Essential Sources: Crafting the Historical Fiction Novel, ‘Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague’ by Jennifer Jenkins

*Spoiler Alert* Do not read further if you have not finished reading the book yet!

Many readers are interested to know just how much of my book is historically accurate and how much is the creative working of my imagination around the lives of the three women featured in the novel. Well, Emmott Syddall, Catherine Mompesson and Elizabeth Hancock all lived and were residents of Eyam during the fateful visitation of 1665-1666. They were very much alive and living in Eyam when the plague arrived on that fateful day in September 1665. The facts around their spousal relationships are accurate, as is the numbering of their days (I’m trying really hard to not give too much away here!), their ages, where they lived in the village and the particulars around their families. Certain historical facts also known about other people living in the village at the time, such as Reverend Mompesson and Reverend Stanley working together to establish the cordon sanitaire, Marshall Howe assuming the role of gravedigger and all the deaths in the different families of Eyam, are woven into the story.

What is added to these historical facts is a creative imagining of what these women did in the day to day of their lives between the day the fated box of cloth arrives from London and the last time we encounter them in the novel. To bring them to life, I first considered their personality types using the Myers-Briggs Personality Types based on the minimal facts I knew about them in the historical record, and then placed them in situations where I could use their inferred personality types to predict what they would do when faced with new situations and dilemmas within the context of the growing epidemic in the village. So, Emmott assists with a birth, Catherine starts helping the village apothecary, Humphrey Merrill, and Elizabeth visits the village frequently with the necessity of selling eggs and butter. From the helpful display in the Eyam Museum and the record of deaths, it is possible to trace the path of the pathogen around the village and I stick with absolute accuracy to the order of the deaths as they occurred. At various points the plague draws close to the three protagonists and it was a creative endeavour to imagine just what panned out for them when that fateful moment occurred.

In terms of the challenges of writing, writing about so much death but keeping it from becoming too heavy was very challenging! Likewise, writing a birth scene when I have had two caesarean sections was pretty difficult too; I had to keep asking women who had unassisted births to help me with getting that scene to sound authentic and accurate. Then there was the sex scene, mild but entirely unplanned! Who can fathom a woman’s wants? Elizabeth clearly had needs that needed to be met. I just went with her wishes.

In order to maintain the historical accuracy of the known parts of the unfolding of the plague at Eyam, I drew upon several sources. Here is a principal list of my key sources:

You can see all my sources in use here

This list of Eyam’s population at the time of the plague was so valuable. It showed who lived and died and, because it gave the dates of birth of each member of the household, I could also use it to create likely friendships between people of similar ages.

More is now known about the probable transmission of plague in Eyam based on our modern scientific knowledge and the analysis of historical records, and understanding the likely epidemiology of the outbreak really helped me, especially as much of transmission was caused by human to human contact and not necessarily the plague-infested fleas that had arrived with the cloth from London. At the time though, the villagers had a crude understanding of transmission, correctly surmising that ‘plague seeds’ could be transferred through close contact with an infected person or materials contaminated through close association, and I used this to my advantage in my writing. This led me towards some of the imagined encounters that may have led to further infection, especially when it comes down to our three protagonists.

This document was absolutely vital to the writing of my novel. This list effectively sets the course of the narrative as the plague works its way around the village and touches the lives of Emmott, Catherine and Elizabeth. You will see the same surnames coming up time and again as the plague claimed family member after family member. I know you will want to search this list for our heroines, but restrain yourself until after you have read the novel.

This map, and another couple I obtained, were very helpful resources when writing. At times in the novel, characters are travelling around the village and encountering others at specific places. Picturing the closeness of what are now known as the ‘plague cottages’ where the epidemic began, and the proximity of Bagshaw House (the Sydall residence) to the rectory, allowed for certain fears and thoughts to be expressed by characters as they contemplated the unseen foe coming ever closer . The location of Cucklett Delph is so important to both the love story of Emmott and Rowland and the location of Reverend Mompesson’s infamous sermon, effectively plunging the village into quarantine. Likewise, the woods surrounding the village provided a place for Catherine and William’s walks and the hill leading up to Riley Farmhouse was a perceived barrier between the Hancock’s home and the perils of the village.

The harrowing list of plague symptoms was essential for me when writing the upsetting scenes where plague entered the homes of our courageous villagers. For instance, Emmott nursing her family discovers the tell-tale signs of fever and buboes. I did not attempt to feature all of these plague symptoms in my writing but the most familiar ones are present time and again.

*Spoiler alert* Do not scroll down any further if you have not read the novel…

Another key source was my photographs taken on my visits to the village itself. These not only included the buildings and the landscape but also the famous green signs placed outside homes around the village that memorialise those who perished or survived within. When I last visited the village, on New Year’s Eve 2019, Bagshaw House was up for sale. Oh, how tempting it was to book a viewing. I didn’t.

So, you can see that in ‘Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague’, history and imagination combine to create a work of historical fiction which I hope is both memorable and honouring to the memory of these three incredible women.

Published by jenjenkins42

I am an author from a village outside of Rugby in Warwickshire. I love historical fiction. You will find me reading, hanging out with my husband, our two sons and our little dog, baking or walking.

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