The current pandemic hasn’t given us many things to be grateful for but for me the gift of the pandemic was two-fold: 1) 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.
As you are reading 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. There’s the growing suspicion of other people, with everyone gradually withdrawing into their houses and peering out from behind closed doors in growing anxiety. There is the developing understanding of how the disease is spreading and the most effective ways to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. There are the experimental treatments (we all saw the news reports about tonic water and President Trump’s suggestions regarding UV light and bleach) and desperate attempts at prevention and remedy (abracadabra is Elizabeth Syddall’s desperate attempt to keep the plague from her home). 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 as the lamentable hundreds of thousands we have lost in the past year or so worldwide.
In the same year of our 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. It’s return to London must have struck fear into the heart of everyone who lived there. By the summer of 1665, 31,159 people had died; around 15% of the population of the capital. It had spread rapidly; beginning with a small number of deaths and discomforting rumours and 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 was similar to those early days 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. Yet, modern ideas like ‘transmission’ and ‘immunity’ are represented in the novel. 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 by 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 brings the eggs to sell to Mary Darby, we see an imagined example of the village systems in action, with the pail of vinegar for the money to be placed in.
The word ‘immune’ is not one that would have been used by the villagers at the time but the concept is one they would have become gradually have become aware of. You only need to take a look at the colour-coded exhibit in 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 except for one person. Who knows what was going through that person’s mind? At a time when God was often deemed responsible for natural disasters, 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 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 (hence, she begins considering midwifery). It would also likely give her a sense of safety and therefore increased likelihood to take risks, as we see in her attending the birth and helping the recently-widowed new mother. The stories of survival from our own times; such as the elderly recovering 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 and comments 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, 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 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. There was this general sense that the plague would hold off for the sacred night of the coming of Jesus into the world and so we have Catherine reliving her childhood memory, Emmott finding her voice for singing despite her sorrow and Elizabeth and John and the Hancock family enjoying a wonderful Christmas together. For those of you who have read the novel, you will know that one of the gifts given that day up at Riley sets in motion deadly consequences…
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, of course, through her assistance to the apothecary that Catherine finds the respect and kinship with the village she has been craving.
Our modern times have seen sceptics of the pandemic rise up; those who at first believed it to be a hoax, refused to social distance or wear masks, those lamenting their decisions, dying in hospitals after attending Covid-parties believing the disease was an invented way to control the masses. In the novel, it is Marshall Howe who will ultimately pay the price for his haughtiness and greed in the face of the disease.
There were unsettling moments where religious people took risks during the Coronavirus Pandemic, believing the lord 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. 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 comments about the weather. We see Elizabeth cautiously call upon the Talbots, wondering for a moment whether Bridget’s red face is due to the early symptoms of plague when in fact she has been running around after a lively younger sibling. Conversely, near the end of the novel there is a lapse in vigilance as the epidemic appears to be ebbing and one character’s love of a friend overlooks the obvious signs of infection and this leads to peril. 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 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 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) 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 as you read the novel the parallels with our own recent experiences will make themselves obvious to you. Perhaps leave a comment if there is one you have noticed that is not mentioned here?