REVIEW: A Plague on Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift
Sometimes money costs too much.
The Great Plague has London in its grip. As the summer heat rises, red crosses mark the doors, wealthy citizens flee and only the poor remain to face the march of death.
Ambitious and attractive, Bess Bagwell is determined her carpenter husband, Will, should make a name for himself and schemes to meet Samuel Pepys, diarist, friend of the King and an important man in the Navy shipyards. But Pepys has his own motive for cultivating Bess, and it’s certainly not to benefit her husband.
With pestilence rife in the city, all trade ceases. 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 Pepys honour his promises or break them?
Dear Ms. Swift,
Last year I read and enjoyed a Christmas short story, “Last Train Home,” by you. I’ve wanted to try one of your full length books for a while and when the opportunity came along to read this one, I grabbed it. There are too few 17th century books these days and the cover is wonderful. It also has Samuel Pepys in it. I’ve read a biography of him as well as another book using him as a secondary character (his real brother in law was the star in that one) though I’ve never actually read his diaries. This would be why I didn’t realize that Mrs. Bagwell was an actual person mentioned a great deal in his diaries. Well, now that I’ve finished this book, I think I hate Samuel Pepys but he’s got a lot of company I feel even worse towards.
This book is very hard for me to grade. On the one hand, it’s obvious that you’ve researched the hell out of the time and the people. The way all this is included in the story is brilliantly done. I never felt I was getting dry encyclopedia entries crammed down my throat or details included just to show that you know them or thought them too delicious not to use. We see the world of hard work and the desperate poor just trying to survive. I was very involved in the story and remained so despite it’s long length. With the title, I got a hint of what was going to be the main event and knew it wouldn’t be pretty but more on that later.
Yippee that the main characters of the story are not aristocrats. Bess Bagwell and her husband Will are ordinary working class folk. In fact they’re barely out of being the ragged poor of London. Bess has hauled herself out of the gutter and is determined to better herself. As is mentioned in the book, in this world you are either a servant or a master; she’s been the former and never wants to go back. Yet each decision she and Will make seems to settle them deeper in the quicksand of the working poor. Each effort or struggle only sinks them down further. This book is definitely an antidote for all the “billionaire” books out there. I wanted them to succeed, to find security and never go back to the stinking rookeries. I found myself more in sympathy with Bess who’s got gumption and drive while Will is more like his beloved passive lumps of wood.
They’re decent people, working hard, not trying to con, coerce or scam anyone and thus in sharp contrast to many of the other characters. Will’s got a cousin who makes you want to drive a stake through his heart and is the oily, slimy type to suss out secrets and callously use them against you. Bess has also got some family she’s escaped from who lurk in the background of the story just waiting for a moment to pop out and wreak havoc. Yet, Bess and Will make terrible decisions and find they have to live with the toxic consequences. When you sup with the devil, you need a long spoon and the one the Bagwells have isn’t nearly long enough.
I got increasingly depressed as Bess and Will sink into a miasma of their own making and end up hurting each other. Bess is headstrong while Will is weak. They stay true to their characterization but wow did I want to shake them, most especially Will, until their teeth rattled. However, given their recorded actions in Pepys diary, you had to come up with some reasons that could lead to what Pepys tells us. Are the ones presented here what could have driven Bess to do what she did and Will to react as he does? Poverty, debt and fear are powerful motivators so it’s not unreasonable. But it is depressing. Very depressing.
Then finally the plague arrives on stage. Blech. Okay the descriptions seem accurate but I wasn’t expecting them to be quite so front and center on the page. Blech. Death, horrible suffering and more death. Lots of people dying and Samuel Pepys acting in a way that makes me hate him. Have Bess and Will gotten past their marital pain and can they forgive each other? I’m told the answer but honestly I wonder. Given all the pain and anguish over the course of the story, all I can say is I was more relieved when it was all over and at least some people had gotten their just desserts. Though not all which pissed me off. There are a few other characters who deserved the black death. Plus there’s another character who has been left in a terrible situation and we don’t know her fate. So a B for the historical details and keeping me reading but I don’t know what for depressing me almost to the point of drink.