Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Deborah Swift: Dissecting Pepys’s Diary

15 September 2017

Special Guest Post by Deborah Swift: Dissecting Pepys’s Diary

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Deb Willet is desperate to escape her domineering aunt and takes a position as companion to Elisabeth Pepys, Samuel's wife. Deb believes it will give her the respectability and freedom she craves - but it proves far more complicated than she could ever have imagined.

Samuel Pepys, the foremost London diarist of the 17th century, is renowned for his fly-on-the-wall descriptions of the Great Fire and the Plague. He also has a reputation as a womaniser because of his frank confessions in his diary to his many adulterous affairs. What did these women think of Pepys, I wondered? His diary tells us he had relations on more than one occasion with various married women including Mrs Lane, Mrs Martin, Mrs Pennington, Mrs Tooker, Mrs Bagwell, Mrs Burrows, Betty Mitchell and Elizabeth Knipp. He was not averse to other random encounters either, invariably taking his chances where he could, in shops, taverns, the theatre and even in church during the service.

But his most famous liaison was with Deb Willet, the maidservant who nearly destroyed his marriage. This was the character I wanted to focus on in Pleasing Mr Pepys. Deb was a well-educated young girl when she went to live at the Pepys’ house in Seething Lane, as a companion to Pepys’ wife Elisabeth. But unsurprisingly, Pepys’ roving eye soon fell on Deb, with disastrous results.

Deb has been portrayed as a sacrificial lamb to Pepys’ desires. I wondered if the tables could be reversed, and she could actually be using him to further some desire of her own. A girl who has learned several languages, who is intelligent and ‘grave’, could be useful to those who needed to know more about the British Navy, particularly the Dutch. I wanted to dissect the diary to see if I could bring her out of the shadows and into the light.

Discovering what Deb was doing out of sight of the diary was a trail that led me to discover that she had later married a ship’s chaplin, Jeremiah Wells, who was in correspondence with Pepys even after the diary had ended. Deb’s marriage to a man of the cloth added another potential conflict into her relationship with Mr Pepys, and supplied me with an unusual romantic subplot.

Writing a novel based around Pepys’ Diary presented its own difficulties, the first being that Pepys entries are so detailed. If I wanted to heighten a scene by using stormy weather, I would inevitably discover that Pepys tells us it was a sunny day. Some days are written in exhaustive detail, other days Pepys is stubbornly reticent about what went on. In vain I searched for some small telling details about Christmas Day 1668, but the entry for two days later (27th December) there is an enormous amount of detail about a meeting he had with Downing (after whom Downing Street is named) who confesses to Pepys about espionage for the Crown:
“he told me that he had so good spies, that he hath had the keys taken out of De Witt’s pocket when he was a-bed, and his closet opened, and papers brought to him, and left in his hands for an hour, and carried back and laid in the place again, and keys put into his pocket again.”
In the same entry he gives us some domestic detail about his relationship with his wife:
“my wife and I fell out a little about the foulness of the linen of the table, but were friends presently, but she cried, poor heart! which I was troubled for, though I did not give her one hard word.”
This was the joy of researching Pepys; the diary is partly the affairs of state and partly an insight into his domestic affairs. In the novel I wanted to bring the women to the forefront, to construct a life for the women in the moments they were hidden from Pepys’ view.

One of my main research books was Marshall’s ‘Intelligence and Espionage in the Reign of Charles II’. I was particularly interested in women such as Aphra Behn, who undertook some intelligence work for the Crown. The Restoration era was one in which plots were everywhere; conspiracy theories, assassination attempts and rebellion were prime concerns for Charles II, whose father had been executed as a result of such activities.

My other line of research was to look into the language of playwrights of the period. Pepys was a keen theatregoer, and reports of plays, and the new excitement of women on the stage was an ongoing characteristic of his diary. So some of the characters were drawn from playwrights of the period such as Wycherley and Dryden. Pepys comes across as ‘larger than life’ in his diaries. To match him, I needed strong, almost theatrical, characters. I hope Pepys would have enjoyed the drama of espionage and double-dealing that I have constructed from his diary, and been ‘mightily entertained.’

Deborah Swift
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About the Author

Deborah Swift lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District and worked as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV. After gaining an MA in Creative Writing in 2007 Deborah now teach classes and courses in writing and provides editorial advice to writers and authors. Find out more at Deborah's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @swiftstory.

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