Since I published the book ‘Three: Brave Women and the Eyam Plague’, I have had quite a few enquires about whether these women actually existed and whether all of what is documented in the book actually happened. Well, absolutely ‘yes’ to the first question. Emmott Syddall, Catherine Mompesson and Elizabeth Hancock were real women living in Eyam in Derbyshire at the time when the village was visited by plague in 1665-1666. You will find their names on the green signs around the village, in the stories documented in Eyam Museum and in the books available to purchase in the museum shop.
What is known about each woman is fairly sparse, limited to dates of birth and death, where abouts in the village they lived, the composition of their families and the fate of each family member. In further blog posts, I will look at each woman in turn, sharing the historical record around each of our incredible protagonists. What isn’t known is how they spent their daily lives during that fateful year, how exactly plague came to visit them or what motivated them to make the decisions we do know these women made. So, the answer to the second question is that plenty if made up, but never without thoughtful consideration or with reckless invention.
*Spoiler alert* Do not read any further if you have not read the novel yet!
These were the questions that captivated me when I first encountered the story of Eyam and then motivated me as I researched and began to write. For example, why did Emmott survive when almost her whole family died very early on in the epidemic? What did she think of her mother remarrying so soon after her father’s death? What ultimately led to her being infected after so long? Did she believe herself to be immune and therefore took risks that ultimately proved too dangerous? Was Catherine dissatisfied with her role as William Mompesson’s wife? How did she feel about sending off her children to safety when the rest of the village stayed quarantined with their children? How did she only have the misfortune to contract plague so near the end of the epidemic when she had spent a whole year helping her husband? Why was Elizabeth the only one in the Hancock family to survive? Where did she go after leaving the village? How did she find the strength to bury all of her family by herself? How did plague come to the supposedly safe farmstead at Riley?
Some of these questions were answered by my research. I used resources from the Eyam Museum website, epidemiology reports on the spread of plague in the village, webpages about 17th century herbal plague remedies and a series of books on Eyam (basically anything that came up on Amazon when I type in Eyam, which rather surreally now includes my own book!). When the questions could seemingly not be answered by books or websites, my imagination took over.
The first woman to catch my attention was unmistakably Emmott Syddall. There were several reasons for this; the romance with Rowland Torre from the next village of Stoney Middleton, the mystery of why she hadn’t perished right at the beginning of the visitation at the same time as her family, and the idea that this young woman had so much to live for, looking forward to her wedding at the next Wakes festival. I had been doing an online creative writing course (Start Writing Fiction with Future Learn- highly recommended) and as part of an assignment, I wrote a short story about Emmott and Rowland after seeing the plague window in the village church (see image above). I got really great feedback in the peer reviews of the piece and shared it with a few friends who also liked it. So, I submitted it to a local literary magazine back in 2019 and it was subsequently published.
One of the things I was keen to do was to give each woman purpose in the narrative; a kind of autonomy that would mean they were more than just their dates, their fates. I began considering why each woman had reached the outcomes that were historically known about them. I began thinking about them as personalities, each distinct and masters of their own stories. I found Emmott flowed out of me naturally, and perhaps there is more of myself in her character than there should be, but when it came to Catherine and Elizabeth I needed something to help the character development process. I was worried they would either be too much like Emmott or too much like me! The Myers-Briggs personality types helped me with that. I have always found them helpful, in life generally as much as in writing. I am an INFJ myself and wondered what these two women would be? I used the known facts about them, the things they had decided to do and the actions they had taken, in order to select the most likely personality type for each of them.
Once I had their personality types clear, I then had a whole plethora of traits and motivations to draw upon when placing my characters into imagined plausible situations as the narrative unfolded. One of the key things to invent was exactly how our protagonists encountered the plague first hand as history only affords us knowledge of the outcomes of the encounter and not what initiated it. The personality types helped me to invent scenarios that might work best with what was already known about these women from the historical record.
So, I had Emmott help with a birth and supporting a new mother, Catherine begin to use apothecary to support the suffering parishioners and Elizabeth be caught between the desire to keep her family safe and the care of others. I hope that what grows out of the known and into the imagined is organic and seamless and that for those who hold the legacy of these women dear, my narrative is honouring of their memory.
Emmott’s reaction to her mother’s second marriage was one I was particularly interested in. How would she have felt about this, relatively soon after her father’s death? In the novel, I have Emmott in a very close relationship with her father, a man she loved deeply and was sure to grieve just as deeply for. In many ways, this was autobiographical, reflecting my own deep affection for my own father, but in the plot, the tension this development causes, pushes Emmott more towards independence and making her own choices as a woman suddenly finding herself outside of a once large family unit. At the same time, the question of her immunity emerges. Having nursed so many of her family in the autumn of 1665 without getting sick (this is, of course, presumed; there is no way of knowing who nursed the stricken members of the Syddall family), it seems likely she would have believed herself to be beyond the grasp of the pestilence, as some others in the village also were. I mused that it was plausible she might begin to take risks and as her character developed it seemed obvious to me that this would be in the service of others; a sacrificial outworking of her kindness.
Catherine’s faith is a major element within her character development. It is acknowledged in William Mompesson’s letters to his uncle following her death, and forever memorialised in the impressive tomb in the churchyard, sacred to her memory. For me, this was something I wanted to become a point of contention within the novel and not just a given. It is my belief that faith is meaningless without something to question it, something to shake it and initiate an inquiry as to whether it is enough. Her marriage to William and her role as rector’s wife seemed bound up in that struggle too and the notion that she was seeing something that was just hers. She is so often rendered the hapless wife of the rector of Eyam who saved the neighbouring villages from certain doom and I wanted her to have something for herself. Flora and faith are bound up in the narrative where Catherine is concerned and therein she finds her purpose and her strength.
Elizabeth is the story from Eyam that most often shocks those new to the story. The harrowing image of her burying her family one by one stays with people long after they drive back down through the valleys and away from the village. How could one woman bear it? It is the question that surfaces time and again and one I wanted to answer. In many ways, I found Elizabeth the hardest to write. Not only because she was the last of the three women’s stories that I wrote but also because, as someone who adheres to rules even when I don’t want to, I initially found her decision to break the cordon sanitaire that so many had honoured to their own doom, both shocking and un-relatable. In developing her character and crafting her narrative, I found myself able to to empathise with her and the decision she ultimately made. She had my respect.
In future blog posts, I will be exploring each of our protagonists in turn at greater depth, sharing what is in the historical record and what led me to craft their stories in the ways I did. I hope that this blog post shows you where history and imagination merge and why I hope this works in the telling of the tale of brave women and the Eyam plague.
You can find some helpful resources here if you want to know exactly what is contained in the historical record: https://www.eyam-museum.org.uk/resources
I also recommend the following books if you want to know more about Eyam and its story:
Eyam Plague Village by David Paul
Eyam Plague 1665-1666 by John Clifford
The Story of Eyam Plague: With a Guide to the Village by Daniel Clarence
The Histories and Antiquities of Eyam by William Wood
Finally, a word on all the Elizabeths! I have absolutely stuck to the names of the people as recorded in the parish register recording their deaths. Within the village of the time there are a large number of repeated forenames, so that the number of Elizabeths, Catherines and Johns in the novel can get confusing at times. The Elizabeths in particular are many. Here is a quick guide:
Elizabeth Hancock- one of our three protagonists, living up at Riley farmhouse with her husband and children
Elizabeth Hancock Junior- Elizabeth’s daughter. In the novel, she is the daughter Elizabeth makes the doll for using scraps obtained from Alexander Hadfield, the village tailor.
Elizabeth Syddall- the mother of Emmott. She loses her husband and most of her family early in the plague visitation.
Elizabeth Frith- wife of the church warden and, in the novel, close friend to Catherine Mompesson (this seemed plausible to me, as the wives of the church warden and the rector)
Elizabeth Mompesson- Catherine and William Mompesson’s young daughter
Elizabeth Thornley- A widow heading up a family of children and step-children ultimately wiped out by the plague. Catherine is asked to visit her in the novel to support her in her grief at losing the children of her late husband to the pestilence
Elizabeth Thorpe- Mother of the Thorpe Family, wiped out by plague early on in the epidemic