One of my favourite series in recent years has been Deborah Swift’s Pepys series. Samuel Pepys is a famous 17th century diarist who wrote about his day to day life, his business, and yes, even his sexual indiscretions. Thanks to Pepys, historians have excellent insights into life during Restoration London.
Deborah Swift has quite brilliantly written a trio of books based on women mentioned in Pepys’s diary. I loved the first two novels, Pleasing Mr Pepys and A Plague on Mr Pepys, so it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to the final book in the series, Entertaining Mr. Pepys. It was well worth the wait and I highly recommend it! Deborah Swift transports us back to the Restoration London and the newly re-opened theaters following the dour Cromwellian years. It’s the story of a woman who learns to become who she was always meant to be, despite every imaginable barrier. All the characters are layered and complex, and the story will keep you turning the pages until the end.
I have the pleasure of hosting Deborah today as she discusses her latest novel Entertaining Mr. Pepys and Samuel Pepys’s love of the theatre.
Pepys’s Passion for the Theatre
by Deborah Swift
My most recent book, ‘Entertaining Mr Pepys’ is based on the life of seventeenth century actress, Mary Knepp, sometimes confusingly known as Elizabeth Knepp. To get over this problem, in my novel I have given her the nickname ‘Bird’ because she loves to sing. She appears over a hundred times in Pepys’ Diary, and she and Samuel Pepys become close friends. Bird lived through eventful times, including the shocking advent of women’s appearances in the theatre, and the catastrophic events of the Plague and the Great Fire of London.
Samuel Pepys was a huge fan of the theatre – partly this must be because the theatres had been shut for so long during Puritan rule. When the monarchy was restored and the King re-opened the theatres, plays were a novelty and were enthusiastically embraced by an entertainment-starved public. Only two companies were given licenses – The King’s Company and The Duke’s Company. The King’s Theatre (now Theatre Royal, Drury Lane) was run by Thomas Killigrew and was the first theatre company to employ women in female roles – before that they had always been played by boys or young men, and they caused a sensation, becoming the first female celebrities of their day.
The theatre, even then, was a reflection of society. Pepys went to the theatre, not only to see plays, but to be seen. Only recently has the convention of the fourth wall between the stage and audience arisen, and at the beginning of women’s life in the theatre, there was constant badinage across the divide between stage and audience with an emphasis on wit and banter on both sides. Scenes on stage commonly echoed or parodied scenes at court.
So great was Pepys’ passion for the theatre, that he used to try to resist attending by fining himself, putting money in a poor box if he broke his vow to keep away. Nothing worked, and his diary for 1666-68 is full of references to the theatre and particularly to Mrs Knepp, including mentions of their amorous flirtations, and passages about how much he enjoyed their musical evenings and especially her singing.
Pepys was very outspoken about the plays he enjoyed, and those he didn’t.
‘To the King’s Theatre, where we saw Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I have never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.’
He was very impressed by the comedic talents of Nell Gwynne playing Florimell in The Mayden Queene. ‘so great a performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before…it makes me, I confess, admire her.’
Nell Gwyn takes Pepys on a behind-the-scenes tour, but he is shocked at the tawdriness of the scenery and properties backstage.
‘what a mixture of things there was, here a wooden leg, there a ruff, here a hobby-horse, there a crowne, would make a man split himself to see with laughing … to think how fine they show on the stage by candlelight, and how poor things they are to look now too nearhand, is not pleasant at all.’
Mary Knepp played major and minor roles in a range of productions of the 1660s and 1670s, including the famous role of Lady Fidget in Wycherley’s The Country Wife at Drury Lane in 1675. In the novel I have loved writing the reactions to these first actresses, and I really enjoyed writing Bird’s part in rescuing her husband’s horses in the Great Fire of London.
About Entertaining Mr. Pepys
Mary ‘Bird’ Carpenter has a wonderful singing voice, and music is her chief passion. When she marries horse-dealer Christopher Knepp, she knows she is marrying beneath her station. What she doesn’t know, is that Knepp is a tyrant and a bully, and will allow her no life of her own. Worst of all, he cannot see the point of music and bans it from the house.
When he goes away, Mary makes a forbidden visit to the theatre. Entranced by the music, the glitter and glamour of the surroundings, and the freedom of the women on the stage, she sets about finding a way to become an actress.
Determined to find friends to support her cause, she is drawn to the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, who shares her love of music and entertainment. But as she is drawn into his circle, she finds herself falling more and more under his spell.
With an unrequited love, jealous rivals on stage, and The Great Fire of London to contend with, Bird’s journey to fame and fortune is never going to be easy.