Entertaining Mr Pepys is Deborah Swift’s third book based on the women in the famous Diary. It caused a slight dilemma in the Historia diary; two reviews of it arrived within 24 hours. So, in a one-off event, we’re publishing both. The first is by Jean Briggs and the second by Tom Williams.
“I’ll take her.”
This is how poor Bird, the third of Deborah Swift’s 17th-century women from Pepys’s Diary, is despatched by her father to her future husband, “as if he were buying a joint of beef”, or, in Christopher Knepp’s case, purchasing a new horse. Elizabeth Carpenter, to whom the author gives the soubriquet, Bird, is not wanted by her stepmother, and Mr Knepp, the livery stable keeper, is on the lookout for a wife.
Deborah Swift finds Elizabeth Knepp in the pages of the diary and brings her forward from the shadows to take centre stage – literally, for Mrs Knepp becomes a singer and actress, described by Pepys as “most excellent, mad-humoured… and sings the noblest that I ever heard”. Christopher Knepp is in the diary, too: “an ill, melancholy, jealous-looking fellow”.
From these details and the 108 references to Elizabeth Knepp in Pepys’s Diary, Swift weaves a powerful story of a woman’s determination and courage. Knepp is a surly and ill-tempered brute who barely speaks to his pretty wife and expects her to cater for eight workmen and to eat her meals alone. Oh, and he wants an heir: “We must needs consummate it,” is his approach to their wedding night.
The house smells of horse-flesh, sweat, soot and tobacco smoke, hot ale in the scullery, and tallow candle. There is linseed oil to be boiled and skimmed, rank straw for the mattresses, and Bird has to clean the filthy horse tack. Her only ally is the black servant, Livvy, whose story, like Bird’s is one of a woman alone and abused.
The plight of the women is central to the novel. Bird is beaten by Knepp who burns her clothes; Livvy is abused by her next employer, Knepp’s rival, Viner; Mrs Viner is betrayed and humiliated by her bully of a husband; Knepp’s mother, an unappealing tyrant at first, is found to have her own past sorrows; and there is Elisabeth Pepys, too, blaming herself for her childlessness, putting up with his dalliances, and shamed by his rejection of her, even hit in the face once. A telling image sums up the place of wives: Mrs Pepys is “an appendage, like his periwig”.
However, Bird is not beaten; she is clever enough to find ways to thwart Knepp, and – here is a fascinating detail – she uses a lime skin as contraception. Her drudgery lasts five long years until she gets a chance to go to the theatre where “she was hooked like a fish”. The play, Flora’s Vagaries, shows what women might be – it is intoxicating and Bird uses all her cunning to get the life she wants on the stage where she feels “I am visible to someone. When I sing I become myself.”
It’s an exciting time for the theatre and for the actresses who began professionally in 1660 and we listen in to the rehearsals. We meet Nell Gwynne who lights up the stage “like a spark”. She rises to stardom despite her lowly beginnings. Aphra Behn is mentioned as Thomas Killigrew’s friend. It is Killigrew who gives Bird her first role. And there is Samuel Pepys, of course, who has his roving eye on the pretty new actress.
As always in these novels about the hidden lives of Pepys’s women, the language brilliantly evokes the sights, the sounds and the smells of 17th-century London: “the tang of blood” from the slaughterhouses, the sweet smell of clove and aniseed in pomanders, and everywhere the smell of unwashed bodies and dung.
The fire is terrifyingly described: “a solid wall of heat”, “flames like fiery hair”, “pavements slick with molten lead”, and the astonishing sight of St Paul’s “collapsed like a dead beast”. The bully, Viner, abandons his horses and there is a tremendous scene in which Bird and Knepp set them free – I’d never thought of what might have happened to the animals in the dreadful inferno.
The images are woven into the fabric of the novel to create time and place: a maidservant is “neat as a bodkin”; Bird’s sickness turns her “grey as a goose”; London is “stiff and creaking with frost”; and it is a relief to “take an unfettered breath” after the plague. Bird considers aborting her child; the apothecary mixes “stinking gladden” which smells of “rotting meat”, and Bird must use stag’s urine and violet leaf to “stop the blood and tighten the womb” – this is the kind of detail which makes this book such a rich and satisfying read.
The latest is At Midnight in Venice, published on 21 August, 2019.
Although the protagonist, Mrs Knepp, is an actual historical character who Pepys knew, the man himself is only incidental to the story. Instead the focus is firmly kept on Mrs Knepp and her life as an actress.
Mrs Knepp has been cast adrift by her uncaring father into an unloving marriage. Mr Knepp is a brute, using his wife as an unpaid servant. All that keeps her going is the chance to lose herself in the world of the theatre.
Other women have more incidental roles, exchanging sexual favours for better parts in the plays or driven mad by cruel husbands. Even Mrs Pepys complains of the cruelty and meanness of her husband, though her life was comfortable, verging on luxurious.
I’m not sure this give a fair picture of the position of women then. We meet an orange girl whose mother was a prostitute and who is, at 14 years old, already little better than a whore herself. Bright and sassy, she still seems doomed to a miserable, and probably short, life, but this is Nell Gwynne, the King’s future mistress. We hear lots about the present hardships of the characters but little about their future success.
We get a rather one-sided version of their married lives, too. We are assured that, though Mrs Knepp spends a lot of time with Pepys, they are not lovers. This is the Pepys who, we know from his diaries, will literally bend a serving girl over in a corridor and have his way with barely a break of step as he passes. But Mrs Knepp is unsullied by Pepys (though an excellent historical note suggests at least two lovers). Poor Mr Knepp, brute as he is, is at least a faithful brute.
My problem is not so much that the women have miserable lives but that they are miserable mainly on account of their being women. In fact, the 17th century was happy to make life miserable for both genders. Mrs Pepys, as we have seen in Swift’s earlier books, is not above casual cruelty to servants, and the book does not dwell on the hardships faced by the labouring man of the period. In fact, Knepp’s business (he hires carriage horses) requires a yard full of lads who do hard work fetching and carrying. Even so, Mrs Knepp is quite happy to see them go without food when she spends the meat money on theatre tickets.
Whatever your view on the sexual politics, the book demonstrates Swift’s fine grasp of period. It’s full of convincing detail: the use of limes to avoid pregnancy; the actor-manager’s insistence on women playing roles where they are disguised as men because “Killigrew likes you in breeches so they can see your bum”; the casual prejudice against Catholics. She takes you into that world and makes it real. You hear the noises and smell the smells.
The book, like the theatrical performances, is divided into three acts. Act Three sees a dramatic change of pace. Domestic drama and sexual politics give way to the horror that is the Great Fire of London. Here Swift comes into her own. She has a flair for melodrama and, with the fire, melodrama is clearly appropriate. Swift first describes the fire as we see it in Pepys’s diary:
Elisabeth peered over Janey’s shoulder. There was an orange glow a little way off on Marke Lane.
“‘Fancy you waking us up for that,’ Elisabeth said. ‘It’s just someone’s bonfire. Someone could piss it out.'”
By the morning more than three hundred houses have been burned down. We see the disaster from the point of view of several of the characters: Pepys burying his parmesan cheese in his garden; a Frenchman returning up the River from a trip across the Channel; Knepp with a stable full of straw and horses terrified by the smell of burning.
By the time the fire is burned out, relationships have been changed for ever. “It’s a purification,” one character says. “London needed it.”
Out of the fire, came a better London and, in this book, better people. Even Knepp is redeemed.
Any criticisms that the reader has in the earlier chapters are likely to be burned away in the flames. Swift has, once again, produced a gripping and convincing tale of the Restoration. If you enjoy this period you should definitely read this one.
He is also the author of the His Majesty’s Confidential Agent books, set during the Napoleonic Wars, and of the Williamson Papers trilogy.
Read Deborah’s feature about the animals in the Great Fire, inspired by writing the scene with horses which Tom mentions above.