JEM (AND SAM)

By Ferdinand Mount

Carroll & Graf. 425 pp. $25.95

THE JOURNAL OF MRS. PEPYS

Portrait of a Marriage

By Sara George

St. Martin's 340 pp. $21.95

Reviewed by Bruce Cook

Has historical fiction a future? Perhaps not. As the year runs down and the end of both century and millennium approach, the past seems to matter less and less. If it happened before we were born, then it's history, and as Henry Ford famously said, "History is bunk." So who needs it in any form -- fiction or fact? That seems to be the prevailing attitude.

On the other hand, how are we to account for the success of "Shakespeare in Love" and "Elizabeth" on the big screen? And what about the Jane Austen phenomenon? Perhaps you've noticed that mystery novels today are as likely to be set in 12th-century England or ancient Rome as they are in the mean streets of Los Angeles or the back alleys of Chicago. More to the point, the most successful novel in recent memory, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier (more than a year on most bestseller lists), was set well back in the 19th century at the end of the Civil War. And so while it might be true that historical fiction hasn't a very grand future, it is apparently just as true that it enjoys a healthy present.

Although neither Jem (and Sam) nor The Journal of Mrs. Pepys is likely to find its way onto any bestseller list, the authors of both books demonstrate just how effectively such historical novels may be put to service in the cause of postmodernism. They are fictitious personal narratives written in response to a very well established work, a classic of sorts. Both are by supposed authors who were, in much different ways, close to a 17th-century real-life diarist and model bureaucrat, Samuel Pepys.

The more ingenious and engaging of the two is the curiously titled Jem (and Sam). Jem -- short for Jeremiah -- is, as explained in the introduction, the memoir of the life of a distant ancestor of the author, Ferdinand Mount -- or so much, at least, will do for a device to begin the novel.

Make no mistake. The author had a very specific Jeremiah Mount in mind when he set about this project. There is indeed a Mr. Mount mentioned as a drinking companion now and again in the early diaries of Samuel Pepys, yet Mr. Pepys never deigns to give him a first name.

It is Samuel Pepys, of course, who is the parenthetical "Sam" of the title. He also provides the novel with a continuing element of conflict, for Jem and Sam, who as clerks in their youth are well matched, become lifelong rivals as Pepys ascends in the Department of the Navy.

Jeremiah Mount took an easier way. Although showing considerable ingenuity in securing his first clerkship and tenacity in holding on through the rough transition from Oliver Cromwell's protectorate to the reign of the returned Stuart king, Charles II, he follows the path of least resistance and takes the post of lord chamberlain to the Duke of Albemarle. The way had been prepared for him by the duchess, whom Jem knew as friend and lover when she was a very common sort of commoner.

The trouble is that once he is comfortably settled as lord chamberlain to the duke, there is little to involve him in his situation. (His duties include babysitting the young duke-to-be, servicing the duchess, and in general doing whatever his master bids him to do.) In reality, Jeremiah Mount is little more than a servant with an exalted title -- and a few special privileges, of course. Inevitably he becomes a bit bored. As much for his own amusement as to satisfy any burning desire, he attempts to seduce Samuel Pepys's wife and then dallies in a couple of conspiracies against him. What, after all, is a fellow to do for fun?

Ultimately, Pepys himself must have become bored, for while he had not anger nor envy to match Jem's, it was not long until he dedicated himself to the pursuit of women -- nobles, commoners, prostitutes, whatever came his way. Jem had noted this flaw of his, and it was this knowledge that led him to try his luck with Mrs. Pepys.

Sara George makes no mention of Mount's campaign in The Journal of Mrs. Pepys. In fact she makes no mention of him at all. She does, however, allow Elizabeth Pepys to hear illicit proposals put to her on behalf of three different men. For her part, in spite of her suspicions, Mrs. Pepys manages to forgive her husband, even when she catches him in a compromising position. The novel is, as the subtitle has it, the "Portrait of a Marriage."

I give credit to the author. She presents this world well; wives were chattel, nothing more. With little hope of changing her situation, Elizabeth immerses herself in her round of dinner parties and endless gossip. Her diary entries are packed with dirt dished on the king and his court. But only when Sara George stretches a bit and writes of the plague that wracked London in 1665 and the great fire that destroyed most of it the following year does she begin to do justice to the period.

Plagues, fires, wars, public executions -- Sam and Elizabeth lived through a remarkable time. Perhaps the problem with this book, indeed with much historical fiction these days, is that the author, not wishing to make people and events of great times past seem too strange to readers, chooses to make them too much like our own. Why, her novel is so filled with dinner parties and scandalous gossip muttered behind the napkin that she might as well be writing about Washington today.

Bruce Cook writes historical mysteries under a pseudonym.