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A Peep at Pepys

Samuel Pepys National Portrait Gallery, London

A Peep at Pepys

Research by Leicester academic Dr Kate Loveman uncovers continuing relationship between Samuel Pepys and famous mistress Deb Willet. (First appeared in graduates' Review Spring 2007)

In 2006 a research discovery by Leicester’s internationally renowned English department gave new insight into our knowledge of Samuel Pepys.

Samuel Pepys was an English naval administrator – who later became the Chief Secretary to the Admiralty – and a Member of Parliament. But it was the private diary he kept between 1660-1669 that made him famous. The diary provides a fascinating combination of personal revelations, including his infidelities, and eyewitness accounts of events that took place at a crucial point in Britain’s history, such as the Great Plague of London in 1665, the Second Dutch War and the Great Fire of London.

Fear of losing his eyesight prompted Pepys to stop writing his diary in 1669 and left readers and biographers with unanswered questions about one of the most famous episodes in his diary, namely the fate of his mistress Deb Willet. She was a companion to his wife, Elizabeth St Michel, but was banished from his home after Elizabeth discovered the affair.

According to University of Leicester lecturer, Dr Kate Loveman: “She [Deb] seemed to disappear at once from Pepys’s life and from the historical record.”

The Diary

Pepys’s record of his daily life over ten years is breathtakingly honest; in it he writes about the women he pursued, his friends, and his business dealings. His diary reveals his jealousies, insecurities, trivial concerns and his fractious relationship with his wife. Written in shorthand, so that it could not easily be read by a casual browser, the diary contains passages where Pepys resorts to a private code involving words based on Spanish, French and Italian.

However, Dr Loveman’s research while at St Anne’s College, Oxford and published in The Historical Journal has revealed that long after Deb left the household she remained in contact with Pepys. It also sheds new light on a key question about Pepys’s private life – was he a light-hearted philanderer or a sexual predator?

Dr Loveman’s study offers an insight into the social history of the 1660s and provides new information to interpret the diary: “Pepys describes in vivid terms his infatuation with seventeen-year-old Deb, his wife Elizabeth’s discovery of the affair, and the strife which followed – including an episode when the jealous Elizabeth threatened him with hot tongs. After tracking Deb obsessively around London, Pepys eventually lost contact with her and, in his last diary entry in May 1669, regrets that ‘my amours to Deb are past’.”

Dr Loveman’s research uncovered new evidence from London archives and from Pepys’s papers in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, showing that their association did not end with the diary. Eight months after Pepys’s last entry about Deb, she married a young clergyman, Jeremiah Wells. The couple lived at lodgings in Angel Alley, Whitechapel – a tenminute walk from Pepys’s home in Seething Lane – and had a daughter Deborah in December 1670. This prompted Wells to write to Pepys asking for assistance in getting additional employment. Dr Loveman said: “It therefore appears that Deb was prepared to further contact between Pepys and her husband.”

Pepys’s position as one of the most important civil servants of his age enabled him to help Wells by getting him a job as a navy chaplain. Letters between Pepys and Wells show that Pepys continued to act as Wells’ patron throughout the 1670s, helping him to support his family through employment in the navy and in the church.

Dr Loveman states that: “Given Pepys’s past obsession with Deb, his continued contact with her family raises suspicions about the nature of their relationship. He may have assisted Deb and her husband out of simple benevolence. However Pepys’s wife was now dead, Deb was living close by, and Pepys knew she was without her husband – indeed he had helped send her husband elsewhere.

“Pepys’s diary reveals that his affairs with women had more than once led to him helping their husbands to a position on board ship. In fact, Wells arrived on his first ship with a letter of recommendation from Pepys addressed to the purser Samuel Martin – who also happened to be the husband of Pepys’s long-term mistress Betty Martin. With Deb’s financial state partly reliant on Pepys’s influence she may not have been in a position to refuse him if he sought to resume their affair.

She adds: “From an academic perspective, the main interest in my study lies in the way in which Pepys’s amorous relationship with Deb Willet led to long-term sponsorship of her husband. Small case-studies like this allow us to build up a better picture of how individuals could rise in Restoration society through a combination of merit, diligence, and patronage. In this case, because we know of Pepys’s past relationship with Deb, we probably know more than Jeremiah Wells did about one of the factors assisting his rise.”

Samuel Pepys was an extremely complex personality and one of the most fascinating things about him is the way it is possible “to construct very conflicting views from the information we have about him: as regards his private life, you could choose to paint him as either a cheerful philanderer or a sexual predator. Here we have to give Pepys some credit for generously supporting his former servant, while recognising that his benevolence may have hidden darker motives.”


Article first appeared in the Spring edition of Graduates' Review and can be found here

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