is physically abusive. This exemplifies the concept of gender roles within marriage in the seventeenth century. Pepys finds women that he does not “own” to be sexually alluring, and he treats them as a forbidden fruit. His own wife, however, is viewed more as an object to gratify social status than as an object to gratify sexuality. For men of Pepys’s time, “marriage marked the step from subjection within the household of father or master to rule within his own economic unit” (Peters 77). For women during this time period, at least through the lens of Pepys, marriage lowered their sex appeal and made them commodities. For Pepys, it seems as though marriage makes a woman lose her place on the pedestal. She loses her place as an object of desire, and she becomes an object that must be controlled, even if that means resorting to violence. Another instance in which Pepys acts out of anger toward his wife is when he breaks a basket that he had given her as a gift. He writes, “After that I went by water home, where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it” (284). He feels the need to punish his wife, and this displays the inner-workings of their marriage. He is in control, and she must submit to her husband’s will.

On the subject of the structure of marriage in the seventeenth century, author of “Marriage Contract and Social Contract in Seventeenth Century English Political Thought,” Mary Lyndon Shanley writes, “The man’s role was that of head and governor, the woman’s role that of obedient follower” (79). While he admits to feeling guilty about the incident after the fact, the language that he uses to describe the incident leads readers to believe that he is sorrier about breaking the nice basket than he is the abuse that he has inflicted on his wife. He writes about the incident as though it was something that must be done. He had to punish his wife; that was his role. There are multiple times throughout The Diary that Pepys expresses guilt for his actions against his wife. Being fully aware that his affairs were admonished and his cruelty toward his wife was wrong, Pepys continues to live carelessly. He writes: In the afternoon telling my wife that I go to Deptford, I went, by water to Westminster Hall, and there finding Mrs. Lane, took her over to Lambeth, where we were lately, and there, did what I would with her, but only the main thing, which she; would not consent to, for which God be praised….. But, trust in the Lord, I shall never do so again while I live. After being tired with her company I landed her at White; Hall, and so home and at my office writing letters till 12 at night almost, and then home to supper and bed, and there found my poor wife hard at work, which grieved my heart to see that I should abuse so good a wretch, and that is just with God to make her bad with me for my wrongin of her, but I do resolve never to do the like again. (1078) While Pepys may admit to feeling bad about his affair after it has happened, he never seems to feel bad while committing the act. He treats Elizabeth as almost a child or a pet. She is seen as something to be taken care of and felt sorry for, but she is not truly seen as an actual person with deep-rooted emotions. To Pepys, Elizabeth’s emotions and reactions are very base because of societally-generated and accepted concepts of women. Pepys’s guilt seems dishonest and selfish.

In conclusion, Samuel Pepys’s Diary offers more to readers than the important historical information that it contains. Pepys’s marriage to Elizabeth is heavily discussed in his Diary, and his writing offers readers with information about the confines of gender roles in seventeenth century middle class marriages. His numerous affairs and sexual abuse of women highlight the gender-bias that was prominent at the time. By examining the way that Pepys treats his wife in comparison to other women, readers learn of the difference between a woman and a wife. According to Pepys’s actions, a woman is a sexual object, and a wife is a personal belonging. For Pepys, love was about lust, and marriage was about ownership.

Works Cited

Allen, Brooke. “The Irrepressible Pepys.” New Criterion, vol. 21, no. 5, 2003: 14. Literary Reference Center.

Clark, Alice. The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. Routledge, 2013.

Pepys, Samuel. “The Diary of Samuel Pepys.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 1, no. 2, 1906, p. 162.

Peters, Belinda Roberts. Marriage in Seventeenth-Century English Political Thought. Springer, 2004.

Shanley, Mary Lyndon. “Marriage Contract and Social Contract in Seventeenth Century English Political Thought.” The Western Political Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 1, March 1979, pp. 79-91.

Tomalin, Claire. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. Vintage, 2007.

The Different Presentations of London in The Diary of Samuel Pepys and “Rising Damp”

These two works of literature both construct depictions of London; however, because they were written at different periods and in different formats, we receive inevitably different interpretations of the city and the life within. Pepys’ diary is very descriptive, almost written as if a narrative, telling of events in a chronological order but does however effectively express the way in which the horrors of the fire makes him feel whereas Fanthorpe’s poem, Rising Damp, by the nature of it being in verse, carries connotations of both the factual and the emotional side of literature, telling us of how he perceives London, but using words and meter to evoke feelings within the reader and then linking the description of the city figuratively back to his view on human pre destination.

Fanthorpe in this first stanza makes the reader think beyond the mundane routine of his or her life, to a world where “at our feet they lie low”; to the often-forgotten place where the city originated from. The double stressed syllables at the end of the line in a spondee, helped by the soft alliteration makes vivid the point he is trying to create of a world we never see but which is so important. Conversely, Pepys’ description of the “horrid, malicious, bloody flame” which stretched across London “as the fire grew” develops the feeling of something less subtle and not forgotten, but something blatant and too terrifying that it has been referred to with destructive, animalistic adjectives. The asyndeton for the description of the flame helps to make it seem almost more monstrous, as if Pepys himself is lost for words at the sight.

Whereas with Pepys’ description of London we get many developed, modern place names such as “The Three Cranes” and “Buttulph’s Warf” which perhaps is to be expected with the narrative, diary style entry, Fanthorpe’s includes the names of specific rivers and refers to them as the “underground// Rivers of London”, hinting at the idea that it was these few rivers that laid the foundations that enabled other constructions to be made which constitute the make up of the town now. The capitalisation and the line break in enjambment stress this idea further, as if honouring the rivers with a title incarnation.

We receive a feeling of great work being dashed or disregarded and a tragic sense of non-recognition in both pieces. Pepys says “churches, houses, and all on fire; all flaming at once” and this sounds similar in Fanthorpe’s poem when he writes “the names are disfigured, frayed, effaced”. It is as if these great monuments and works of so many generations, unavailable to the earth without the indispensable foundations laid by these ancient rivers, are so easily removed, wiped out but the faintest blotch or concealment, and will inevitably, as the rivers have been, be forgotten. Both these pieces lay bare the fraud in humanity and its creations, that what it makes is nothing but subject to fate, that its superficiality is futile in the end. The sense of bathos and emptiness is evoked in these two citations by the asyndeton, the tricolon and the repetition of “all” in Pepys, as if “all” has been shown up to be false.

The second stanza on Fanthorpe’s poem is very figurative and the extended metaphor and personification of the original rivers as the builders, the founders of the civilisation that now lives around it is effective: “The Magogs that chewed//the day to the basin”…”that washed the clothes and turned the mills”. It is as if these rivers provided both domestic and manual labour for the future inhabitants. The lolling iambic meter helps to construct the image of dedicated, continual labour, with the masculine ending further emphasising the strains of the manual labour. This is also true in Pepys’ diary with the “drops and flakes of fire” and the “horrid noise the flames made, cracking of houses at their ruin” which add an interesting intimation of vivid, animalistic description into a bland diary, likening the natural image of “drops of rain” to that of a fanciful, monstrous inferno. His description seems equally figurative and metaphorical here as if the reader is in a nightmare.

We gain effectively from both works the idea of expansion or diminishment and reduction. Pepys’ description of the fire being nourished by man’s creation of the city is striking and brilliant: “as it grew darker, it appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples, and between churches and houses”. The growth and expansion of the fire is captured by the scale of the city and the polysyndeton and repetition of words is enacting the way in which the fire moves, engulfing one thing then the next. The harping on the colour “black” is foreboding and ominous compared with the descriptions of the buildings. Conversely, in Rising Damp, the rivers have been “buried alive in earth.// Forgotten, like the dead” which suggests they still have a lot to offer, but people have taken them for granted and cast them off. The definitive iambic trimeter and end stop is stark and sounds shocking, and the caesura, acting as a fulcrum between the pair of three monosyllables sounds pathetic.

It is interesting how in Rising Damp, the idea of how the rivers sculpted the city we know today and how essentially they offer the structural origin on which all major cities are built. It is as if they are always there, “returning spectrally after heavy rain,// Confounding suburban gardens” to act as a steady reminder of the rock and power the cities are founded on. The harsh dental consonants perhaps emphasise the way they reveal suddenly, with a crisp appearance. Not only are the rivers projected in Fanthorpe’s poem as a haven of safety and hope, but in Pepys’ diary it is described that, to escape the fiery inferno engulfing the whole area around the city, people retreated to what they understood to be the fundaments of safety, what has been from the very beginning of time: the river. It is described that “the river full of lighters and boats taking in goods, and good goods swimming in the water” and Pepys himself says “there upon the water again and to the fire up and down”. It is interesting to note here the fact that water in this context is associated with light; not the light of a raging flame or the darkness, but a “good light”, and the way “good” is repeated in polyptoton makes vivid the way in which this area of water is a haven of safety, respite and hope. Again, the way in which they are described as “on” the water, having it firmly as the base on which they are founded, juxtaposed with the “fire up and down” emphasises the security and invincible sphere it helps develop.

The poem becomes more sincere, metaphorical and figurative in the final stanza. The rivers, “being of our world, they will return” which suggests, with the effective assonantal sounds, a sense of the supernatural merging with these rivers, forgotten under the surface of our lives. The fact “they will Jack from the box// will deluge cellars, will detonate man holes” carries a feeling of surprise and the nature of the colloquial phrase makes the poem sound all too familiar, as if its meaning was to reach us all. The anaphora of “will” sounds definitive; as if there will be difficult implications with this death. The enumeratio of the names of the supernatural rivers makes us listen, as if we understand the importance of the content. The poignant end to the poem is not only heightened by the intensive focus on the metaphor, but also the mimetic use of enjambment in “It is the other rivers that lie// Lower” and the soft alliteration makes vivid the physical inference of a river lying lower in geographical terms, but also in a human, inner sense, a more figurative euphemism of a route to death. The poet effectively relates it to the audience and himself with the collective pronoun “we feel their tug” as if now it is about something we have all experienced. The list of the name of rivers to finish with is ominous as they are all rivers associated with death- perhaps drawing parallels between how humanity was founded on the basis we die, and so these physical rivers are only there to encourage that. Similarly, in Pepys’ description of London, he lays bare how quick and easy yet unsettling death can be “as houses were burned by these drops and flakes of flames” and as “there was an entire arch or fire from this to the other side the bridge”. Both these works reminds us of the presence of the “grim reaper” and debases the individual human to a state where he must re-evaluate his position and adjust it accordingly in concordance with what he understands his destiny to be.

These descriptions of the same place are very different explicitly. However, when we look at the implicit meanings and connotations evoked, they could not be more similar – reminding us to value what we have for what it really is, and to be aware of our fate and origins.