Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2019

The Journal of Mrs Pepys, by Sara George

Well, I was in need of something less sombre to read — and the Journal of Mrs Pepys waved at me indignantly from the TBR (G) shelf:

‘I’ve been waiting here since you bought me in 2008’ it said, ‘… you fell in love with the cover art because you find still life artworks captivating, and you learned about Sam Pepys and his diary at school.  But I keep getting passed over for other books.  I have survived the annual TBR cull 10 times, which is pretty good for an historical novel first written in 1998, but will I survive another?  What is it with you?  Am I not serious enough, is that it?

Perhaps now you might condescend to liberate me from the TBR??’

Done.

The inset of Elisabeth Pepys at Wikipedia says it all.  Check it out:

Born 1640
Died 1669
Cause of death: Typhoid fever
Resting place: St Olave’s London, and
Known for: *Deep sigh* Husband’s diary.

When you look at her portrait, it’s as if she knows…

Author Sara George has done a fine job of rescuing Elisabeth* from this ignominious fate.  Using Samuel Pepys’ diary, (which he kept between January 1660 and 31 May 1669, famously chronicling the Restoration, the Great Plague of London, the Second Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London) George has created a vivid portrait of a lively woman in a tempestuous marriage, and living through exciting times.

Elisabeth has plenty to say about Sam: his drinking; the unfairness of the family budget over which he has total control, and his unreasonable expectations about housekeeping standards and keeping the servants in line. She is also suspicious about his frequent nights away from home; and distraught when she finally discovers his infidelity.  But apart from a brief separation because of his jealousy, their quarrels resolve in what she coyly calls the usual way and she is very proud of his achievements.  (Which you can read about at Wikipedia if so minded).

I haven’t read The Diary (and probably never will) so I don’t know if Elisabeth’s accounts of giving as good as she gets in physical fights is historically authentic.  (At one stage she wakes him from his guilty sleep with a pair of heated tongs in her hand).  However, there is one fight that ends up with a very painful black eye that is visible for a fortnight, and like women the world over she stays indoors so that no one sees, instead of going out and about and showing people what her ‘loving’ husband has done.  Because of course *sigh* he is sorry.  And she must take the man as he is, because [she] can’t change him. This aspect of the novel is (probably) authentic for its era but Elisabeth’s acceptance of it in this novel jars when today we abhor domestic violence of any kind.

It’s fascinating to read about the first time Elisabeth tries unfamiliar foods, which come her way more often as her husband’s fortunes rise.  She was fascinated by a melon, not knowing that any fruit could grow so big, and that she is delighted to try gherkins.  Chez mois, we have a most interesting book called The Gourmet Atlas, Discover the origins and uses of the world’s favourite foods by Susie Ward, Claire Clifton and Jenny Stacey (1997, ISBN: 9781861551795) and it tells me that melons came to Italy in the 14th century via Venetian trade with the Middle East, and by the 16th century English gardeners were growing them in greenhouses.  But of course there was a world of difference between Elisabeth’s diet at the close of the Puritan era when she and Sam were living in poky rooms, and life in the Restoration era when they had their own house and enough money to be complaining about mess from the renovations.  By then Elisabeth is in a position to look down her nose at a host who provides only beef and no venison!

Mixing with what she would call her ‘betters’ she’s now in a position to feel the effects of Sam’s miserliness. There is—always has been—enough money for his drinking and carousing.  But there is not enough, it seems, for her to maintain the standard of dress to which she now aspires.  This issue comes to a head when she is in mourning for Uncle Robert— ironically because it is the inheritance from him that will come to them after Sam’s father dies, that enhances their social position.  She feels it keenly when she attends social events in the same mourning outfit for three months, and the reader knows that Sam’s eventual acquiescence to a swanky new collar is only going to appease her for a while!

OTOH when it’s something he wants, she wryly notes in the privacy of this diary, that is different:

Sam has other thoughts on his mind.  There comes a time in every man’s life when he finds himself in urgent need of a coach and pair.  This moment has come to Sam.  He has talked to someone about securing land at the back to make a coach-house.  He can’t bear to be seen in a hackney any more. A natural progress, I suppose, from our early days when we walked everywhere, to the years when we took a coach if it was raining, to the present time when we always take a coach whatever the weather, and so to the future when we maintain our own.  He’s incensed by the fineness of Peg and Mr Lowther’s coach, to make such a show abroad while they live in such squalor at home. I’d love it, to be able to go abroad in my own coach whenever I pleased. I suspect, though, that actually bringing himself to come up with the money may take some time.  (p. 248)

There is a discernible shift in mood when the plague makes its appearance.  London empties and Elisabeth goes to family at Brampton, noting the rising death toll each month and worrying about Sam still working in London (even though his aristocratic masters have all decamped to what they think is safety).  She knows that the figures are conservative, because the consequences of reporting a death are horrific: the house of the departed is sealed up with all its residents inside it, and they are left, starving, to infect each other and die.  Elisabeth feels for them but is fatalistic: she thinks there is nothing else that can be done.

The Great Fire of London, depicted by an unknown painter, as it would have appeared from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September 1666. To the left is London Bridge; to the right, the Tower of London. St. Paul’s Cathedral is in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames. (Wikipedia Commons*)

The Great Fire OTOH results in a flurry of activity to protect their possessions.  Like everyone else, the Pepys use the river to move things to safety, and they bury their gold in the garden.  I hadn’t realised that the primary strategy to check the fire was to blow up houses in its path, creating a fire break as the CFA does when fighting bushfires.  This strategy doesn’t save St Paul’s, their greatest cathedral, and nothing checks the fire until the medieval city inside the Roman walls is gutted, Westminster (and the home of Elisabeth and Sam) only just surviving due to a drop in the wind.

There is also a discernible panic when the Dutch, as predicted, arrive.  (See the Second Dutch War 1665-7 at Wikipedia.) Their ships sail up the river , set fire to the English fleet, and deliver a blow to English pride by towing away the Prince Charles.  Sam sends Elisabeth to bury his bags of gold at Brampton, but can’t change all his money because the banks have no gold left.  (This defeat, and Charles’ extravagance and unpopularity, made him sue for peace because he feared rebellion, and no wonder he was nervous, so soon after Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth).

The tragedy of this lively ‘journal’ is that after a long-dreamt of trip to the continent, Elisabeth returns with a fever which she fears is typhus (but which Wikipedia says was typhoid fever).  She was only 29.

*In the book, she’s Elizabeth with a ‘z’, but I’ve used Elisabeth with an ‘s’ as Wikipedia does because her father Alexandre Marchant de Saint Michel was French and that’s how (spelling variants of the era aside) that’s how he would have spelt it.  (Although ‘Lisa’ is a common name now, it certainly wasn’t when I was a child, and I was forever being asked if it was short for the French Elisabeth).

PS Wikipedia tells me that:

In 1991 Dale Spender published a fictional literary spoof, The Diary of Elizabeth Pepys (1991 Grafton Books, London). Purportedly written by Elisabeth, the book is a feminist critique of women’s lives in 17th century London.

Image attributions:

Author: Sara George
Title: The Journal of Mrs Pepys
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998, 352 pages
ISBN: 9780312263478
Source: Personal Library.


Responses

  1. That’s the sort of historical fiction I like and read, a lively account of a period I know nothing about (though I’m a bit dubious of C17th century hackney cabs). My schoolboy memory of the Fire is that it started in the houses built on London Bridge and that it brought a welcome end to the rat plague.

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    • Yes, the fire started in a bakery and it spread very quickly…
      No doubt the rats were back in due course!

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  2. I just read a fair bit about Samuel Pepys in The Chocolate Maker’s Wife by Karen Brooks (which I loved). This period is one I really enjoy reading about so this is probably an ideal book for me. That cover is beautiful too! I wonder if I’ll still be able to find a copy? I’ll have a search.

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    • Let me know if you can’t source it, because it is destined for the Op Shop and I will very happily post it to you instead. Email me at anzlitloversATBigpondDOTcom with your address before next Tuesday or it will end up in the Hampton Salvos!

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  3. I am so pleased you got round to reading this book, and giving your readers such a full and inviting account of it. Incidentally, do you know for certain whether Elisabeth died from typhus or from typhoid fever? (This is not an idle question – I am working on a narrative for which I need to collect names of victims of typhoid fever.)

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    • Interesting you should ask that… because the book has her fearing that it’s typhus and then confirming it by the arrival of a rash, but the Wikipedia entry says typhoid fever. So I Googled the difference, and I’m sorry, I don’t have the URL now but it wasn’t WP.
      There is a difference: typhus is caused by infected lice and is all but gone and there is no longer any vaxx for it, but typhoid fever is still with us and caused by eating salmonella infected food, often in the developing world and vaxx is recommended if you are travelling there.
      How, at this distance in time, WP could assert that it was one rather than the other (as distinct from a novelist using whatever was in her source research material) I don’t know. Perhaps scholars have consulted death certificates? It’s unlikely there was an autopsy.
      But really, from what I could see, the symptoms look pretty much the same and IMO you’d need a blood test to know for sure.

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  4. This does sound an interesting book. I do like biographical accounts of people. The plague and fire years have always fascinated me in books. I also like the way your books get after you to read them. Their thoughts are very coherent. haha

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    • LOL some of them are more shouty than others…

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  5. The book sounds so likely and eventful. Elisabeth seems like she was such an interesting character. The hot tong thing sounds wild. It seems so sad that Elizabeth died so young. I guess that was common for that time.

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    • Indeed, it’s a vivid image… she pulls the bedding off and brandishes the tongs! Unsurprisingly, he is contrite…
      It’s so easy to forget how commonplace deaths were but still very much an occasion for grief: she records the deaths of many babes and children (she never had any of her own) and she mentions the way celebrations after a birth were muted in case another one died in infancy. And Samuel, for all his infidelities, mourned her for years and never remarried.

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  6. You might like SP’s diary; an abridged version would omit much of the less interesting material which I skimmed when I read it – but it’s fascinating and gives a very frank insight into Sam’s infidelities, ambitions, pomposity and egotism

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    • Yes, I was chatting with a friend yesterday and she said she’d read and enjoyed an abridged version. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it in a library or in the shops, so I think I’d have to order a copy specially, or maybe get it as an ebook for the Kindle…

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  7. Sounds like a fascinating read, Lisa, and I’m glad it finally made its way off the TBR. Also glad it reclaims the woman in her own right, and not simply in terms of the book of her husband! :D

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    • Oooh yeah! It’s bad enough to be merely the ‘wife of’ but to be famous for being in a husband’s diary is definitely poutworthy.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Read the abridged Diaries of Samuel Pepys. About  1/6 or 1/5 of total. Modern Library (as I remember).

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