Not a huge fan of the Restoration period (give me some good old fashioned Tudor treachery any day) so I initially turned my nose up at Camille and the Lost Diaries of Samuel Pepys. I’m glad I decided to pick it up.
It chronicles the adventures of Camille Lefebre, a talented actress on the French stages in a period where women were, by law, banned from the stage. Her solution? Using her brother’s name, she poses as a man performing as a female impersonator, to great accolades as to her believability as a woman. One evening after a stellar performance, she is cornered by Michel de Pertaine, who it’s not made clear if he is straight, gay, bisexual or simply a sadist. At any rate – Camille/Robert is cornered and fending off his unwanted advances, and the incident ends in a tragedy that has consequences down the line for her English family. She swiftly leaves France and the wrath of the remaining members of the Pertaine family – who sadly will not stew in the vengeance on their side of the Channel – meeting along the way none other than the titular Samuel Pepys.
She ends up writing some of Pepys’s memories (hence the ‘lost diaries’) and becomes caught up in the politics of the Restoration, the religious clash between the Catholics and Puritans. There’s an interesting thread through the novel about the insidiousness of religious fanaticism that felt quite resonant in today’s climate.
The book see-saws between the feud between the Lefebres and the de Pertaines and the interactions of Charles II and Louis XIV and the new, more tolerant England Charles is trying to build and I found both threads to be engaging and well tied together. The arrogance and entitlement of the de Pertaines was believable, if infuriating, for a wealthy, powerful family of the time, as was Louis’s frustration at his inability to halt their power and authority beyond the law… again, something that resonate’s in today’s political and religious climate.
Marshall-Andrews claims that the book is based on documents he found stashed away in the Oxford University’s Radcliffe Science Library… but unfortunately the copies he meticulously made were irreparably damaged in a home flood, and the originals have been lost in the shuffle thanks to some indifferent library clerk*, making his claims impossible to substantiate. Still, it’s a very enjoyable read and a fascinating look at the Reformation from a rare woman with an insider’s perspective.
*Would never have happened had a library officer or librarian been on the clock.