Book review: Pleasing Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift

He brought 17th century London to life in all its vivid and dramatic detail but Samuel Pepys was famous for more than just his diaries'¦ he also had a keen eye for the ladies.

Pleasing Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift
Pleasing Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift

Pepys lived through some of the capital city’s most tumultuous events – the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, the Plague and the Great Fire of London – all meticulously and memorably described in his journals, but just as intriguing are the colourful accounts of his sexual liaisons with women across London.

Mr Pepys, a respected naval administrator by day, had a regular string of mistresses and engaged in casual affairs with servants, barmaids and companions as well as the wives, daughters and mothers of friends and colleagues, liaising with them in their homes, the backrooms of taverns, in carriages, in theatre stalls and even church pews.

Never one to miss a good story, Deborah Swift, the Lancashire-based author of a series of exciting historical novels including The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily, A Divided Inheritance and Past Encounters, has focused her sharp gaze on one particular young lady who became a favourite squeeze of the philandering diarist.

Pleasing Mr Pepys, a gloriously entertaining story melding romance, adventure and real history, breathes new and invigorating life into a name that often cropped up in the famous diaries… Deb Willet, a young woman from Bromley in Kent who came into the Pepys household in 1667 as lady’s maid and personal companion to Pepys’ wife Elisabeth.

Packed with all the drama, tension and politics of the turbulent period and featuring a fast-moving plot that takes us from Pepys’ elegant home to the burnt-out ruins of the Great Fire and alleyways reeking of darkness, danger and dire poverty, this is a thrilling romp starring a man, his city… and his women.

Deb Willet and her younger sister have lived with their cold, domineering aunt at her home in Kent since their mother mysteriously disappeared six years ago. Unworldly but well-educated, Deb jumps at the chance to take up a position as lady’s maid and companion to Elisabeth Pepys, wife of government official Samuel Pepys.

Deb hopes the post will give her the respectability and freedom she craves and sets out for London with her aunt’s parting words ringing in her ears… ‘Make sure you please Mr Pepys.’

But her role in the household, and pleasing Mr Pepys, turns out to be far more complicated than she could ever have imagined. First of all, the French-born Elisabeth – an almost childlike woman with virtually no education – is uneasy in the company of the pretty, poised and self-possessed Deb.

And secondly, Mr Pepys, the man of the house who ‘bristled with a kind of restless energy,’ is paying more attention to her than seems decent to demure Deb and in this uncertain position, she clutches at an unlikely friendship with Abigail Williams, a flamboyant actress who is the long-time mistress of the Pepys’ neighbour Lord Bruncker.

But Abigail has a dark secret… she is in the pay of a ruthless Dutch spymaster who is eager to gain information on England’s naval secrets, even if that means murder, espionage and blackmail to get them.

When Deb is tricked into stealing some of Pepys’s documents, she is soon caught up in a web of deception and double-dealing. And with Mr Pepys’ amorous attentions turned towards her, there’s a lot more than her respectable life at stake... selling other people’s secrets is a dangerous game.

Swift is a consummate historical novelist, basing her books on immaculate research and then filling the gaps between real events and real people with eloquent storytelling, atmospheric scene setting and imaginative plot lines.

Pepys and his world spring to vibrant life in an adventure brimming with espionage, danger, romance and flashes of dark humour. But it is Deb Willet and the mysterious Abigail Williams who take centre stage in this entertaining drama… shadowy figures from the diaries whose personal stories are allowed to blossom through the author’s sparkling flight of fancy.

Their personal dramas play out against Restoration London, a city in flux but hustling and bustling despite the ravages of the Great Fire, where the tang of charred wood still hangs in the air, where the militant Dutch are posing a new threat to the nation and where the prosaic and the political prove perfect bedfellows.

Gripping, revealing and stunningly imagined, Pleasing Mr Pepys is guaranteed to please… and the exciting news is that Swift is already working on the second book of what will be a Pepys trilogy.

(Accent Press, paperback, 8.99)