Samuel Pepys’s Marital Bed
Friday, September 27th, 2019
The cold marital bed of Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys’s marital bed might often have been metaphorically cold, caused at least in part by his wife Elizabeth’s excruciatingly painful genital abscesses, but that didn’t stop him getting his jollies elsewhere when he could.
Women in Samuel Pepys’s Diary
Pepys’s diary is remarkably frank when it comes to his pursuit of love. Between 1660 and 1669 he used shorthand to record his daily life, including his interest in over twenty women who weren’t his wife. Most of the time, this interest was opportunistic. He enjoyed fondling his servants as they combed his hair, or would coax a neighbour’s daughter into a closet after dinner; when actress Elizabeth Knepp feigned illness at a dinner party, he followed her upstairs and lay on the bed with her, playing with her breasts. At other times, he used his senior position at the Navy Board to bribe and cajole women into an affair. Mrs Bagwell, for example, was the wife of a ship’s carpenter who was rather cruelly exploited to help advance her husband’s career. It was ‘with many hard looks and sithes [sighs]’ that she finally allowed herself to be seduced, and thereafter she had sex with him regularly, although she once injured his hand in her effort to resist. Pepys did at least keep his side of the bargain, and was still helping to further Mr Bagwell’s career fifteen years later. He financially helped other conquests as well: it was probably at his instigation that Betty Martin (née Lane), whom he had ‘courted’ for the duration of the Diary despite her ‘monstrous fat’ thighs, was awarded a pension of £100 per year, and he had certainly helped Mr Martin with a job on an East India ship.
An affair too far
There was, however, one girl with whom Pepys was smitten. Deborah (Deb) Willet was well-bred, innocent, and young – just out of school – when she joined the Pepys household. She provided company for the bored Elizabeth and helped with household tasks, including combing Pepys’s hair. It was during one of these intimate moments that Elizabeth walked in and saw her husband ‘embracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed, I was with my main [hand] in her cunny’. This was the one and only affair of which Elizabeth had proper proof, and she was understandably extremely angry. Deb left to work in another household, but Pepys, believing himself in love and fearing ‘it would be my ruin’, went to find her. Inevitably, Elizabeth discovered their meeting and was deeply upset. She sat by his bed at night, preventing him from sleeping by talking and crying at him; she told him she intended to leave him, and threatened to slit the girl’s nose. It was only with the intervention of an old family friend, many promises and ‘pretty kind words’, and patience on both sides, that equilibrium was restored.
It was in the aftermath of the affair with Deb that the Pepys’s marital bed became a little warmer. Samuel recorded that he had lain with Elizabeth ‘as a husband more times since this falling-out then in I believe twelve months before – and with more pleasure to her then I think in all the time of our marriage before’. Sadly, we will never know whether the Pepys’s marriage could ever have improved further: within a year Pepys had stopped writing the Diary, and Elizabeth had died of fever.
By Debbie Kilroy, Editor gethistory.co.uk
To hear more about the history of the bed, listen to our podcast on the unexpected history of the bed!
Or why not check out our magazine post on the bed in the First World War
Robert Latham and William Matthews, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A New and Complete Transcription
Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
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