Pleasing Mr Pepys

Written by Deborah Swift
Review by Ann Northfield

Deb Willett is employed in the household of the diarist Samuel Pepys as a companion for his wife. She is there to help her with the pets and ladylike tasks, such as sewing and dressing hair, and thus to earn enough money to keep her sister in education and away from the perils of life on the streets, only a short step away in this society. As readers are aware from the famous diaries, Mr Pepys is possessed of wandering hands and a fondness for the ladies, and this causes difficulties for Deb and pain for his wife. At times the theme of pleasing becomes vital: how much should you please others, how far should you go to ensure your survival and where can a good-natured gesture lead you? Deb becomes embroiled in secrets, lies and deceptions of all kinds when she agrees to help Abigail Williams, mistress of an important sea lord, with copying documents. As Deb herself observes, “one thing dragged another in its wake”, and so she becomes more and more tightly enmeshed in corruption and deceit.

The historical details are woven into the fabric of the novel seamlessly, and the characters really live off the page in the mind of the reader and, towards the end, matters become almost unbearably tense as danger threatens those Deb cares about. This is well-written, thoughtful and very much recommended. There are historical notes at the end as well as questions for reading groups. It would make a fine choice for such a group as there is plenty to discuss, above and beyond the finely drawn historical setting.