Telling the Women’s Story: A Feminist Retelling of the Plague at Eyam

When history retells the story of the plague at Eyam and the sacrifice made by those brave villagers over three and a half centuries ago, the names of two men come to the forefront: Reverend William Mompesson, then rector of Eyam, and Reverend Thomas Stanley, previous rector of Eyam. These two men worked together on their plan for the cordon sanitare, convincing the villagers that it was their Christian duty to spare the villages around Eyam by keeping their village closed off, so that nobody entered and no one left. It is a tribute to all the brave men, women and children of Eyam that this decision made by these two men was both respected and upheld, despite the sheer human cost this wrought on the villagers.

*Spoiler alert* Only continue reading from here onwards if you have read the novel

Emmott Syddall is memorialised in the stained glass window in St Lawrence’s Church, Eyam
Catherine Mompesson’s memory is forever preserved by her impressive tomb in Eyam churchyard
Visitors to the Riley Graves are reminded of the bravery and resilience of Elizabeth Hancock

In ‘Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague’, the women of the time period are given the chance to make their voices heard and their stories known. This is not done at the expense of the noble contribution made by the afore mentioned men, but instead offers a story that illustrates the cost of that decision and absolutely validates Emmott’s place in the stained glass window of St Lawrence’s Church, Catherine’s impressive tomb in the churchyard and the preservation of the poignant Riley Graves where Elizabeth Hancock buried her family one by one.

The women in this retelling each have a strong presence in the narrative. They contribute to the survival of the village in ways both real (for example, Catherine Mompesson really did make visits to the sick with her husband and Reverend Stanley) and imagined (for example, Emmott’s assistance with the birth of the Rowe baby). They are all instrumental in trying to preserve their families and in their own ways they challenge the stereotypes their fellow male characters hold about women. Emmott leaves an impression on the immovable sexton, Marshall Howe, prompting the tender manner in which he buries her. William Mompesson is quietly impressed by his wife’s newfound fondness for apothecary. Elizabeth takes on the undeniably physically, and emotionally, demanding task of burying all of her own dead without assistance.

These women are not perfect and neither should they need to be. They make mistakes, they pay for them, and that’s real life, especially when living through the most challenging of times, as they did and we now also have. As I put it in the book, ‘People responded by doing more of what they knew how to do’. This is what we see in the novel. We see Emmott being unapologetically Emmott, living whole-heartedly in the face of her loss. We witness Catherine finding something just for herself as she discovers that the power of plants and flowers can sit alongside the power of faith in her life. We observe as Elizabeth carries out the hardest task of her life and then makes one of the most difficult decisions any character must face. These women, discovering their true selves, living life on their own terms, not abandoning themselves, could be any of us.

In one recent review on Amazon, an enthralled reader said “I got an eerie feeling when I read this book, as if the three protagonists were breathing their spirits through the author…It is as if these three women, who really did exist and have now been reimagined for the COVID-19 generation, had been craving someone, another woman, to put their lives properly to bed…I think Catherine, Elizabeth and Emmott- ah, especially Emmott- waited hundreds of years for the right voice to tell their story. Now, here it is.”

When the women of the past get to live again, when history finally becomes multi-vocal and when those girls and women, ladies and lasses, crones and witches, get to tell their own stories on their own terms, we in the present can look with hope to the future. The Emmotts, Catherines and Elizabeths of this Pandemic will, in time, make themselves known and another author will bring their voices to the page.

William Mompesson is typically at the forefront of the retelling of what happened at Eyam but in ‘Three’ he is given the role of ‘Best Supporting Husband’
Reverend Thomas Stanley’s gravestone is preserved in the churchyard but the specific whereabouts of Emmott Syddall’s final resting place is unknown

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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