Thursday 30 August 2018

A Plague On Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

Biographical Fiction
17th Century

Never before have I encountered two characters whose heads I really wanted to bang together! Bess Bagwell is a social climber; husband Will is a skilled carpenter but lacks gumption. Bess tries hard to push Will forward; Will is content to wait for work at the dockyards. Rearing an ugly head is Jack Sutherland, Will's cousin, a wastrel and con man with a dozen get-rich-quick schemes behind him, all failures. Not only does Jack wheedle Will's savings out of him for yet another new scheme, he also foists his three young sons on Bess to look after whenever he is 'busy'. Jack is a widower and the boys are very fond of their aunt and uncle.

In order to try to get Will some work, Bess, through a mutual friend, approaches Samuel Pepys for help, which he readily agrees to. After all, Bess is an attractive young woman and Mr Pepys is well known for his 'dalliances'. And in the background is Agatha, Bess' mother, a woman whom Bess despises for her past.

An explosive cocktail of dominant, manipulating personalities leads to tension and then outright conflict between Bess and Will as they lie to each other, withhold truths and struggle for every penny to pay the loan on their new house. They get even deeper into debt, Jack takes more and more liberties and Pepys pursues his lusts. Things might have got better when Pepys secures Will a position on board ship, but Navy pay is always delayed and Bess is left to fend for herself for months on end.  It is at this point that I wanted to shout, 'For goodness sake, sit down and talk to each other!'

Which rather goes to show just how well Ms Swift has painted her characters, both major and minor. They stumble from disaster to disaster, one step away from ruin whilst Jack, amazingly, flourishes. The atmosphere of post-Restoration London is very well captured and the constant turn of events will make the reader reluctant to finish any session. Quite who is the villain of the piece is hard to determine: in a way, they all are.

It isn't quite perfect: my version had a few formatting and typographical errors (no blame to the author on that) and I did  have a couple of continuity issues – did Mr Hertford's card table ever get made? This appears to be the second of a short series but can be read totally independently.

The author has kindly added some notes at the back. The Bagwells were real people and a Mrs Bagwell was certainly one of Pepys' mistresses as his diaries reveal.

Oh – did I mention the Plague? Do watch out for the Plague, it can be quite brutal …

Warmly recommended for lovers of this period and especially those interested in Mr Pepys.

© Richard Tearle

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