Thursday, November 21, 2019

Review of Entertaining Mr. Pepys by Deborah Swift, set in 17th-century London

Deborah Swift has established a literary home in the 17th century, and her expertise shows in her work; she has a gift for illuminating the characters, customs, politics, and religion of the time. Her newest trilogy looks at the real-life women who figured in Samuel Pepys’ famous diary. Entertaining Mr. Pepys, the third volume, can also stand alone (I haven’t read the others yet and have some catching up to do). With such a title, and with a professional actress as its heroine, you’d expect it to be lively and entertaining, and it is.

Mary Elizabeth “Bird” Carpenter comes from a well-to-do London household. Her troubles begin after her widowed father grows besotted with and marries a younger woman who wants Bird out of her home. Bird is hardly thrilled to marry horse-dealer Christopher Knepp, who she barely knows, and even less so when she arrives at Knepp’s home as a bride and discovers she was essentially purchased to be his servant and brood-mare. Knepp, driven by his jealousy of a neighbor and business rival, is a skinflint who spends nearly all his meager income on horses, and Bird spends many exhausting days—and then years—washing saddles, preparing meals for Knepp’s workers, and fighting to create a well-furnished household amid the grime and neglect.

Bird has always had a beautiful singing voice, and through her friendship with Livvy, Knepp’s black serving-maid, she gets introduced to the London stage: first as an observer, then as a performer. When she sees a possible way out of her life of drudgery, she grabs it with both hands. Knepp is reluctant to let his wife tread the boards, but the enterprising Bird sees a way to present it to him as a business opportunity. Through the stage, Bird finds a new admirer in avid theatre-goer Samuel Pepys.

I especially enjoyed Swift’s depiction of working-class life and people in 1660s London. Her diverse cast of characters includes Bird’s needy, frail mother-in-law; several Catholics forced to hide their beliefs; Livvy and her family, forced to live apart; and Stefan, a young actor who adored playing female roles and is devastated by the new trend to hire actresses, rather than men, to play women on stage. Neither he nor Knepp is kind to Bird, but Swift also gives us enough glimpses of their struggles so that their attitudes are understandable, even if it’s difficult to like them. Swift also presents a convincing, panoramic view of the chaos and devastation wrought by the Great Fire of 1666:

Further up, shouts, as families flung their goods into the river. From this distance, the wharf teemed with running silhouettes against the brilliant light of the flames… the landscape of London was like a mouth with missing teeth, full of blackened stumps and gaps. The view was alien, unrecognizable. Half-burned joists and rafters stuck out from church steeples; in the distance something exploded.

Though the plot dips into others’ viewpoints now and again, it’s anchored by the delightful and determined Bird, and it’s a pleasure to follow along with her unexpectedly successful career path in 17th-century London.

Entertaining Mr. Pepys is published by Accent Press this week, and this is day 1 of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. There's a tour-wide giveaway, too:

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a signed copy of Entertaining Mr. Pepys! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on December 12th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Paperback giveaway is open internationally.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

Entertaining Mr. Pepys


  1. Thank you very much for kicking off Deborah's tour! I'm so glad you enjoyed the read!

    HF Virtual Book Tours

    1. It was great to start off the tour, and get a chance to read another one of her novels. Thanks for organizing it!

  2. I read and really enjoyed Swift's "The Gilded Lily" last year - she has a knack for putting you right into her settings. Thanks for the post!

    1. That was the first book I'd read of hers, I believe. I agree!