63. 'Pleasing Mr Pepys' by Deborah Swift

Friday 13 October 2017

I was recently asked to take part in the virtual blog tour for Deborah Swift's 'Pleasing Mr Pepys' and I couldn't resist. I know a little bit about the restoration of the monarchy when Charles II came to England, but beyond a brief education in the Great Fire of London, and Charles' penchant for a buxom wench that's as far as my historical knowledge really goes.

I of course know the tale of how Pepys documented that he kissed a queen, namely Catherine of Valois on his birthday...
On Shrove Tuesday 1669, I to the Abbey went, and by favour did see the body of Queen Catherine of Valois, and had the upper part of the body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it I did kiss a Queen: and this my birthday and I thirty-six years old and I did kiss a Queen.
— Samuel Pepys
I was very intrigued by the synopsis, which I share with you below, and couldn't wait to get stuck in.

London 1667.

Set in a London rising from the ruins of the Great Fire, Pleasing Mr Pepys is a vivid re-imagining of the events in Samuel Pepys’s Diary.

Desperate to escape her domineering aunt, Deb Willet thinks the post of companion to well-respected Elisabeth Pepys is the answer to her prayers. But Samuel Pepys’s house is not as safe as it seems. An intelligent girl in Deb’s position has access to his government papers, and soon she becomes a target of flamboyant actress Abigail Williams, a spy for England’s enemies, the Dutch.

Abigail is getting old and needs a younger accomplice. She blackmails Deb into stealing Pepys’s documents. Soon, the respectable life Deb longs for slides out of her grasp. Mr Pepys’s obsessive lust for his new maid increases precisely as Abigail and her sinister Dutch spymaster become more demanding. When Deb falls for handsome Jem Wells, a curate-in-training, she thinks things cannot possibly get worse.

Until – not content with a few stolen papers – the Dutch want Mr Pepys’s Diary.

Pleasing Mr Pepys is one of those books where the characters stay with you after you finish reading. I found my mind going back over their stories, and wondering of their futures once my journey with them had come to an end. I especially enjoyed that the protagonist is based on a real person, in the sense that Deb Willet was detailed in Pepys own diary, albeit from his own perspective. Swift brings Deb into vivid techno-colour vision - this is a woman who would not be out of place in today's society in her thoughts and feelings.

I find it especially topical in light of the news regarding Hollywood Harvey Weinstein, and allegations of sexual harassment/abuse women in the film industry received at his hands, because Pepys is not much different, in the sense that he doesn't see an issue with his actions - women are second to men, and the poorer classes are fair game, especially those within his household - a hazard of the society he was living him.

We meet Deb when she comes to accompany Elizabeth Pepys as a ladies maid. Deb has been educated to a high standard, and in the outset is thrilled to escape her domineering Aunt, although loathe to leave her sister Hester, who is constantly on her mind. She's conscious not to bring shame on the family name as her mother has, a mother she has not seen for years. Her mother's sudden disappearance and absence affect Deb deeply, and she hopes that by coming to London she may finally be able to trace her.

Deb is warned early on to be wary of Mr Pepys, who is painted in a somewhat sympathetic light in that he isn't an outright danger by the standards of the time,  yes he is a predator, but he comes across as foolish and bumbling at the same time, although he is instant, pushy and inappropriate on so many levels - something Deb is able to play on later in the story, when desperate times call for desperate measures.

Through her connection to Pepys Deb is exposed to the bustling world of London's theatres, the main source of entertainment, and comes into contact with Abigail. Dazzled by Abigail's glamorous appearance, and easy going nature Deb is seduced into believing she has a real friend, something much welcome as Elizabeth Pepys swings between jealousy and blaming Deb for Samuel's attentions and wanting to protect Deb from her husband.

But Abigail Williams is not all she seems. Beneath the glamour is a dangerous agent for the Dutch. Having nestled herself in the very bosom of the English Naval Office, she makes the biggest error a spy can. She falls in love. With gathering information becoming harder, Abigail enlists Deb and coerces her into getting her the information she needs. I enjoyed Abigail's character development. She struck me as an intelligent and adaptable woman who was making her way in the world the best way she knew how - and if that involves silencing lose ends, well so be it. Abigail has a strong sense of self preservation, and as a skilled player of cat and mouse, she navigates the board with ease.

Swift is masterful when laying out the tension between Deb and Abigail as they try to catch one another out later in the book. I turned the pages with trepidation, as I had become attached to both women, and their stories - both with their own heartbreaking twists (which I shall leave for you to discover!).

Alongside Deb and Abigail we encounter Jeremiah Wells, the love interest for Deb. I really liked Jem's character - he was very much the moral compass for all, and the defining link between each character whether it was immediately obvious or not. He comes into contact with each major player, thus giving us Jem's opinion and insight alongside what we already know. His gentle nature appeals to Deb, who longs to escape Pepys' and the Dutch's clutches, but she fears dragging him into her mess. Oh what a tangled web we weave!

I very much enjoyed Swift's take on Deb Willet and the world around her. She's expanded Deb from the pages of Pepys' diary, and brought her to life beyond being Samuel's mistress. The intrigues were extremely well thought out and built up nicely, I found myself easily envisioning each stage as it played out. It's not easy to keep a reader engaged with a background of politics underpinning a story, but Swift does this well. She easily paints the picture of the restored King who cares nothing beyond his own pleasure, while the men who have protected the country wallow in poverty and starvation. They are facing the threat of not being able to feed or provide for their families, and begin to take what they see as the only means necessary. The Dutch loom like a grim spectre, seeping out from the pages to sow fear for all out characters, and this reader.

Swift's knowledge of 17th Century England during this period is key to her success, constantly reminding the reader of the day to day dangers that Londoners faced post The Great Fire - plague was still very much a danger, the destitute, undesirable living situations and the dictates of social morals during this period - this particular hit me hard as a woman because I really got the sense that the women were trapped in the merry-go-round of the society around them. I also enjoyed her references to the many different areas of London that the characters pass through, as someone who works in London I always got a little thrill of thinking, 'I've been there!' and visualising the areas through Deb's eyes.

Pleasing Mr Pepys is extremely well written and thought provoking. It goes beyond being just another book within the historical fiction genre - those who enjoy thrillers would love this book too. The characters stayed with me long after I had finished the last page, and I was saddened to learn that the real Deb Willet died while still very young, such were the perils of the time for every man and woman. Nothing was a certainty, although for fictional Deb I like to think she got her chance at a second life, and she lived it on her terms, not under the constraints of 'powerful' men, and with those she so desperately loved.

Rating: 5/5

About the Author

Deborah Swift is the author of three previous historical novels for adults, The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all published by Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, as well as the Highway Trilogy for teens (and anyone young at heart!). Her first novel was shortlisted for the Impress prize for new novelists.

She lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.

For more information, please visit Deborah Swift’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous review, Poppy! I am thrilled that you enjoyed PLEASING MR PEPYS and I thank you for hosting Deborah's blog tour!

    HF Virtual Book Tours


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