I’m delighted to announce that Pleasing Mr Pepys is out today with Accent Press. In years gone by, when there were far less books produced, and all of them physical copies, publishing a book was a much more unique and celebrated event. Now there are thousands of e-books released every day and we have a new information age which is transforming the way we find and digest information.
But the beauty of books is that, like people, each one is unique. There is no other book that re-imagines the story of the events in Pepys’ famous diary from the point of view of Deb Willet, the maid he fell in love with. My portrayal of her is different from the Radio and TV interpretations which lost sight of the fact that she was very well-educated. I have given her a vibrant life which takes place both within the confines of the diary and within my imagination – a life that involves espionage, double-dealing, and treason.
I started the novel in 2013, so it is a joy to finally hold a copy in my hands.
The book has three women from Pepys’s diary as major point of view characters – Deb the maidservant, Elisabeth Pepys (wife of the famous diarist) and Abigail Williams, an actress who is mistress to Lord Bruncker and despised by Elisabeth. Here’s the first chapter to give you a flavour of Abigail.
Pleasing Mr Pepys
A metallic rattle – the key in the lock. Abigail Williams stiffened her spine as the draught from the downstairs door and the stink of the Fleet River blew round her ankles. Harrington closed the door and she heard him scratch the flint to light the wall sconces. Lighting up time already. It had been daylight when she had broken into his house. With one hand, she held her skirts closer to her thighs; with the other, she gripped the flat-bladed knife – a small weapon, but the edge sharpened razor-thin. She pressed back against the wall behind the door as the light from the hall flickered across her kidskin shoes.
Harrington’s footsteps lumbered up the stairs, his breathing laboured. She tightened her hold on the knife, preparing herself. These breaths would be his last. She found death harder to bear than she used to, now she had seen so much suffering – the plague years, the fire. Oddly, Harrington paused on the threshold of the room, as if he could sense her waiting presence. Through the crack of the open door she saw him standing motionless, his steeple hat a silhouette in the wavering light, his head cocked, listening.
He was an old hand, like her. She repressed a flash of compassion, the foolish urge to call out, to warn him. But then his dark back came through the door and he stepped in front of her, and without even thinking she moved like quicksilver. The knife slid easily across the side of his neck. With the other hand she pushed as hard as she could. He tried to turn, but it was too late, he was already falling, clutching his collar, blood slippery over his hands, hat rolling away under the table.
Experience told Abigail it had been enough. She ran, hoisting up her skirts, down the stairs, flinging the front door open, out into the cramped back alley. Nobody followed her; the passage to Fleet Street was empty. A brownish fog wreathed around her hem. When she finally slowed, she took a rag from inside her sleeve and wiped her blade, wrapped it, and stowed it in the pocket hanging next to her petticoats. She put a hand up to the bare skin at her chest, feeling the hot rise and fall of her collarbone.
She emerged onto the main thoroughfare where the houses were lit with torches, and walked, heart thudding, down towards the King’s playhouse. Arriving at the theatre, she saw Lord Bruncker’s carriage was where he had left it, across the road. His coachman was leaning against the wall, a smoking pipe in his mouth, waiting. She didn’t want to go in the front way – someone might ask why she was late – so instead she made for the tiring house behind.
The stage doorman knew her and nodded to her as she entered. The dressing room was empty, the actors ready to enter by the shutters for act two. From there, the audience sounded like the sea, the swell of all those voices. She checked her face and the satin of her dress for stains: a few dark spots on her sleeve, easily explained away.
Only now did she begin to shake. It was always like this: afterwards the weakness, nausea and trembling would set in. The moment when she wished she could turn back the day, the moment when she remembered their eyes, hollow with their unspoken question. Why?
Legs as unsteady as a newborn calf, she paused, leaned heavily on the trestle table, took out a phial of camphor from her pocket and inhaled. Better.
She arranged her face into a smile. Her performance for Lord Bruncker was about to begin. Her petticoat rustled against the boards as she went along the corridor and up the stairs into the box. On the way she almost bumped into Mr Pepys hurrying up the same stairs with a supply of nuts and oranges.
‘For Elisabeth,’ he said, obviously feeling the need to apologise for the sheer number of squashed bags hugged to his chest.
She nodded and stood aside, lowering her eyes to avoid his conversation. He could talk the baggage off a donkey. To her relief, he squeezed past and hurried into his own box further along the row.
When she got to her own, the candelabra had been lit, and upon her arrival Lord Bruncker drew out the chair so that she could sit.
‘Ah, there you are,’ he whispered. ‘You’re late. You missed the first act.’
She shook her head. ‘The traffic through town—’
‘Hush, they’re about to start again. Have a confit.’
She reached out her hand and smiled, took a marchpane cherry, but dropped it under her seat as soon as Lord Bruncker turned back to look at the stage. She was glad his attention was diverted, so he did not notice her pallid face or that she could not swallow.
The actor who had just entered rapped three times for silence, his face ghoulish from the footlights, which smoked in their holders. The hubbub fell to a hush. But Abigail’s thoughts would not lie quiet; she was thinking of Harrington, of how long it would be before they found him.
He should have listened to Piet. Then his mouth wouldn’t have had to be shut the hard way. She’d liked him, but in her business, liking was a luxury she was ill able to afford.
Deb Willet, Elizabeth Pepys’s maid and the object of Samuel Pepys’s attentions, is finally given centre-stage after 350 years, and her tale was worth waiting for. This is exceptional story-telling. L. C. Tyler author of the Historical John Grey Mysteries
Laced with emotional intensity and drama. Reader’s Favorite
The first chapter will suck you right in immediately; there is drama and intensity…before you even know who these characters are! I was hooked! The Maiden’s Court Blog