Deb Willet, companion to Elizabeth, the wife of Samuel Pepys, takes centre stage in this intriguing tale of love, espionage and murder in Restoration London. Deb takes the position in Pepys’ household in order to escape from the tyranny of sour-faced Aunt Beth. Deb’s father is in Ireland about his business affairs; her mother deserted her family years before.
Samuel Pepys is an influential and important man on the Navy Board as Clerk of the Acts, living in part of the Navy Buildings. His wife has social ambitions. It looks like a plum job for Deb who wants to rise in society to provide for her sister, Hester, for whose schooling she pays, and whom she wishes to rescue from Aunt Beth’s stringent rule.
The beginning of the novel provides a dramatic and sinister introduction to the political background. England is on the brink of war with the Dutch and spies seek information about the navy’s ships. Deb is drawn into this murky world by her friendship with Abigail Williams, a famous actress and mistress of the powerful Lord Bruncker. Abigail cunningly recruits Deb by advising her to advertise for her missing mother whom Deb thinks may be in London. Afterwards Deb is asked to copy Naval documents, then to copy documents from Pepys’ study. In the background is the mysterious spymaster, Piet Groedecker whose eyes are ‘as cold as oysters’. Abigail owes him and Deb turns out to be the means by which Abigail can save her own skin. There is unrest in London – a potential rebellion against the Crown by the unpaid sailors whose anger is fuelled by the spectacle of Charles II’s lavishness and indulgence, particularly to his mistress, Lady Castlemaine. In the background, fomenting the dissent is Piet Groedecker.
Caught up in these exciting and dangerous matters, Deb also has to deal with the unhappy and jealous Elizabeth Pepys who does not trust her husband. With reason – Samuel Pepys has never been faithful, and is naturally attracted to pretty Deb who does her best to fend off his wandering hand until, entrapped by the ruthless Abigail, Deb has to encourage Samuel’s attentions (hoping, of course, that she will not have to please Mr Pepys too much). She copies important documents and begins to realise that her actions could well destroy Pepys. She is torn – Abigail has told her that she is doing vital work for the King himself.
And, as if those matters were not trouble enough, Deb falls in love with Jeremiah Wells, a curate in training whose brother is deeply involved in a plot to create an explosion at the docks thereby leaving the city vulnerable to rebellion. Jeremiah is imprisoned when caught up in his brother’s plot. Furthermore, Deb receives a mysterious communication concerning her lost mother and sets out to find her.
Swift handles all these strands with admirable deftness and pace. The action never flags. Suspense is maintained: how near is England to war? Samuel Pepys’ own career is in jeopardy and Deb’s own life is in grave danger as she is ensnared more tightly in the spymaster’s web, and will she find her mother?
The period detail is fascinating. Seventeenth century London is vividly evoked by descriptions of the crowded, stinking streets still bearing traces of the Great Fire, streets in which Abigail Williams walks in her pattens with a muslin over her nose to protect her from the dust. There is a hideous description of the mercury baths, a treatment for the French pox. The domestic details add a sense of authenticity: crewel work cushions to embroider; parsley butter in a mortar; new lace from Bretagne; spicy ale which leaves grains in the mouth; horn spoons; and checking for lice in wigs. And there is the unforgettable picture of Deb combing Pepys’s stubbled head with herbs and water to get rid of nits, all the while feeling his hand up her skirts.
Deb Willet makes an engaging heroine. Swift points out that she was not the uneducated servant she is usually thought to be, but was as well-educated as Elizabeth. The novel provides us with a new view of the Pepys’s household through the eyes of a young woman who steps into the limelight from the shadows of history.
Jean Briggs taught English for many years in schools in Cheshire, Hong Kong and Lancashire. She now lives in a cottage in Cumbria. The Murder of Patience Brooke, published by The History Press in August 2014, is her first novel, featuring Charles Dickens as a detective. The latest in the series, Murder by Ghostlight, is out now.