Entertaining Mr Pepys
By Deborah Swift
Elizabeth 'Bird' Carpenter has a wonderful singing voice, and music is her chief passion. When her father persuades her to marry horse-dealer Christopher Knepp, she suspects she is marrying beneath her station, but nothing prepares her for the reality of life with Knepp. Her father has betrayed her trust, for Knepp cares only for his horses; he is a tyrant and a bully, and will allow Bird no life of her own.
When Knepp goes away, she grasps her chance and, encouraged by her maidservant Livvy, makes a secret visit to the theatre. Entranced by the music, the glitter and glamour of the surroundings, and the free and outspoken manner of the women on the stage, she falls in love with the theatre and is determined to forge a path of her own as an actress.
But life in the theatre was never going to be straightforward - for a jealous rival wants to spoil her plans, and worse, Knepp forbids it, and Bird must use all her wit and intelligence to change his mind.
Based on events depicted in the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys, Entertaining Mr Pepys brings London in the 17th Century to life. It includes the vibrant characters of the day such as the diarist himself and actress Nell Gwynne, and features a dazzling and gripping finale during the Great Fire of London.
The third in Deborah Swift's atmospheric trilogy, bringing to life the women in Pepys' Diary. Each novel features a different character and can be read as a stand-alone book.
“Her father had lied. There was nothing in the least handsome or well-favoured about Mr Knepp…”
There was a price to unhappiness, and Mary Elizabeth (Bird) Carpenter knew its value — thirty-five guineas. Bird’s father had betrayed her in the most hideous of ways. He had married her to a man who was not only below her station but was cold, hard and callous. How was she to survive in a world with no gentle words, no careful wooing, no intelligent conversation and no music?
Abandoned by her father, Bird must navigate her lonely, cruel and loveless existence. It does not take long for Bird to realise that her husband is only interested in one thing, and that is to best his business rival, Ted Viner. However, Viner is always one step ahead of him, and Christopher needs someone to take out his frustrations on.
If only Christopher would show her just an ounce of the consideration that he showed his horses, then Bird may well have learned to like him. However, his sour disposition and his cruel backhand made such things very difficult.
If it were not for Livvy, the young blackamoor servant, Bird would have had no one to talk to, and she would have inevitably become just a nameless face in the crowd — easily forgotten and then lost to time. Mistress and servant form an unlikely, but unbreakable friendship and one spontaneous trip to the theatre changes the course of both their lives forever…
Based on historical figures and events, Entertaining Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift is the unforgettable story of one woman’s courage to not only chase her dreams but to embrace them and make them her own.
Entertaining Mr Pepys is a monumental work of scholarship. The historical detailing in this book has to be commended. Swift has certainly done her research, but more than that, she has an intuitive understanding of what makes history worth reading and also an eye for the entertaining. Swift’s fast-paced narrative and vivacious storytelling make this book next to impossible to put down. It is in all ways, a historical fiction triumph.
Swift has used for reference the fascinating diary entries written by Samuel Pepys. Within these diaries is not only a first-hand account about the Restoration, the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, but also the tantalising glimpse of the life of some very notable women during this era, and Pepys seemed particularly fascinated by a young English actress, Elizabeth Knepp. Using these diaries, Swift has written a book that not only honours Elizabeth but one that is absolutely irresistible. I adored the characterisation of Bird. She is everything that a heroine should be, but she is also very human in the telling, which certainly helped me to make that all-important emotional connection. Kudos, Ms Swift.
Swift paints a dazzling portrait of a hard-up, hard-working community who dared to pick themselves up and carry on in the face of unimaginable horrors. This was the time of plague, wars and fire. Swift has captured not only the sense of time but also the spirit of the people who lived, worked, loved and died during this era of tremendous uncertainty and change. The contrast between those who had and those who did not was also cleverly woven into the fabric of this story. And yet, there is also a moral lesson, whether that was intentional or not, that reminded me of the adage, all that glitters is not gold.
Swift does not shy away from the realities of what it was to be a woman in the Stuart era. This is not a book that places modern values into a bygone time. There are some things that happen to Bird that we would see as totally unacceptable, but back then a woman was expected to be submissive to her husband, and if she disobeyed him it was socially acceptable to beat her. At times this made for some very difficult reading, but I can understand why Swift chose to stay true to the period, and I applaud her for standing her ground and not making her characters values and opinions modern in the telling. By not doing so, Swift has given this book authenticity.
In the early 1660s, after the Restoration of King Charles II, women were permitted to perform on the English stage for the first time. Swift has captured the excitement but also the uncertainty for although women could now perform it meant that the boys, who once played the female leads, were now redundant. Young Stefan, although bitter and at times very spiteful, surprisingly stole my heart. His life is the theatre and while Bird steps into the light, Stefan has to be content with returning to the shadows. On top of this, Stefan struggles with his sexuality, which I thought Swift portrayed with great care and sensitivity. I thought this sub-plot was utterly irresistible.
As stated, this book is based on actual historical people, and when I think of the theatre during the Stuart period, I think of Nell Gwynne. In Entertaining Mr Pepys, we witness the beginning of Nell’s career. This was a career that would take her all the way to the King’s bed. Nell has a very minor role in this book, but she is there, as is a host of other celebrated actress and actors.
There is so much to love about this book. I enjoyed every syllable and every sentence. Superbly portrayed and shamelessly compelling, Entertaining Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift is a book that will not only keep you up at night, but it is one that you will come back to again and again.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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Entertaining Mr Pepys
Deborah Swift is the author of three previous historical novels for adults, The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all published by Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, as well as the Highway Trilogy for teens (and anyone young at heart!). Her first novel was shortlisted for the Impress prize for new novelists.
She lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.