Fiction Book of the Month: Deborah Swift on Pleasing Mr Pepys

The acclaimed novelist talks all about the first of her trilogy involving the great Samuel Pepys.
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Deborah Swift, what is it about Samuel Pepys that makes for such an entertaining subject, even today?

I think as a writer I just appreciate the fact he took the time to document in such detail the age in which he lived. This has made him a source for historians and novelists and anyone interested in the history of London in the 17th Century. What did people eat? What did they wear? What was their entertainment? Pepys answers all these questions in glorious technicolour.  What also appeals is that it is a ‘no holds barred’ ‘fly on the wall’ account, and this gives us a kind of soap opera pleasure in watching his life unfold through the diary day by day.

What secondary sources did you find useful when researching the novel?

I used many books on Restoration life, including The Time Travellers Guide to Restoration England by Ian Mortimer, David Cressy’s Birth Marriage and Death in Tudor and Stuart England, Margaret Willes’ excellent book The Curious  World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, which showed a correspondence not in the diary, and various biographies of Pepys including the seminal one by Claire Tomalin. I still have about forty books on my shelves relating to this trilogy which took up about five years of my writing life.

You wrote a wonderful piece with Pepys as your Historical Hero for the eighth issue of Aspects of History. When did you first discover his diaries?

His diaries were a research source for me for two other novels – The Lady’s Slipper and The Gilded Lily – both set after the Civil War in the 17th Century. From reading Pepys’ Diary as research I soon noticed that the women in the diary came and went almost like shadows, and it made me wonder about their lives and begin to imagine what they might have been like.

What inspired you to write a series with Pepys, but more importantly, with his liaisons as a key part?

His many liaisons are a large part of what made him famous, but as readers we are apt to lump all the women together in our minds as ‘just another of Pepys’ affairs’. But in fact they were all quite different women from different backgrounds and the diary entries reflect their differing relationships with him. By writing about them as real people, we were able to see more of Pepys himself. For example his friendship with Mary Knepp, the actress and singer, shows us his love of the theatre, and how he could sustain a friendship that wasn’t purely sexual. But it also shows us that in the end, his friendships have limits, and he often treats the women as amusements, particularly if the woman is of a lower class.

Deb Willet, Pepys’ maid, is the star of Pleasing Mr Pepys – what do we know about her?

We know about her background because of research done by Dr Kate Loveman at Leicester University, who has tracked her genealogy and her time beyond the diary through archives and records, so I am much indebted to her for that. Deb was in fact a well-educated young woman, possibly even more so than Pepys’ wife, Elisabeth, This allowed me to imagine the tensions between the two women as they had to live together in the same household. It also enabled me to imagine a more lettered life for Deb, who was not the usual illiterate maidservant.

She has her hands full in the story, with Dutch agents interested in her, as well as the irrepressible Pepys. Did you have fun writing the plot?

It was marvellous fun! In the absence of hard evidence from the women themselves, we can only guess what they did between the lines of the diary – whilst Pepys thought they were safe at home, or shopping at the Exchange. They perhaps had lives he was completely unaware of. So why not have spymasters, speculators and priests who fall in love? After all, the novels are designed to entertain. This was a difficult line to tread – to use the facts of the diary as reported by Pepys, but also to use them to support some quite other view of events. So in a way it was like using a template where I had to find plausible gaps.

It pleased me to give Deb some sort of agency when she probably had none at all.  I remember once thinking that my employer had no idea what I got up to in my spare time, and I wanted to reflect this in Deb. I needed to show that she had friends, allies, her own enemies, and that Pepys had no idea of this, being the self-centred type of man that he was.

What role does Elisabeth, Pepys’ long-suffering wife, play in your trilogy of Pepys novels?

How I would have hated to be her! Elisabeth is the woman mentioned most often in his diaries, though never by name, always by ‘my wife’. Because she is so close to Pepys, she has no illusions at all about him. She is from a minor aristocr

Elisabeth Pepys

atic family, so to her he is not the ‘great man’, but son of a lowly tailor. Because of that she is able to hold her own in their household, despite Pepys’ misogyny which was endemic in men of his class at that time.

Do you have a favourite of the three, and if so, which one is it?

I actually thoroughly enjoyed writing A Plague on Mr Pepys, which is probably the least popular of the three – could that have anything to do with the pandemic?! The character of Bess Bagwell and her attempt to rise in society against the hopeless lack of ambition in her husband, was really fun to write. Researching the plague in all its gory glory was interesting but horrifying.

You’ve ventured into the 20th century and WW2, and then most recently Renaissance Italy – do you think you’ll return to London during the Restoration?

I love that period. Partly what appeals to me is that there were so many new ideas vying for attention – the new science with Boyle and Hooke, and all the warring religious sects, such as the Quakers, not to mention the ongoing difficulties of how England was to be governed—by King or Parliament. It all makes for a marvellous melting pot for a novelist, and I’ve no doubt I’ll return to it at some point, and reconnect with the diaries. There are a few other women in the diaries too that deserve further forensic examination!

Deborah Swift is the author of over 40 novels. Pleasing Mr Pepys was published in 2017.

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