Pepys, Elizabeth (1640–1669)

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Pepys, Elizabeth (1640–1669)

English gentlewoman. Name variations: Elizabeth de St. Michel; Elizabeth Saint-Michel; Mrs. Pepys. Born Elizabeth de St. Michel in 1640 in Devon, England; died on November 10, 1669, in London; daughter of Alexandre le Marchant, sire of St. Michel, and Dorothea Kingsmill; married Samuel Pepys (a diarist and naval secretary), in December 1655; no children.

The life of Elizabeth Pepys, which has survived in the famous diary of her husband Samuel Pepys, demonstrates the constraints and possibilities available to a 17th-century European woman. She was born Elizabeth de St. Michel in 1640 in Devon, England, the daughter of Dorothea Kingsmill and a French knight, Alexandre le Marchant, sire of St. Michel, who served in the French military and in the retinue of Queen Henrietta Maria . While seeking his fortune, he moved his Irish-born wife and two children from England to Paris. There Elizabeth received a modest education in a convent (despite her Protestantism), excelling particularly in languages. Eventually her family settled in St. Martin-in-the-Fields in England, where Alexandre eked out a living as an inventor. In 1655, Elizabeth met Samuel Pepys, seven years her senior, a tailor's son who had managed to gain a university education. Pepys' family and friends discouraged him from pursuing a penniless, Catholic-educated foreign girl, but it was a love match. Certainly the St. Michels had no money or connections which might help Pepys launch his civil-service career. They married in December 1655, but their mutual poverty and Elizabeth's youth (she was 15 at the time) led the couple to put off setting up their household for another year.

The marriage did not begin well. Pepys was rarely home and Elizabeth had little to occupy her time. His neglect and his numerous affairs with other women led Elizabeth to leave Pepys in 1657. They reconciled some months later, and their remaining 12 years together were spent in relative marital contentment. In Pepys' remarkably candid diary, which he began in 1659, Elizabeth is mentioned in almost every entry, often with affection. As Pepys rose slowly from clerk to an important naval post, their fortunes improved, and the couple began to enjoy a leisured life. They attended the theater and opera together and shared an interest in fashion. They also read together, especially as Samuel's vision failed, and studied music, geography, and arithmetic. Samuel encouraged Elizabeth's education and hired tutors for her in dancing, drawing, and singing. Around 1665, she began to study painting seriously, developing friendships with London's professional artists.

Yet Elizabeth's life should not be romanticized, as some historians have done. She suffered throughout from poor health and was deeply saddened by her failure, despite several pregnancies, to bear any living children. Her marriage was not without its serious problems. In the 17th-century model of marriage, the husband was the authoritarian head of the household, the wife his submissive companion, and Samuel shared this belief. Along with his professions of love and passion for Elizabeth, his diary shows that theirs was not a marriage between equals. Samuel Pepys was a jealous and suspicious husband, not above resorting to violence against Elizabeth or their servants to preserve his authority. He sometimes accused her of adultery, poor housekeeping, and excessive friendliness with servants. He also spent his fortune freely on himself while accusing her of mismanaging her small household allowance. Elizabeth was too strong minded to accept his treatment quietly, which led to long, bitter arguments. She was also angered and embarrassed by Samuel's adultery, especially his affairs with her companion ladies and maids.

During the summer of 1669, Samuel, Elizabeth, and her brother enjoyed an extended trip to the Low Countries and France. A few days after their return to London in November, Elizabeth died of a fever contracted in Flanders. She was 29 years old.


Delaforce, Patrick. Pepys in Love: Elizabeth's Story. London: Bishopsgate Press, 1985.

Ollard, Richard. Pepys: A Biography. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974.

Laura York , Riverside, California