Entertaining Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift: Samuel Pepys was famous for more than just his diaries… he also had a keen eye for the ladies - book review -

Extensively researched, written with Swift’s exciting and imaginative flair for characterisation, drama and rich period detail, and full of unexpected plot twists,

Thursday, 28th November 2019, 10:29 am
Updated Thursday, 28th November 2019, 10:30 am
Entertaining Mr Pepys
Entertaining Mr Pepys

England’s Restoration period has long been a source of fascination for historians...

With King Charles II restored to the English throne after the demise of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians, and the Plague and the Great Fire of London wreaking fear and death, this turbulent period was full of high drama and momentous change.

And one extraordinary man stood on the edge of history, recording 17th century life in all its rich and vivid detail, and providing historians with an unforgettable portrait of what it meant to be alive during these momentous years.

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But Samuel Pepys was famous for more than just his diaries… he also had a keen eye for the ladies. A respected naval administrator by day, he 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.

Using the libidinous Mr Pepys as her lynchpin, Lancashire-based author Deborah Swift has been thrilling readers with a gloriously entertaining trilogy which focuses on some of the real-life women who flitted through his journals, and transforms them into stars of their own show.

And following on from Pleasing Mr Pepys and A Plague on Mr Pepys, Swift’s final outing with the irrepressible diarist sweeps us away to 1666, the year of the Great Fire, and into the vibrant and colourful world of the capital’s theatres.

Swift, who lives in Warton, near Carnforth, used to work backstage in many North West theatres, including Liverpool Playhouse and the Duke’s Theatre, Lancaster, where she was responsible for designing scenery and costumes, and in Entertaining Mr Pepys, we see the world of the theatre through the eyes of Elizabeth Knepp, one of the first actresses ever to grace the stage.

In London in 1559, 20-year-old Elizabeth ‘Bird’ Carpenter has a wonderful singing voice, and music has always been her chief passion. When her widowed father persuades her to marry horse-dealer Christopher Knepp, she suspects she is marrying beneath her station, but nothing prepares her for the reality of life with Knepp at his ramshackle yard.

Her father, who is more interested in his new love Dorcas than his daughter, has betrayed her trust, because Knepp cares only for his horses. A tyrant and a bully, he allows Bird no life of her own and her only friend is her blackamoor maidservant Livvy.

Five years after her marriage, Knepp goes away to visit his brother, Bird grasps her chance and, encouraged by Livvy, makes a secret visit to the theatre. Bird has always felt as if there was ‘a much bigger person inside her, bursting to get out, if only someone would give her the chance.’

Entranced by the music, the glitter and glamour of the King’s playhouse, and the free and outspoken manner of budding actresses like 14-year-old Nell Gwynne, she falls in love with the ‘colour and music and forbidden pleasure’ of the theatre and is determined to forge a path of her own as an actress.

Through scheming, and some wheeling and dealing, Bird finds herself at the playhouse but life in the theatre isn’t going to be straightforward… a jealous young rival, Stefan Woolmer, aims to spoil her plans, and her husband won’t allow her to work there.

Bird will have to use all her wit and intelligence to change his mind…

The final curtain call for this rip-roaring series is a true thriller, packed with all the drama, tension and major events of London in the 1660s, and capturing not just the spirit of the people who lived through the rigours of 17th century life, but the soul of the age itself.

Swift brings us her best novel yet as she breathes new and invigorating life into a young woman who must battle a scheming and disgruntled actor, a husband who thinks acting is only for whores, and the greatest disaster of the century… the Great Fire of London.

Fusing romance and adventure with real history, Swift paints a remarkable portrait of London’s theatrical world, the people who worked and acted there, and the brave and irrepressible Bird’s rollercoaster road from loveless marriage to a star of the King’s playhouse.

But Bird’s journey is so much more than just a historical adventure… Swift’s atmospheric evocation of London and its often foul vapours and vicious citizens – and a dénouement set against the ravages of the Great Fire – encompasses hard-hitting themes like racism, domestic abuse, misogyny, slavery and prejudice with an unflinching eye.

Extensively researched, written with Swift’s exciting and imaginative flair for characterisation, drama and rich period detail, and full of unexpected plot twists, Entertaining Mr Pepys is historical fiction at its very best.

(Accent Press, paperback, £8.99)