A Plague on Mr Pepys

Written by Deborah Swift
Review by Bryan Dumas

Bess Bagwell is headstrong and determined to make the most of her life and put the past—poverty, abuse, and hunger—behind her in this notable look at one of many dalliances mentioned in the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Where Bess is driven, her husband, Will, a carpenter with talent, is the opposite, and it takes Bess’s ambitions for their family for Will to get anywhere. Bess has convinced Will to take a loan for a house where Will can work, and she can rise above the servant class. Quickly, they find that it is difficult to maintain a master lifestyle. Will’s cousin, Jack, often greases money out of Will for various failing schemes, and Bess, trying to join the ranks of the wealthy, learns that generosity is expensive, and the Bagwells find themselves going deeper into debt. This debt forces Bess into the arms of Samuel Pepys, who she enlists early on to help Will find work. Lingering as an undercurrent early on is the Plague raging through Europe. Eventually, it finds its way into London, and everything changes for everyone.

Swift’s re-imagining of the life of Bess Bagwell and what drove her to become one of Samuel Pepys’ most enduring trysts is remarkable. Her characters are so alive that you either want to reach out and lovingly save them from themselves or angrily shake them until they realize the messes they are creating. Even the secondary characters of Jack, Owen Bagwell—Will’s father—and Agatha—Bess’s mother—are deftly drawn. When the plague strikes London, it does so in graphic detail with little left to the imagination. This may be a turn-off for some, but it adds yet another layer of depth to this story. An immersive and rich imagining of a mysterious woman from Pepys’ life that will hold readers until the very end.