Lancashire novelist peeps between the pages of Pepys’ diaries by Pam Norfolk: fascinating series features a different leading lady and can easily be read as a standalone - book review

Deborah Swift, Lancashire novelist, peeps between the pages of Pepys diaries
Deborah Swift, Lancashire novelist, peeps between the pages of Pepys diaries
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Lancashire novelist Deborah Swift is going back in time to revisit the world of the theatre in Entertaining Mr Pepys, the final book of her enthralling trilogy starring the irrepressible 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys.

Lancashire novelist peeps between the pages of Pepys’ diaries

By Pam Norfolk

Lancashire novelist Deborah Swift is going back in time to revisit the world of the theatre in Entertaining Mr Pepys, the final book of her enthralling trilogy starring the irrepressible 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys.

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.

Following on from Pleasing Mr Pepys and A Plague on Mr Pepys, Swift’s new outing with the libidinous diarist sweeps us away to 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, and into the fascinating world of the city’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.

In Entertaining Mr Pepys, we see the world of the theatre through the eyes of one of the first actresses ever to grace the stage, Elizabeth Knepp.

Knepp features in Pepys’ Diary as one of his liaisons, and Pepys was a huge fan of the theatre, so much so that he felt he was spending far too much time there, and that it was interfering with his office work.

To stop himself going to plays so often, he vowed he would fine himself, putting money in a jar if he couldn’t keep away. Nothing worked, and there are many references in the diaries to the multi-talented Mrs Knepp, whom he admired not just for her acting but also for her singing.

‘The theatre is a much more egalitarian place now,’ Swift tells us, ‘and women are integral to all aspects of production, on-stage and off, unlike in 1666 when women in the theatre were a novelty and had to fight to be heard, or taken seriously.

‘In my novel, Elizabeth Knepp wants to shine, but has to battle the boy who used to play the women’s roles, a husband who thinks acting is only for whores, and just when things are going well, the greatest disaster of that century, the Great Fire of London.

‘I loved writing it, and researching the moment when women first came into theatre life to pave the way for the entertainment industry we have today.’

Based on events depicted in the famous diaries, Entertaining Mr Pepys brings to life London in the 17th century and includes some of the vibrant characters of the day, such as the diarist himself and actress Nell Gwynne, and features a dazzling and gripping finale during the Great Fire.

Each novel in this fascinating series features a different leading lady and can easily be read as a standalone. Entertaining Mr Pepys is out on September 12 in ebook, audiobook and paperback, and is published by Accent Press.