Entertaining Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift #BookReview #BlogTour

London 1666

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, this is a historical novel bringing London in the 17th Century to life. It includes the vibrant characters of the day including the diarist himself and actress Nell Gwynne, and features a dazzling and gripping finale during the Great Fire Of London.

It's my pleasure to be hosting the blog tour for Entertaining Mr Pepys today. Many thanks to Deborah Swift, Kayleigh and Headline Accent for inviting me and for my digital copy of the novel.

Entertaining Mr Pepys has a familiar beginning as Elizabeth ‘Bird’ Carpenter learns she is to be married to horse-trader, Christopher Knepp. She could have reasonably expected a comfortable life as the daughter of a successful lawyer but after her mother’s death, her father remarried a much younger woman. His new wife wants to be the only woman of the house, so takes advantage of his passion and vanity to arrange a loveless marriage for Bird.  Knepp is a bitter, controlling man who seeks only a woman who can bear him children and work as little more than a servant in his yard. It’s a cruel shock to the vivacious young woman who finds herself alone and with no comfort in her shabby and austere new home.  However, this is far from being a tale of a tragic young girl and Bird is a resourceful and engaging protagonist in this hugely entertaining novel.
With no other women to talk to, she befriends her black maidservant, Livvy and through her discovers the theatre, where she finally feels at home. Up until recently men have traditionally played women's roles but it's now the 17th Century and times are changing. Despite some people believing it to be against the natural order of things, audiences want reality, and women want to see themselves on stage.
Bird's determination to sing and act is a major part of the book but what her endeavours really represent are reflected in the storylines of several of the characters. At its heart, this is really a book about the desire for freedom. Bird wants to be free of her domineering husband, Livvy's mother was a slave and although she isn't enslaved in the same way, as a black Dutch servant, she has very few choices in life, something which becomes only too evident when she goes to work for Knepp's business rival, Viner. This is the third standalone book in Deborah Swift’s series of historical novels inspired by the Diaries of Samuel Pepys and although the man himself features as a character here, his wife, Elisabeth also has an important part to play as a fascinating counterpoint to Bird's circumstances. At first glance she would appear to have everything Bird doesn't - a comfortable home, with a successful, educated and witty husband but it gradually becomes obvious that she also feels trapped. Pepys is serially unfaithful to her and like many men of the time, not averse to using his firsts on his wife. There are other examples too - the young man prevented from the roles he loves to play in the theatre by his own body; the Catholics and foreigners who are at best mistrusted but more often hated by a vengeful populace, especially after war breaks out with the Dutch. Everybody is trapped by their own circumstances - even the man whose pride and self-pity have caused him to close his heart to the prospect of love.
The domestic violence in the book is shocking to our modern sensibilities but of course is a realistic portrayal of what life was really like for many women back then who were little more than possessions of their husbands. The social mores of the time decreed that it was perfectly acceptable - even desirable - for men to beat their women to keep them in line and so the wives have little other choice than to put up with the violence. The brutality and vulgarity of this period in history is shown with an unflinching honesty throughout the book; the sounds and smells of working class 17th Century London are brought vividly to life. The authentic sense of time and place is a real highlight of this engrossing novel and never more so than when major historical events are woven into the story. The Great Plague inflicts its terrible toll on the city and as the book draws to its dramatic conclusion, the horror of the Great Fire of London is portrayed with a devastating realism. The smaller, more personal moments are equally as important here, however, and there is one scene which is especially heartbreaking.
The characters are as believable as the setting and I really appreciated the way in which Deborah Swift created such well-rounded individuals - with the exception of one particularly unpleasant character, most are shown to have some redeeming qualities. The inclusion of real-life figures is another highlight and although this is a fictional representation of them, the author's research and attention to detail ensures their roles in history are truthfully acknowledged.
I thoroughly enjoyed Entertaining Mr Pepys; it is a beautifully written novel and as the best historical fiction can do, also reminds us that despite the centuries separating us, on many levels we aren't that different from our forbears and many of the issues which were prevalent then, such as sexism, racism, and religious prejudice are still contemporary problems - even if we would like to believe differently. Highly recommended.

Entertaining Mr Pepys is published by Headline Accent and can be purchased from Amazon UK, Kobo and Waterstones.

Don't miss the rest the rest of the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

Deborah lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District, a beautiful area made famous by the Romantic Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. In the past she used to work as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV, so she enjoys the research aspect of creating historical fiction, something she loved doing as a scenographer. Each book takes about six months of research before she is ready to begin writing. More details of her research and writing process can be found on her website. Deborah likes to write about extraordinary characters set against the background of real historical events.