Four of my novels have been set in the seventeenth century, and for all of them I have used Pepys’ Diary as an integral part of my research process. In the process, I became fascinated by the women who appear as vague figures in the background, between the lines, always overshadowed by Pepys’ ebullient presence. Mrs Pepys is referred to by Pepys only as ‘my wife’ and not by her name, so as a sort of revenge, I started to imagine what Elisabeth Pepys might be doing unbeknownst to her husband, when he was so to speak ‘out of the room’.
During his ponderous goings-on at the Navy Offices, perhaps the women were behaving badly? My interest was piqued further as I read in the diary that the maidservant that Pepys fell in love with, Deb Willet, was actually very well-educated. So much so, that Pepys felt ‘she might be a little too good for my family.’ Perhaps she might have a different view of life in the Pepys household, and even an agenda of her own? So the idea for a novel about Deb Willet, Pleasing Mr Pepys, was born.
Deb Willet, whom Pepys describes as both ‘pretty’ and ‘grave’, was educated at a girl’s school in Bow. It is often assumed that girls of the Restoration period must have been uneducated. Not so; in the mid to late 17th century girls’ schools had become popular in parishes around London, the tendency being for the merchant class to send girls close to the city for the final stages of their education, to prepare them for the marriage market. One school in Hackney was known as the ‘Ladies University of Female Arts’. Pepys visited Hackney church to see the ‘great store’ of young ladies, ‘very pretty’. Girls’ schools became something of a court joke, and disparaging references to ‘Hackney School’ were made in Wycherley’s plays. Research into the nature of Deb’s education at Bow is inconclusive, but it’s likely she learned Latin, French, Italian, history, geography, limited science and the ladylike subjects of music, dancing, and drawing.
Having established that Deb Willet was not just a common maid, as she is often portrayed in TV and radio dramas, but instead a well-educated companion for Mrs Pepys, I investigated Elisabeth Pepys’ background, only to find she was from an impoverished aristocratic family, but had been supplied with little formal education. Most of her childhood was spent in Paris, the family surviving on her father’s meagre wages as a soldier, though she was obviously literate because there are many references in the diary to her reading of French romances. But could it be, then, that the maid was better educated than the mistress? My novelist’s antennae were up. I could readily imagine tensions arising between the women, especially when Mr Pepys began to take a more than fatherly interest in Deb.
No actual letters between Elisabeth and Samuel survive. But because Elisabeth’s life is so intimately connected to his, their marriage and relationship is, by default, a key theme throughout the private diary.
I started research into Mrs Pepys with Mrs Pepys Her Book by Marjorie Astin, published in 1929, which gave me an overview, and summarised facts known about Elisabeth from the diary, but soon had to turn back to the diary itself and her brother’s letters for more detailed information. The diary implies that Elisabeth came from the nobility, a notch up from her husband who was a tailor’s son. Elisabeth’s father was Alexandre le Marchant de St Michel, from aristocratic French stock; he had at one time served in the household of Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s queen, so Elisabeth was proud of her aristocratic connections, and on one occasion riled Samuel by calling him a ‘pricklouse’ – a reference to his lowly status as a tailor. Pepys, though, was on his way up in the world, and found himself constantly bailing out Elisabeth’s parents who were now in London and had fallen on hard times. This, despite the fact they appear to have looked down on him over their aristocratic noses.
Elisabeth was married at only 15 and it appears initially to have been a love match. Samuel pursued Elisabeth relentlessly, although later he was frequently unfaithful to her, and most of all with Deb. When Pepys’s affair with Deb is discovered, it is one of the most affecting parts of the diary. Pepys’ remorse, his pain, and Elisabeth’s suffering are all too apparent. Deb of course is sacked, after much soul-searching by Pepys.
So, a stormy marriage in a period where it was not uncommon for husbands to beat their wives. Samuel does black Elisabeth’s eye, and beats his female servants when he deems it necessary. Only on one occasion does Elisabeth reciprocate, when she fears he has been unfaithful with Deb again, she attacks him with a pair of red-hot tongs — a scene which caused me much difficulty in the writing. Such melodrama had to be foreshadowed by genuine emotion if it wasn’t to feel contrived.
But what was sauce for the goose was not sauce for the gander, as Samuel was intensely jealous of Elisabeth’s dancing classes with her tutor, Mr. Pembleton. In spite of his jealousy, Samuel’s intense feelings of affection for Elisabeth were apparent during a sudden illness, when he wrote;
“I thought she would have died, and so in great horror, and having a great tryall of my true love and passion for her”.
Other novelists, notably Sara George, in her novel The Journal of Mrs. Pepys: Portrait of a Marriage have looked at this relationship before me, giving Mrs Pepys her own diary. I made a deliberate decision not to use the journal form because then reader is only party to reflection after the event and does not witness the actual scene in real time. Multiple third person points of view meant I could explore the dialogue and interacting lives of three different women; Mrs Pepys, the actress Abigail Williams, and Deb Willet.
During her brief time at Seething Lane, what must Deb have seen? Pepys in this period was occupied with the wars with the Dutch. Many people must have been interested in the sort of information he had access to. I wondered if any of Pepys’s actress friends were spies like Aphra Behn, and if so, whether they used their influence to extract information for the enemy.
With this is mind, one of the other female characters I wanted to use in the book was the actress Abigail Williams who was the mistress of Lord Brouncker. The Pepyses called her ‘Madam’ Williams and despised her, although she was a close neighbour at the Navy Buildings. The daughter of Sir Henry Clere, the last of the Clere Baronets, she was the estranged wife of John Williams, (formerly Cromwell) first cousin to the renowned Oliver Cromwell. Given that this period was not long after the English Civil Wars, there was clearly a lot of backstory there, especially now Abigail Williams had changed allegiance and was mistress to someone who was close to the King. Not only that, but Pepys was suspicious of her motives when he discovered she was behind some illegal copying in the Navy Office.
Like the other women, without their voices from letters or their own words, there is little conclusively known about Abigail Williams. We can be certain she was an actress, and this was a pivotal time in English Theatre. The fact that women were allowed to play roles on stage was something I wanted to include in the novel. For the first time, women could see reflections of themselves, and in roles where they were active rather than passive participants, where they could answer back, and get the better of their husbands and be applauded for it. Studies into Mrs Behn along with research into the intelligence service of the period helped me to imbue the shadowy Madam Williams with life – along with an investigation into the life of her lover, Lord Brouncker, who was one of the founders and first President of the Royal Society.
Because the women in Pepys’ Diary have no ‘voice’; nothing in their own words, Pleasing Mr Pepys is primarily a novel of the imagination. I have called it ‘an entertainment’ because I have constructed a plot that fits Pepys’s Diary and the known facts, though I suspect the women lived rather less adventurous lives between the lines than I have given them in my 21st century imagination. But above all, by animating them, I have found new insights into Pepys and his world, and new meanings to be found from the words he left behind.
Online links to find out more about the women:
Deb Willet A Peep at Pepys
Elisabeth Pepys A Voice For Elizabeth
Abigail Williams Abigail Williams
Aphra Behn The Smithsonian
Deborah Swift is the author of five adult historical novels and The Highway Trilogy for teens. She lives in the North of England near the Lake District National Park. Pleasing Mr Pepys is out on 28 September 2017.
- Elisabeth Pepys
- First page of Pepys’ Diary
- Samuel Pepys