I'm a fan of audiobooks, and a few days ago I finished the Diary of Samuel Pepys. That's 120 hours of listening, 50% longer than the Bible (77 hours), which I've also listened to from In the beginning to Amen. The diary won't interest everyone, but I loved it.
Samuel Pepys was born in 1632. His parents had eight children of whom five died at birth or in infancy, a proportion that was fairly typical at the time; deaths occur constantly throughout the diary, many being the deaths of infant children. His family dates back to the 13th century and was of the gentry class; Samuel was educated at Cambridge. He became the private secretary of Sir Edward Montagu, a navy man who was later created first Earl of Sandwich, and was quickly recognised as having exceptional ability. The diary begins on 1 January 1660 and ends on 31 May 1669 and thus covers an extraordinary decade of English history. At the commencement of the diary England has no king: the Protectorate, established by Oliver Cromwell following the overthrow and execution of Charles I, had collapsed, and the country was effectively under the control of the army led by General Monk. The Rump of the old parliament still existed but was under no effective control, and public opinion was strongly hoping for Charles II, who had been in exile since the overthrow of the monarchy, to be brought back to the throne.
Charles II was brought back to England from Holland in mid-1660, and Pepys, accompanying Montagu, was on the ship on which the King returned. The story of the diary is essentially the story of the decade: the restoration of the monarchy and the subsequent disappointment of the people at the indolence and licentiousness of the Royal court; the Plague years of 1665-6, the Great Fire of 1666; wars with Holland and on the Continent; religious disputes. Pepys was at the heart of it all. He became a member of the Naval Board, which effectively ran the navy, and was the most able and effective of the members; shortly after the diary ends he was appointed Secretary of the Navy, effectively its head. He became a trusted advisor first of the King's brother, the Duke of York, and subsequently the King. He lived until 1703 and during those years built the navy that ruled the oceans for centuries after.
Samuel Pepys was in 1660 28 years old and had married five years earlier. He never had any children. The diary records all of the events of the time; but it also records in the most intimate detail the whole of his personal life. He seems to have developed the habit of making notes of major events each day, and sitting down every few days to write down in his journal a full account of the events of those days. He wrote in a code, and the diaries were not translated into English for over 100 years after his death. An edited version was published in 1825, but omitted what the editor considered were tedious accounts of daily life. I have a three-volume edition published in 1893-1899, with a long biographical preface that also recounts the history of the publication of the diary. It begins by saying that it is at last the complete edition of the diaries; but towards the end of the preface tosses away the remark that of course the parts that couldn't possibly be printed have been omitted. The absolutely complete edition of the diaries was not published until 1970-1983. The audiobook edition was produced by Naxos Audio Books as a labour of love by the owner, who can't possibly have made money out of it.
The history the diaries contain is fascinating, but it's the personal parts that are at least as fascinating. I said "intimate detail" above, and the detail extends to his bowel movements and sexual encounters. The latter were many and varied, and the way that Pepys writes about them is amazingly revealing of the attitudes of the time. In the positions he held, Pepys was a man of power and influence and he was constantly asked to aid one person or another. He seems to have regarded it as his right to have a go at the wife of the man whom he was asked to assist, as well as maids, serving wenches at inns, shopkeepers' wives, actresses, pretty much anyone. He wrote about these encounters not only in code, but in a kind of mixture of Latin, English, French and Spanish, which gives them the feeling of being dirty and underhand, which of course they were. He had a full sex life with his wife, who was suspicious of his friendship with one actress in particular but otherwise ignorant of his adventures, until she discovered him one day with his hand up under her maid's skirt. That incident led to a huge rupture between the couple which eventually healed (after the maid had, of course, been sacked) but not for nearly a year. It is typical of Pepys that this incident led to sincere repentance on his part and earnest determination not to sin again; despite which he subsequently did sin again -- but only when he was absolutely certain that he would not be discovered. It's also typical of his attitude that he recognises that he has been the ruin of the servant girl, who was otherwise a completely chaste woman, and sincerely regrets that he has compromised her; but almost in the same breath he notes that he "must have her maidenhead". It's evident that his sexual encounters rarely included actual intercourse, although they sometimes did; mostly it was groping. The most extraordinary thing about his accounts of them is, to me, that he seems to have been entirely unaware that in most cases the women he made advances to only permitted them because he used his physical strength and his powerful social position made it impossible for them to complain.
Another aspect of his activities that fascinated me was his exploitation of the offices he occupied. Offices of that type are offices of profit under the Crown, and at that time -- though no longer -- the holders of those offices were expected to make personal profits from them. Although the practice was illegal, they were on occasion bought and sold; on his appointment to one office Pepys records that another man offered him 500 pounds to sell it to him; Pepys refused, principally because he thought the office was worth more than that to himself. He constantly records receiving gifts of silver and gold plate from persons he has assisted.
Despite all that, Pepys regarded himself as an honest servant of the King, and he was generally regarded as such. He does not discuss what he regarded as permissible or impermissible, but as far as I can make it out, he seems to have thought it perfectly proper to receive a payment from a person to whom he had, for example, awarded a lucrative contract, so long as the person to whom the contract was awarded was genuinely the best person to get it. For example, he awarded a contract to a particular man to supply the masts for the whole of the Navy, and records proudly that he saved the King 5,000 pounds per annum by choosing that supplier, as well as getting himself a payment of 200 pounds per annum.
The diaries are as extraordinary as anything I've read. There were many tedious parts and I was glad to get to the end of them; but on the whole they are worth many times over the effort of reading them -- or in my case, listening to them. The audiobook version, available through Audible.com, is excellently read by someone called Leighton Pugh, who has the fundamental virtues of a pleasant voice to listen to, and genuine interest in and understanding of what he is reading. I don't expect that anyone who reads this will either read or listen to the whole of the diaries, but I hope that someone might at least try part of them.