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.
This is the third in Deborah Swift’s excellent trilogy, all based on real women and events depicted in the famous Diary of Samuel Pepys. Entertaining Mr Pepys is the best of them all.
It’s not always easy to write convincingly about spirited heroines who remain true to the mores of their era but Elizabeth, forced into a bad marriage by her father, uses her intelligence to rise magnificently from the ashes of her unhappiness.
Elizabeth seems so real it’s almost as if you know her. I burned at the injustices meted out to her and read late into the night to find out how she could possibly overcome so many obstacles to her happiness.
But Elizabeth isn’t the only vivid character in the story. There’s her black, Dutch maid Livvy, Sam Pepys himself, Stefan, an actor with a hidden allegiance to the Catholics and a grudge against women. Even her loathsome husband Knepp has secrets that make him a more rounded character than the reader might at first believe.
All of Deborah Swift’s novels set in the C17th bring that time vividly to life but in Entertaining Mr Pepys, she captures not only the dazzling world of the theatre but also the filth and grime of abject poverty. She captures perfectly the prevailing atmosphere of suspicion in the city, the fear of Catholic spies and war with the Dutch and, not least, the terror of the plague and the Great Fire.
Entertaining Mr Pepysis carefully researched and the facts are skilfully brought together to create a wonderful story. Even if history isn’t your ‘thing’ it would be hard not to enjoy this book.
If you’d like to find out more about how Deborah Swift researched the Great Fire of London, click below.