Elizabeth Bagwell figures in the diary of Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth century Naval administrator, as one of his most enduring mistresses. The diary provides us with no hint of how Elizabeth, a married woman, achieved this position, especially as Pepys initially described her as ‘a virtuous modest woman’ who he had ‘a kindness’(!) for. In A Plague on Mr Pepys, Deborah Swift plausibly imagines how this might have come about.
Bess Bagwell is happily married to Will, a carpenter who is happiest in his workshop fashioning beautifully finished wooden furniture. But Bess has risen from poverty and has aspirations of a far better life – she wants to be a lady – so she pushes Will into borrowing money to buy a house and workshop on Flaggon Row in Deptford that is barely within their means, and then only if the future is prosperous. She is flattered by the attention of the pushy and snobbish wife of the head draftsman at the King’s shipyard who lives across the road from her and allows herself to be drawn into the woman’s social activities. But this is 1663, the King may be back on his throne but, with the benefit of hindsight, the reader knows there are storms ahead.
Bess believes their future will be secure if Will can get a position in the naval dockyards but the Shipwright’ Guild is more than taking its time to approve his papers. Debts pile up and Will’s work is slow coming in, so Bess decides to approach Samuel Pepys, an administrator in the Naval Treasury, who she thinks will be able to use his influence to improve Will’s situation. Pepys is charmed by Bess and charming to her, agreeing to do what he can to help. At first, although he flirts with Bess, even in the presence of her husband, he seems to be merely helpful but as the story progresses the reader sees the extent and the price of his help and the ultimate cost to Bess and Will Bagwell.
While much of the novel is Bess’s life and her daily struggles, it is set against the backdrop of the Second Anglo-Dutch war, rumours of plague in Amsterdam and its eventual arrival in London. The sights, sound and smells of seventeenth-century London are vividly imagined as are the social attitudes, the extremes of poverty and wealth, the social pretensions and snobbery, the constant struggle of those at the lower levels of society and the viciousness of those who would do anything for money and brute power. The section of the novel that deals with the plague is harrowing, describing not only the physical effects of the disease but the behaviour of those threatened by it, displaying the range of behaviour from desperate fear, callous exploitation to compassion and selflessness.
Both Bess and Will Bagwell are realistically flawed characters – Bess is cheerful, ambitious and impetuous, Will is a quiet man who would rather hide away with his wood. He is too willingly swayed by his predatory cousin, Jack Sutherland, a ruthless creature who can easily manipulate Will into financially backing his shady schemes. All the minor characters are well drawn, from the Jack Sutherland and Agatha Prescott, Bess’s mother, to the snobbish Mrs Fewick, the draftsman’s wife, and Jack Sutherland’s children, three boys, each unique in speech and behaviour. Samuel Pepys is presented very much as the man found in his diaries, for the most part affable, but there is a glimpse of the single-minded determination that would have been necessary for him to achieve and maintain his position and to undertake his numerous ‘dalliances’. While he is central to the progress of the novel, A Plague on Mr Pepys is primarily Bess’s story.
The novel is beautifully written, the prose an unobtrusive vehicle for the story yet able to conjure the realities of seventeenth-century life and the terrors of a period of death-dealing plague. It is an absolute page turner at times, especially as it progresses. Tension is present even from the first pages – Bess’s character is made so quickly and deftly apparent that the reader knows, even at that early stage, that she is going to get herself into difficulties. This is truly a riveting immersive read.
A Plague on Mr Pepys is the second in Deborah Swift’s Women of Pepys’ Diary series. Each novel stands alone and looks at a woman who played a part in his life.