When I made my very first visit to Eyam, over ten years ago, it was the love story of Emmott Syddall and her beau, Rowland Torre, that really captured both my heart and my imagination. I remember staring at the two lovers in the church’s stained glass window and finding myself wondering what it was like for them; their hopes and fears, their love and loss. I kept returning to the wider story of Eyam over that decade, teaching it to my Year Two classes, but always wondering about this young woman, Emmott. There was something about her and her story that just wouldn’t leave me be. It was Emmott’s story that tempted me to even consider writing what would become my first novel.
In January 2019 I completed an online fiction writing course with Future Learn (amazing what you can achieve if you get off Facebook for a month!) and as part of that process I began working on a short story, one that would focus on Emmott and Rowland and their meetings at Cucklett Delph during the year of the plague’s visitation to the village of Eyam in Derbyshire. I received great feedback from my peers on the course and was fortunate enough to have my short story published in Chatterbox Magazine, a local literary publication.
During my research I had so many questions about Emmott, not least of which was why she had not died in the early weeks of the outbreak with the majority of her family. Where was she, what was she doing and did she come to think of herself as being impervious to the plague’s danger?
*Spoiler Alert* Do not read any further if you have not finished reading the novel
When I finally finished my research and began writing the novel, I started with Emmott’s story. Whilst her story is well known by those who live in and visit the village, what is actually contained within the historical record about this young woman is fairly sparse, and as I began to write it seemed obvious to me that I would need to take this character on a journey, mainly built around the questions that had formed in my mind as I researched and ultimately leading to how she came to be infected so long after her father and siblings.
The Historical Record
John Clifford’s document, The Population of Eyam 1664-1667, gives Emmott Syddall’s birth date as being between 1643-1645, meaning that when the plague arrived she was likely between 22 and 24 years of age. She was one of the seven children born from the marriage of John and Elizabeth Syddall. Her older sister, Ellen, was likely a year older and her younger sister, Elizabeth, just a year younger, so it is likely these three sisters were very close. The Syddall family also comprised of younger sisters, Sarah and Alice, and younger brothers ,Richard and Joseph, with the latter being just two years old when the tailor’s assistant unpacked the fateful box of cloth from London.
The Syddall family lived in Bagshaw House, opposite the cottages where the epidemic began and fairly close to the rectory where the Mompessons lived. At the time of the plague’s arrival, just after the Wakes Festival, Emmott and a young man from the next village of Stoney Middleton, were earnestly looking forward to their marriage that was scheduled to take place at the festival the following year.
Stretching out behind the Syddall house was a green expanse known as Cucklett Delph (or alternatively, the Cussy Dell). When the plague began spreading in the village, in order to keep Rowland safe and not risk the spread of plague to Stoney Middleton, the two lovers would instead send letters or meet at a distance in Cucklett Delph. This continued until April 1666 when Emmott stopped coming and Rowland, at the mercy of the cordon sanitaire established by the two rectors, was powerless to find out what had become of his love.
Emmott’s father and siblings were some of the first villagers to die from plague, being relatively close in physical proximity to the cottage where George Viccars, our seventeenth century ‘patient x’, died fairly soon after unpacking damp cloth from London that had been infested with plague fleas. In modern times, signs around the village document the demise of each family within the different houses and the sign outside Bagshaw House is unsettlingly extensive.
Sarah Syddall, the fifth plague victim, was the first member of the tragic family to die, leaving this life on 30th September 1665, with her brother, Richard, following her into the grave eleven days later on 11th October. Just three days later Emmott was to say goodbye to her father, another victim of the pestilence, and in the ten days that followed his death she also lost Ellen, Elizabeth and Alice. By the end of October, the only people left in Bagshaw House were Emmott, her mother and her youngest sibling, Joseph; just a toddler. Autumn brought a change none of them could have anticipated at the happy revelry of the Wakes just two months earlier.
Despite surviving the initial arrival of plague into her household in the autumn of 1665, Emmott herself was cruelly taken by the disease on 29th April 1666, just five days after the wedding of her mother to John Daniel. Tradition states that Rowland was the first person into the village when it finally reopened during the winter of 1666. It is said that he was informed by a young boy that Emmott had died and was ‘buried in the Cussy Dell’, which, if true, seems a fitting burial place for her, given their meetings there. There are no markings to indicate her final resting place and so it seems fitting that she is preserved for prosperity in the colourful depiction of the church window.
From the very onset, Emmott seemed to me to be a woman with quiet strength, unending kindness and an ability to see past the surface of both people and situations. It was not at all hard to imagine her caring for her infected relatives, with no thought to her own safety. The questions that arose as I researched her story were all along the lines of how she had managed to escape infection and die much later in the visitation, and why she was buried in the Cussy Dell when the majority of plague victims were simply buried in the grounds adjacent to their homes due to the churchyard being closed by Reverend Mompesson.
Bringing Emmott and Rowland’s love affair to life seemed a must for the novel and it was not hard to imagine the complexity of emotions this young couple would have faced under the circumstances they found themselves in. Emmott’s thoughts stray often to the future, imagining herself married to Rowland, their children, perhaps developing skills as a village midwife and picturing the home they would live in. For the latter, I drew upon a common custom of the time where men from the village would build a new home for newlyweds to live in within a matter of days. Emmott’s frequent daydreaming and longing for Rowland make her death all the more tragic, when we realise she will see none of it.
Emmott’s relationship with her father was influenced by my own feelings towards my own father and, having grown up for a large part of my childhood living in a home with just my father and brother, the idea that she would spend time with him like a son, emulating him and learning from him, found its way in to the narrative. Losing him is a painful loss for Emmott and in her own way she tries to replace him through her own mirrored actions.
Emmott’s mother’s second marriage posed an interesting character development for Emmott. Elizabeth Syddall married John Daniel on April 25th 1666, just four days before Emmott perished. It seemed almost certain that an invisible thread could be drawn linking these two events together. In the novel, Emmott struggles with her mother’s remarrying so soon after her father’s death (six months after John Syddall departed), seeing it as a shameful desecration of his memory. Emmott loses the parent she feels most connected to and struggles with a living parent whose choices she cannot fathom.
It is at the wedding that we see Catherine and Emmott have a meaningful interaction, with Catherine having noted Emmott’s extraordinary bravery and kindness in assisting with the Rowe birth. Catherine invites Emmott to help the newly-widowed Mrs Allen with her newborn, and though it is not explicitly said, it appears both women believe Emmott to be somehow safe from the plague’s clutches. In the end, it is Emmott’s kindness and willingness to serve others that lead to her own tragic death.
I wept as I wrote Emmott’s death scenes. I was so angry at history for serving up such an unwanted, tragic end for this young woman and I was sure my readers were going to be angry with me too! Just last week, I got a message from someone reading the novel who had reached Chapter 30. There was a screen shot of the opening paragraph of the chapter and just one line in the message: noooooo! I truly felt their pain. Their message was one of many from readers who expressed their sadness at losing such a likeable, admirable character.
One of the most interesting things to me as a writer was Emmott’s burial in the Cussy Dell. Who buried her there? How did they know this was a special place for her?
A line from a poem by Eyam poet, Richard Furness, caught my imagination:
“Yet still the wild flowers o’er their ashes creep“Richard Furness
One of the funeral traditions of the time for deceased virgins would be that a garland of flowers would be carried before the corpse of an unmarried virgin young woman. It seemed fitting that some plague-altered version of this happen for Emmott, as a way of honouring her. Throughout the novel we see her interactions with the sexton, Marshall Howe, a somewhat loathed individual on the account of his being the self-appointed gravedigger and rather generous towards himself with the tolls he levied for his services. Yet Emmott is able to peer beneath the rough surface, intrigued at what lies beneath and is so beloved by his wife Joan and their young son. Marshall is disarmed by her kindness and it seemed likely her way of being with him was unique to his interactions with his fellow villagers; unique enough to leave an impression on him. The posies left on her grave and the careful positioning of her final resting place are his way of repaying her kindness and giving her the burial we all could hope for. In the end, it is Marshall Howe to whom I give the honour or burying our beloved heroine. Still, I think all our hearts break with Rowland’s as he finally enters the village and his worst fears are confirmed. If I could change one thing about the book it would be Emmott’s demise, but I have remained faithful to the cruel chapter written by history.
For readers paying especially close attention, there is a hint of foreshadowing regarding Emmott and Rowland’s ultimate separation when one of her beloved linnets dies. This is represented by the feathers on the front cover. I wanted to prepare my readers if I could, yet it seemed too painful to hint at too strongly.
Emmott will always have a special place in my heart as a writer. She is the reason I began to write. As one reader put it in their excellent review on Amazon: “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.” Emmott, I hope I have done you proud.