Emmott Syddall is one of the most loved characters in the historical fiction novel, ‘Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague’, the debut novel by Jennifer Jenkins. History directed the days laid out for this beloved young woman of Eyam and, for many readers, her love affair with Rowland Torre (of the next village of Stoney Middleton) is one of the heart-warming aspects of the novel.
Betrothed to be married, they were anticipating a wedding at the annual Wakes festival in 1666 when the plague arrived to challenge the notion of happily ever after for this couple. The novel opens at the Wakes in 1665, just before the arrival of the dreaded pestilence from London, and we witness their love for each other from the offset.
Initially, Rowland still visits his sweetheart in the village, but as the plague gathers intensity and the number of sick increases (including her own family), Rowland and Emmott resort to letter writing. Whether or not they iron their letters, as was the custom in the capital at the time to kill ‘plague seeds’, is unknown but I like to imagine Rowland taking up his mother’s iron from its place on the hearth, her bemused face watching him concentrate to avoid burning his eager fingers, and hastily ironing the latest note from his love before tearing it open and devouring her words.
In addition to the letters, Emmott and Rowland began meeting at a distance at Cucklett Delph, a green, open space located behind Bagshaw House where Emmott lived and stretching towards the boundary with Stoney Middleton. This was also the place where church services were held during the plague year, with Reverend William Mompesson making use of the natural stone pulpit and amphitheatre the area offered.
I imagine one of the lovers waiting here, looking intently to catch the first glimpse of the other arriving, and the heavy heart they must have felt watching the other walk away after their meeting was over and wondering when they would next be in each other’s company. The lack of privacy must have been uncomfortable. With the distance kept between them to honour the confines of the cordon sanitaire instated by the two rectors to protect the people of Stoney Middleton and the other surrounding villages and towns, anything they said would need to be shouted; their love called over the space between them. In the novel there are several meetings between the two here at the Delph and Emmott’s thoughts often drift towards the Delph and to her betrothed. I wonder if any of Eyam’s inhabitants ever came across them there and ducked their heads, walking silently away, perhaps smiling to themselves to see love blossoming even in the cruelest of times, leaving the two lovers in privacy as they poured out their hearts to each other? The desire of each to run across the expanse and embrace the other must have been so strong, and yet the desire to protect and preserve proved stronger. No plague seeds found their way to Stoney Middleton.
Covid has made things tricky for lovers today, just as plague did for Emmott and Rowland back in the seventeenth century. Last year, many dating couples who were not living together found themselves suddenly physically separated for months on end, and even the subject of laws nobody in previous years could have ever predicted, prohibiting them from having sex, an act of legal prohibition that many viewed as the removal of a basic human right, no matter how much they understood the reasons behind it. For many dating couples, the mobile phone became their Cucklett Delph, with contact made through social media and online platforms such as WhatsApp and Zoom. The messages of love and moments of vulnerability found their way through cyberspace instead of over grass and sky. Messages of fear, frustration and fortitude finding their way in texts and emails. Nothing could replace being physically together but the internet provided a way of staying connected, together, when physical distancing was required.
This was the case for lovely friends of mine, Emily and Ben. When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020 they found themselves living for months on end in two separate towns and when restrictions finally lifted enough to meet up it was local parks and country lanes that provided a space to be together again. Warm weather, picnics, walks and bike rides offered a gradual acclimatisation to being able to be physically close, to touch again. For many, the ‘new normal’ of not being physically close had to be reconfigured again to embrace the ‘new new normal’ and being in each other’s space sometimes took time to feel comfortable, safe, again.
Even in this latest phase of the pandemic, couples have discovered what it felt like to be separated like Emmott and Rowland. Another lovely couple I know were recently kept apart by a positive Covid test, with Ange having to isolate on her own away from her husband Jake. Desperate to keep him and their four girls well, Ange would only see Jake with plenty of outdoor space between them; a modern day Emmott and Rowland. They truly experienced for those few days what Emmott and Rowland endured for months.
Emily and Ben and Ange and Jake are happy, together, safe and well. If you want to know what happened to our beloved couple, Emmott and Rowland, you can purchase the novel ‘Three’ here and discoverer their story for yourself: