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Glory and Gore – how a TV show inspired Deborah’s life-long love affair with the 17th century

Today’s 17th century guest (no, no, no: not guest, enthusiast!) probably doesn’t remember, but Deborah Swift was one of the first people I met who wrote books set in the 17th century when I myself was about to publish my first book set in this tumultuous time. We both attended a Historical Novel Society conference, and during one of the tea breaks (God, do I love English tea-breaks, mainly because nowhere in the world can you get custard cream biscuits like those in the UK)  we started chatting. Since then, we have interacted now and then—Deborah had a thing about promoting books that were not centred round royal peeps but rather attempted to give some insight into what life was like for the common people. This dove-tailed nicely with my books, as there wasn’t a royal in sight in Matthew Graham’s life (Well, after he’d witnessed Charles I getting his head chopped off. Not, Matthew tells me, an experience he in any way enjoyed) Deborah has written several books set in the 17th century, and I have had the pleasure of reading quite a few of them, enjoying how well she brings the travails and challenges of daily life to light, It is because of Deborah I spent hours researching the use of sand to clean your dishes. It is because of Deborah that I read everything I could find about the ice fairs on the Thames.

Deborah not only writes. She also spends a lot of time teaching other people how to write. Well, when she isn’t teaching them to do the Downward Dog or other Yoga poses. Or taking them through the fluid movements of Tai Chi. Or showing them just how to improve their drumming skills. “Drumming?” I asked Deboah, upon which she explained she teaches taiko drumming, a very physical form of drumming involving VERY big drums.  Clearly, Deborah is a versatile lady! So what was it that initially attracted Deborah to the 17th century?

Deborah: Why do I love it? Because it’s such rich pickings for a novelist, and once my first novel, ‘The Lady’s Slipper’ was set there, I became trapped, like a fly in a web, unable to escape all the interesting threads.

Threads like; a King is murdered by his own people. God becomes a football between dozens of different sects and churches, all claiming him for their own. England is torn apart by Civil War. Plague ravages the country. Science undergoes a revolution, and women (yes women!) take to the stage.

The 17th Century was a very unequal society. The great disparity between the rich and the poor always makes for a good story and I’ve realised a lot of my stories are about the struggle for fairness and justice in a society with such large divides. In that period most rural people lived at subsistence level, and during the Civil War soldiers from both sides would regularly plunder food and livestock, leading to widespread starvation. City people inhabited rough ‘rookeries’ or slums. (Anna: Yes, we tend to forget just how hard life was for the vast majority of the people in this era. In England, the country was torn apart by Civil War, making things even worse. And on the continent, the Thirty Years’ War left devastation in its wake…)

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London

But you only have to take a look at the Cheapside Hoard, a collection of fabulous 17th Century jewellery found buried by workmen, to appreciate the enormous wealth at the other end of the spectrum – and to see that craftsmanship and artistry were highly valued in England at this period, and that the 17th Century was one where huge amounts of trade were done with other countries for jewels and all the expensive trappings of an aristocratic life.   Entertaining Mr Pepys looks at life from both sides of the divide, rich and poor.

As a novelist I love it when factions shift and change alarmingly, and in the 17th Century allegiances are swayed by all sorts of seismic changes – political, religious and social. From my point of view the upheaval provides a fantastic testing ground for my characters; the sweeping away of the old to be replaced by something new. There is an optimism even in disaster. After the Great Fire of London, the capital city arises like a phoenix with Wren’s glorious architecture.

Anna: Is there a particular event or person that/who has inspired your writing?

Deborah: I think I’ve always been inspired by books and writers. My mother had an ancient paperback horror novel set in the I7th Century, a book called The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr, which I was not allowed to read, and so used to read with guilty pleasure when she went out. (Anna: Am I the only one to recognise myself in that? The books my mother hid were the ones I always reached for when she wasn’t around) I found it absolutely gripping, and it cemented in me a love for all things Restoration.

My other main inspiration was watching ‘By the Sword Divided’ on television in the 1970’s. It’s the story of the English Civil War as seen through the eyes of two warring families; the Laceys, supporters of the king, and the Fletchers, who side with Oliver Cromwell. I have since bought the series on DVD, and found it just as interesting, though for entirely different reasons! Since watching the programme I spent many years in theatre and TV and so the clunky settings now make me wince. As a child though, it did give me a love for the idea of Cavaliers and Roundheads, which then, I perceived as being something akin to the Capulets and Montagues in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a simple division of household loyalties.

Of course since I’ve become more interested in researching the 17th Century I’ve discovered that ‘simple’ is something the 17th Century definitely is not, and The Civil Wars least of all. (Anna: tell me about it! Like peeling a gigantic onion)

Anna: Tell us a bit about your 17th Century books!

Deborah: For the past few years I’ve been working on a series based around the women in Pepys’ Diary. I used Pepys’ Diary so often in my research that I became fascinated by the women who came and went between its pages. My most recent novel that completes the trilogy is Entertaining Mr Pepys. Amongst other historical events, it covers the events of the Great Fire from the point of view of an actress and singer from the diary (one of the first female actors of the time). The other two books cover the period of the plague, and the time after the fire, when London is being rebuilt. My young adult series The Highway Trilogy is set during the English Civil War.

Anna: Are you planning on revisiting this time period? If yes, tell us more!

Signore Bernini himself

Deborah: With my passion for the era I’ve written nine novels set in the 17th Century, and there are three more in the pipeline. My newest 17th Century series will be set in Naples, Venice and Rome, and the first book in the trilogy, ‘The Poison Keeper’ about the life of Giulia Tofana, the famous poisoner, is finished and with the publisher, due out next Spring. I’m currently working on the second book in the series which is set in a convent and in Bernini’s Rome.

Anna: That sounds very intriguing—especially the part about Bernini’s Rome which I suspect was a foul and nasty place unless you were very rich…
Deborah is serious about her research—which is why I am certain she’ll bring the smelly mess of 17th century Rome to adequate life—and, as most of us history nerds do, she shares her insights in various posts. Here are a couple of posts she’s written and I am rather fond of the one about the 17th c library, which, IMO, had to have a unicorn’s horn on display ?

Animating Pepys Women

The Seventeenth Century Library

Funeral for a Virgin – Maidens’ Crowns

Deborah has chosen an excerpt from Entertaining Mr Pepys  which depicts Elisabeth (Bird) Knepp’s first visit to the theatre, with her maid Livvy.

Bird peered over the head of the man in front, whose long hair was tied up in a ragged pigtail. Livvy told her the theatre had once been a tennis court, so it was a long rectangle with a jutting stage at one end, and a big decorated arch above. Before it hung six chandeliers on chains, each with twelve candles. They were already dripping, and had to be lowered down to be trimmed even before the play began.

A sharp rap. Two more. And then the sweet sound of viols soared up from the back of the stage, a curtain on a wire was rattled away, and there were the musicians, on a platform above the stage. The notes tugged inside her, delicate as a spider-web, then a strong surge of strings like the sea. Bird almost wept.

‘Good, isn’t it?’ Livvy elbowed her, but then stopped when she saw the people next to them staring.

Bird couldn’t even speak. She was hooked like a fish. The heroine, Otrante, was a woman caught between her desire for freedom and her love for her father. The pain of it echoed deep in Bird’s heart. But there was no lover for Bird like the handsome Francisco strutting on stage. No-one with whom she could elope. This was just a story, and she was wedded to Knepp. That was real life.

But she watched how the women manipulated the men, how they talked back, and how they schemed and plotted. That women should be shown to do these things openly shocked her.

‘Flora and Otrante, they’re not played by boys, are they?’ she asked Livvy at the end of the second act as they trooped downstairs to take a breath of air.

Livvy laughed, hanging over the stairwell, ‘Ha! Haven’t you heard, Mistress? New king’s set a fashion for it, and Mr Killigrew’s set up a school for stage jades.’

‘But who are they, these women?’

‘Just women.’

‘They behave like ladies, but I can’t believe any real lady would be so brazen. They look the gentlemen in the audience right in the eye, even the wealthy young blades and the aristocrats in the boxes. Where do these women come from?’

‘Anywhere. Nell says she’ll get to wear the clothes of countesses for her roles. A counterfeit countess, she’ll be, so she says.’

‘Who’s Nell?’

‘Just a friend. Nell and her sister were brought up in Coal Yard Alley where I live. My landlady runs the wash-house, and when Nell’s ma was busy with her gentleman customers, I minded them both. Rose is the eldest, but Nell’s a little jack-in-the-box.’

‘Is she …? I mean, is she like you?’

‘Is she black, you mean? No. Not her. I reckon you could count the blacks in London on your fingers. Nell’s in what Killigrew calls his “nursery” now, training to tread the boards. Pish. I wouldn’t want it, even if they’d let me. Ha! Couldn’t learn me all those lines. And Rose says Killigrew’s a dirty old dog, too.’

But Bird was fascinated. She plied Livvy with questions, until Livvy grew impatient.

‘Look, I don’t know all the fal-de-rols. You’ll have to talk to Nell. She’ll be with Rose and the other orange girls down below, and they can’t talk when they’re working or Mrs Meggs’d have their tongues ripped out by the roots. But we can try to catch her later, after the play.’

‘I’d like to meet her,’ Bird said. The words did not give away the frisson of excitement that shot up her spine.

Author bio
In the past Deborah used to work as a set and costume designer for theatre and BBCTV, so she enjoys the research aspect of creating historical fiction, a skill she learned in her profession as a designer, and atmosphere and setting are important in her books. Deborah teaches creative writing and is a mentor for The History Quill.  Her novels focus on ordinary people set against the background of real and extraordinary historical events.
Deborah lives in a village on the edge of the Lake District in England, an area made famous by the Romantic Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Connect with Deborah

Twitter @swiftstory 


Website & Blog

Buy Entertaining Mr Pepys:

Well, that was all for this week, dear readers. Catch up with Cryssa if you missed her last week – and next week we’ll end this 17th century extravaganza with M.J. Logue

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