‘A Plague on Mr Pepys’ is a fascinating work of historical fiction. It’s based firmly on fact, but the author has used her imagination to bring real people from the past to vibrant life.
Our heroine is Bess Bagwell, a very determined and likeable woman. She’s the driving force in the household. Husband Will is a very talented carpenter but lacks ambition. His stern father destroyed his self-confidence when he was young. Will is also hampered by his cousin Jack Sutherland, a rogue who doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of anyone or any situation. He’s a millstone around the Bagwells’ necks.
Bess just wants to better herself and her situation, since, as she observes, there are only masters and servants in this world and she’s not going to be the latter, and this desire brings her into dramatic contact with Mr Pepys. The latter remains something of an enigmatic figure and secondary character in the book although he plays a crucial role. However, for various reasons, of which kindness is prominent, the Bagwells keep finding themselves in financial difficulties. This leads to Bess earning money in a decidedly controversial manner.
The plague has been bubbling in the background during the early action of the book, and then it comes destructively to the forefront throwing society into turmoil. Few households escape of it, the Bagwells’ included. This part of the story hammers home the horror this disease represented at that thime, and brings to life for us, or rather death, both its devastating impact and the helplessness of people when faced with it.
I must give a quick mention to Bess’s mother, Agatha. She’s made a mess of things in the past, falling prey to the evils of drink and Bess holds many grudges. However, Agatha is a changed person and family ties are strong, against all odds. She plays an important role in the story, and the difficult relationship between mother and daughter is both heartwrenching and warming.
The book is a delight to read. The author grabs our attention from the very start and keeps us riveted. She has clearly done much detailed research, and this all adds to the authenticity of the story. We learn what a farthing would buy, what people wore, how guilds were organised and so on, and this is all really interesting. There’s no info-dumping, these little snippets of information are dropped in when necessary and make the writing all the richer.
Definitely one to add to your shelves or Kindle. It’s the second in a series, but works perfectly well as a standalone. A wonderful read.
Details and synopsis
Series: Women of Pepys Diary Series #2
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: July 5th 2018
Publisher: Accent Press
The second novel in the series based on the different women in Samuel Pepys’s famous diary.
Sometimes the pursuit of money costs too much…
Ambitious Bess Bagwell is determined that her carpenter husband, Will, should make a name for himself in the Navy shipyards. To further his career, she schemes for him to meet Samuel Pepys, diarist, friend of the King and an important man in the Navy.
But Pepys has his own motive for cultivating the attractive Bess, and it’s certainly not to benefit her husband. Bess soon finds she is caught in a trap of her own making.
As the summer heat rises, the Great Plague has London in its grip. Red crosses mark the doors, wealthy citizens flee and only the poor remain to face the march of death.
With pestilence rife in the city, all trade ceases.
With no work as a carpenter, Will is forced to invest in his unscrupulous cousin Jack’s dubious ‘cure’ for the pestilence which horrifies Bess and leaves them deeper in debt.
Now they are desperate for money and the dreaded disease is moving ever closer. Will Mr Pepys honour his promises or break them? And will they be able to heal the divide that threatens to tear their marriage apart?
London, March 1663
‘Here’s the address,’ Bess said, pressing the paper down on the table in front of her husband. She patted him on the shoulder, which released a puff of dust. Will was a fine figure of a man – tall and blond, with arms muscled from lifting timber, and the fine-boned hands of a craftsman, but his clothes were always full of sawdust and wood-shavings.
He turned and smiled, with an expression that said he was ready to humour her.
‘It’s on the other side of the Thames, close to one of the shipyards. Big houses all round. A nice neighbourhood. Quiet.’
‘Where?’ Will asked, standing to pick up the paper, and stooping from habit because their attic room was so low.
‘Deptford.’ She held her breath.
‘Deptford?’ he said, throwing it back down. ‘We’re not living in Deptford.’
‘Oh, Will, it has to stop sometime. He won’t even know we’re there.’
‘You don’t know my father, he gets to know everyone’s business.’
‘That’s no reason. That terrible brimstone preacher lives just round the corner, and we manage well enough to avoid him.’
‘We need never see your father. The Deptford yard is enormous. More than a mile end to end. Just think, you could work there fitting out ships, and you’d never set eyes on him.’ She tugged at his sleeve. ‘The workshop’s so fine – you should see the workbench. More than eight foot long, and it runs right under the window. You can nearly see the whole shipyard from there.’ She paused; she knew his weak spot well. ‘And the house will be perfect for your new commission. You won’t have to hire a work place again.’
‘It’s more than we can afford, love, to buy a house.’
‘You’ll get better commissions though, once people see Hertford’s chairs. You should see it! There’s room for your lathes and there’s already a wall with hooks for hanging tools. Just come and look, Will. That’s all.’
Will sighed. ‘Suppose looking won’t hurt.’
In the panelled chambers of Thavie’s Inn, Holborn, Will Bagwell lifted the quill and dipped it in the ink. His heart was pounding beneath the buttons of his doublet. The paper before him was thick vellum, as if to emphasise the serious nature of the agreement. Ten years’ of his wages in a good year. An enormous loan. He wanted to read it again, for it was a lot of writing to take in, in a language that took some fathoming. But they were all waiting.
Behind him, he could hear Bess breathing; feel the heat of her hand on his shoulder. He tapped the nib on the edge of the bottle to shake off the excess droplets of ink; Bess’s hand tightened. He swallowed. Just shy of sixty pounds. If he signed this, there would be no going back.
He hesitated, and looked up. Opposite him, the turtle-faced goldsmith, Kite, nodded and narrowed his eyes in a tight smile of encouragement. The notary, an official from the Inn of Chancery in a blindingly white cravat, was impatient, shifting from foot to foot. No doubt he’d seen such an agreement many times.
A deep breath. Will felt the nib touch the paper and suddenly, there it was – his signature flowing across the page. He had no sooner lifted the pen from the document than it was swiped out from under his gaze, and Kite the money-lender was scribbling his name under Will’s. Immediately, a serving boy came with a stub of smoking sealing wax, and even before Kite had time to press the metal die into the red puddle on the paper, the notary was adding his witness signature.
It was over in a few seconds and Will’s damp palm was gripped momentarily in Kite’s wrinkled one, before the duplicate loan agreement and the house deeds were thrust into his hand for him to sign.
‘My man Bastable will collect the repayments on the last day of each month,’ Kite said.
Will felt dazed. He wanted to turn back time, give the agreement back. But they were all smiling, Bess most of all. Her face lit up the room. She had her fine house now, and he couldn’t let her down, could he? But all he could think of was the feeling of his empty purse, like a lung with the breath squeezed out of it.
Check out book 1 in the series!
PRAISE FOR PLEASING MR PEPYS
‘Swift is a consummate historical novelist, basing her books on immaculate research and then filling the gaps between real events and real people with eloquent storytelling, atmospheric scene setting and imaginative plot lines’ The Visitor
‘Pepys and his world spring to vibrant life…Gripping, revealing and stunningly imagined, Pleasing Mr Pepys is guaranteed to please’ Lancashire Evening Post
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
From Deborah Swift:
I write historical fiction, a genre I love. I loved the Victorian classics such as Jane Eyre, Lorna Doone and Wuthering Heights. As I child I loved to read and when I had read my own library books, I used to borrow my mother’s library copies of Anya Seton and Daphne du Maurier. I have loved reading historical novels ever since; though I’m a bookaholic and I read widely – contemporary and classic fiction as well as historicals.
In the past I used to work as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV, so I enjoy the research aspect of creating historical fiction, something I loved doing as a scenographer. Each book takes about six months of research before I am ready to begin writing. More details of my research and writing process can be found on my website. I like to write about extraordinary characters set against the background of real historical events.
I live in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District, an area made famous by the Romantic Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge.
I took an MA in Creative Writing in 2007 and now teach classes and courses in writing, and offer editorial advice from my home. A Plague on Mr Pepys is my ninth published novel.
1 paperback (UK only) & 1 ebook (international)