I’ve long been interested in Eyam and the Plague, so when I heard that not only has Jennifer Jenkins written an historical novel, Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague, about that very event and has done so whilst we endure our modern day plague, I simply had to invite her onto Linda’s Book Bag to explain what that process was like. I’m delighted she agreed and Jennifer has provided a wonderful guest post for me to share with you.
I’m also thrilled that Three is on my TBR thanks to Debbie at at Cameron Publicity. I can’t wait to read it.
Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague is available for purchase here.
Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague
In 1665 a box from London brought more than cloth from plague-ridden London to the quiet village of Eyam in Derbyshire. For the next year the villagers had to learn to live with a silent enemy. ‘Three’ tells the story of three very different women in their courageous attempts to keep themselves and their loved ones alive as Eyam closed its doors to the outside world, instead facing the malevolent danger alone. Emmott Sydell, Catherine Mompesson and Elizabeth Hancock were each determined to live and the courage each of them found was as unique as the women themselves. Will 1666 bring salvation?
This work of historical fiction, written during a pandemic whilst reflecting on another, fuses creative imagining with historical fact to bring three female protagonists to life…
Writing in a Pandemic Whilst Reflecting on Another: The Shaping of a Novel by Covid-19
A Guest Post by Jennifer Jenkins
The current pandemic hasn’t always given us many things to be grateful for but for me the gift of the pandemic was two-fold: 1) furlough allowing me the time to write, and 2) gifting me the insight of living through a pandemic so that my experience could really enrich my writing about a previous one. I found the pandemic had given me valuable insight, precious time and the ability to focus on a story I really believed I needed to tell.
Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague tells the story of the fateful epidemic of bubonic plague in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire in 1665-1666 and it foregrounds the lives and experiences of Emmott Syddall, Catherine Mompesson and Elizabeth Hancock, all real women who lived through that harrowing year. As you read the novel, you will no doubt notice similar actions and reactions in the inhabitants of the village as you will have experienced yourself in recent times. This was deliberate on my part. The empathy I felt for my characters was made all the stronger by experiencing just a fraction of what I now understood they had been through. In our times, there has been the growing suspicion of other people, with everyone gradually withdrawing into their houses and peering out from behind closed doors with growing anxiety. There is the developing understanding of how Covid is spreading and the most effective ways to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. There were the early experimental treatments (we all saw the news reports about tonic water and President Trump’s suggestions regarding UV light and bleach!) and the desperate yet futile attempts at prevention and remedy (just like abracadabra, Emmott’s mother’s desperate attempt to keep the plague from her home in Three). During the Coronavirus Pandemic the devastating realisation of a building death toll kept us awake at night. Whilst there were lower numbers of victims in Eyam, it was as equally-devastating for them during their plague visitation as it has been for us to mourn the lamentable millions we have lost in the past year or so worldwide. In the end, a huge percentage of the village’s population had succumbed to the devastating impact of Yersinia pestis.
When I was beginning to contemplate writing this book, I reached out to my favourite historical fiction author, Tracy Chevalier (author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring), for advice on writing (she’s always been so kind and generous in sharing her wisdom) and on finding out my proposed novel’s subject she told me I was brave to write about Eyam now. Whilst it resonates with the current situation, she was concerned in a few years’ time people would want to forget about the whole concept of pandemics and not want to read it. She may well be right, but I took a deep breath and wrote it anyway and my recent reviews indicate that for now many people do want to connect with the human experience of living through such a challenging time, be it now or 300 years in the past. I wanted to show that our current experiences had been lived by others throughout history and, more than anything, I wanted to give those three women voices that could echo through the centuries to resonate with us now. One reviewer puts it like this: “It is as if these three women, who really did exist and have now been reimagined for the Covid-19 generation, have been craving someone, another woman, to put their lives properly to bed.”
Writing the novel during a pandemic brought a richness to the writing and an authenticity to the characterisation that might otherwise have been harder to achieve. One reader comments in an Amazon review that “The parallels of lockdown, social distancing, isolation, and loss of loved ones, in events 300 years apart, were striking.”
In the same year covered in the novel, London had been visited by plague, beginning in the poor parish of St Giles in the Field in the nation’s capital in May 1665. Over the next few months, it ravaged London and was the worst outbreak since the medieval global pandemic of the Black Death in the 1300s ,which had killed so many of Europe’s population. Then, an estimated 25 million people, or a third of the continent’s peoples, lost their lives to that deadly pestilence. Its return to London in the seventeenth century must have terrified everyone who lived there. By the summer of 1665, 31,159 people had died; around 15% of London’s population. It had spread rapidly; beginning with a small number of deaths and discomforting rumours, rapidly gaining speed as the victims stacked up and the fear rose to fever pitch. Snatches of news about the devastation the disease was leaving in its wake as it stalked the streets of London, would have found their way out into the other parts of the country, striking fear into the hearts of anybody hearing such reports and praying their little corner of the world would stay safe. So, when the plague arrived in Eyam, it presented a similarity to those early days of the current pandemic, when we realised there were some cases of the novel coronavirus in our own town, city or street. Somehow, it had found us and we knew from the news coming out of places like Wuhan, Italy and Spain that with it came misery.
Obviously, Eyam during 1665 to 1666 was not furnished with the scientific knowledge we have today regarding epidemiology of disease. Yet, those modern concepts of ‘transmission’ and ‘immunity’ are still represented in the novel without being explicitly understood or explained by our characters ignorant of such scientific ideas. The people of Eyam are aware that the disease seems to spread by contact and that once it finds its way into a household it is only a matter of time before the whole house succumbs to the horrifying sickness. So, they implement measures to avoid the spread of ‘plague seeds’ (their seventeenth century language for capturing the idea of contamination leading to infection), utilising the holes in the boundary stone filled with vinegar (the acid killing any infection) and the rushing water at Mompesson’s Well. At the end of the outbreak, they burned material that had come into contact with plague victims. Who knows whether they ironed their letters like folk in London did, but the concept that whatever came into your home could bring plague with it (the box of cloth received by the tailor had proven that), was matched in our early efforts of leaving our shopping and mail to stand for days, wiping everything down, using more hand gel in a week than you had previously used in a life time! When Elizabeth Hancock, living outside the village centre at Riley Farmhouse, brings eggs to sell in the village, we see a fictionalised example of the village systems in action, with the pail of vinegar for the money to be placed in and the social distancing of the women as they make their purchases.
The word ‘immune’ is not one that would have been used by the villagers at the time but the concept of somehow being resistant to the devastating effects of plague is one they would have become gradually aware of. You only need to take a look at the colour-coded exhibit in the fascinating Eyam Museum, showing the course of plague through each household, to see how whilst some families were entirely wiped out (such as was the fate of the Thorpes), other families were utterly devastated save for just one person. Who knows what was going through that surviving person’s mind? At a time when God was often deemed responsible for natural disasters and other calamities, people of that time would often credit survival or destruction with the favour or punishment of the almighty. It is into this backdrop that we find Emmott pondering her survival when nearly all of her family have sickened and died. It seemed likely to me that she would question why that was the case and perhaps anticipate a divine purpose or a higher calling for herself. The stories of survival from our own times; such as the elderly recovering from Covid and those on ventilators finally going home from hospital to corridors lined with clapping members of staff (as was the case for one dear friend of mine), are often met with similar notions of ‘not her time yet’ and ‘he has more to do here’. In Eyam, there were very few survivors once the plague had taken hold of them, and the stories of Unwin, Margaret Blackwell and the village sexton, Marshall Howe, all featured in the novel, are relatively unique in the statistics of the Eyam outbreak.
Some of the moments from those early days of the pandemic that really moved me, are here in the book too. The singing of people from their balconies in Italy during the first lockdown in 2020 finds its 1665 equivalent in the singing of Silent Night by the villagers of Eyam on Christmas Eve in the novel, a moment of pathos also borrowed from the Christmas Truce of 1914 when British and German soldiers agreed a fragile peace for that one holy night in the trenches. The novel conveys a fragile hope that the plague would hold off for the sacred night of the coming of Jesus into the world and so we have Catherine Mompesson reliving her childhood memories, Emmott finding her voice for singing despite her grief, and Elizabeth and the Hancock family enjoying a wonderful Christmas together despite the growing threat. I too enjoyed that one day of household mingling on Christmas Day last year against the backdrop of the second wave, wearing my Christmas onesie and Santa fleece whilst eating a rapidly cooling turkey at a table outside next to a roaring log-burner. It will always be a Christmas to remember.
There was no real way to incorporate a seventeenth century version of the doorstep clap for the NHS, but the sense of gratitude that is given to Humphrey Merrill for his remedies is perhaps the closest parallel. It is through her assistance to the apothecary that Catherine, wife of the village rector, finds the respect and kinship with the village she has been craving and the thing that is just for herself and marks her as someone beyond just ‘the rector’s wife’.
Our modern times have seen sceptics of the pandemic rise up; those who believe it to be a hoax, refusing to have their freedoms restricted by social distancing or the wearing of masks, those later lamenting their decisions; early Covid victims dying in hospitals after attending Covid-parties believing the disease was an invented way to control the masses or, more recently, refusing the vaccine and succumbing to the Delta variant. In the novel, it is Marshall Howe, the gravedigger, who recovers from plague, making him conceited and overly casual with the disease and ultimately paying the price for his haughtiness and greed in the face of the disease. Plague did not discriminate any more than Covid does. Nobody can know for sure they are invincible to infection, or to passing it on to someone who will not survive their battle with it.
There were unsettling moments in the past eighteen months where religious people took risks during the Coronavirus Pandemic, believing their God would protect them and continuing to meet for services despite the advice given out by governments. Pastors of churches died, along with their parishioners, in some places in the world. Even recently I heard the sad story of a woman who refused the vaccine at the pulpit-delivered advice of her pastor and tragically died of Covid-19. Thankfully, Eyam had the benefit of not one but two wise ministers, intent on seeing as many people survive as they could. They tended the sick and the dying, moved church services outside and devised the plans for keeping those outside of the village safe too. In Catherine we encounter the tension she feels between trusting her faith in God for survival and finding a way to ease the suffering of others through her helping of Humphrey Merrill and the subsequent honing of her own skills of apothecary.
As the novel progresses, so does the suspicion the villagers feel towards their fellow villagers. They become concerned by high colour in the faces of their neighbours and enquiring about health takes precedent over the usual innocuous comments about the weather. We witness our characters doing their very best to keep themselves and their loved ones safe and yet at times taking risks, for love, for friendship, for kindness, and the consequences of these decisions are for each reader to discover. In the last year, there have likely been times when we have regarded a friend’s coughing with suspicion or whipped out a lateral flow test at the slightest hint of a headache or temperature. Such was the world inhabited by our brave characters in 1665, knowing that the consequences of infection were incredibly high.
In the first lockdown, many of us received notes through our door with offers from neighbours to help with food and medical supplies etc should someone need to self-isolate. I wrote 16 handwritten notes myself and set up a neighbourhood WhatsApp group, which led to a beautiful expression of community as people took care of each other during what felt like a very frightening time. Whilst the Earl of Devonshire, the Lord of neighbouring Chatsworth House, likely did not act in pure altruism (the deal he struck with the rector would keep plague away from his estate) when he responded to William Mompesson’s letter, the giving of provisions left at the boundary stone to keep Eyam’s parishioners fed during the plague outbreak, had echoes of this concept of community saviours. Of course, William Mompesson and Reverend Thomas Stanley’s suggestion of the cordon sanitaire and the villagers’ incredible commitment to honour it, was the ultimate expression of sacrificial love and perhaps we find the greatest modern day equivalent in the sacrifice of so many brave members of the NHS who died without proper PPE in those early months. ‘Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends‘ (John 15:13), the Bible verse used by the rectors to encourage Eyam’s villagers to accept the quarantine, found a devastatingly authentic expression in the commitment of NHS workers and carers to treat the pandemic’s earliest victims.
There are many more examples of parallels between now and Eyam back then, and I am sure if you choose to read the novel the parallels with our own recent experiences will make themselves obvious to you. Readers talk about the connection they feel with the characters as they go through situations and scenarios we now recognise so much more clearly. The novel I have written has found its unique expression because of the lens of the pandemic through which it is written. I think the pandemic sucks as much as the next person but I will always be grateful for those two precious gifts it gave me: time and perspective.
Thank you so much. What an utterly brilliant piece Jennifer. I agree with Tracy Chevalier that I don’t especially want to read about OUR plague in fiction, but the chance to find connection and solace through historical novels seems to me to be a wonderful opportunity to heal. I love the concept of herstory too and cannot wait until Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague reaches the top of my towering TBR.