Between the Lines: Deborah Swift on the Women in Pepys’ Diary

Charlotte Betts

Samuel Pepys’ Diary is the foremost resource for life in 17th-century London, and the diary is justly famous for Pepys’s frank revelations about Charles II, the English court, and city society—not to mention his marriage and his dalliances with other women. Deborah Swift’s new book, Pleasing Mr Pepys (Accent, 2017), explores the lives of some of the women in Pepys’s Diary. An enormous amount of detail can be gleaned about the women’s daily lives from the diary; Elisabeth’s penchant for French romances, for example, and Deb’s unpleasant daily duty of combing nits from Samuel’s hair.

I asked Swift why, given such a wealth of material, so few books about Pepys have been written from the women’s perspective.

‘I think it’s because nothing survives of the women: no letters, no diaries, nothing at all to give them a voice. So the novelist is entirely reliant on Pepys’s words in the diary, which can be somewhat daunting. Though of course I did use other women’s journals—Anne Clifford and Anne Fanshawe—and also letters of the period to bring the women to life.’

Although it might seem an obvious idea, Swift chose not to use the diary form to give voice to Elisabeth Pepys. ‘It had already been done, and excellently, by Sara George in her book, The Journal of Mrs Pepys,’ Swift says, ‘but more than that—I wanted to focus on Deb Willet, the maidservant. And the limitation of the diary form is that events are always reported after they’ve happened. I wanted to give the women more agency, to put them into action before the reader’s eyes. By using more than one viewpoint, we are able to witness the interaction between them, bringing them out from between the lines.’

The drama that ensues when Pepys falls in love with Deb forms the emotional lynchpin of the novel, and I was reminded of maidservants in other 17th-century novels such as Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (Ecco & Picador UK, 2014) and Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Words in My Hand (Two Roads, 2016). In the latter, the maidservant/mistress, always an ambiguous role in the household, is forced to endure a life hidden away from mainstream society. In Swift’s novel, though, the maid is more equipped to deal with Mr Pepys’s advances.

‘The key for me to Deb’s character was in the words of the diary,’ Swift explains. ‘Pepys says she is exceeding well bred and that she has been educated at a school at Bow for the last eight years. He also fears she might be a little too good for my family. So this was a well-educated young woman, engaged as a companion for Elisabeth, not (as some TV dramas would have us think) a mere kitchen maid. It also gave me the idea that she might have had an agenda of her own, and could possibly be a spy for the Dutch.’

The triangle between Pepys, his wife and his maid form the emotional heart of the book, although the third female character, the actress Abigail Williams—based, Swift tells me, on Aphra Behn—drives the action. Faithful though it is to the diary, Swift weaves a story around treason, espionage, and stolen extracts of the diary, with the women in leading roles.

‘I am clear that it’s an entertainment,’ Swift says. ‘In the absence of hard evidence from the women themselves, we can only guess what they did between the lines of the diary—whilst Pepys thought they were safe at home, or shopping at the Exchange. They perhaps had lives he was completely unaware of. This is a difficult line to tread, to use the facts of the diary as reported by Pepys, but also to use them to support some quite other view of events.’

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Charlotte Betts is an award-winning writer of six novels and two novellas published by Piatkus. Her most recent novel is The Dressmaker’s Secret. Find her at

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