In the Victorian era, flowers were used almost like a second language. Each flower captured a sentiment to be expressed; a hidden message for the recipient. I have been rather fascinated by the idea and I think some of that concept of plants holding meaning and message crept into the novel.
There has always been a strong association between roses and the Black Death, with the well known nursery rhyme capturing the horror of the red marks spread across the skin that herald the arrival of Yersinia Pestis.
Emmott receives roses from Rowland and the remembrance of the plague tokens spreading across her father’s chest is a bittersweet moment between them.
Without the benefits of antibiotics, fighting plague in the 17th century was mainly down to herbal remedies concocted by an apothecary. In the novel, Catherine Mompesson discovers that this is something she can use to practically help the village during the harrowing year of plague visitation. She begins aiding with delivery of Humphrey Merrill’s concoctions but then learns simple herbal remedies from Eyam’s apothecary herself. Merrill uses flora such as mustard, mint, borage, violets, holy thistle and wormwood in his endeavours to create a concoction that would overpower the deadly pestilence. Emmott discovers a small bouquet of tied herbs hanging beside the ‘abracadabra’ charm hung in the window by her mother; an attempt by Elizabeth Sydall to keep the plague from snatching any more of her loved ones.
When the Thorpes and Syddall families are so excessively bereaved, Catherine is keen to pay a visit that shows her deepest sympathy at their loss. She includes cornflowers as these were considered to represent heaven and Christ’s triumph over the devil; a sentiment she hopes will bring some comfort to loved ones now gone to their eternal sleep.
Both Catherine and Emmott enjoy walking in the dale. Chapter 28 tells us that “Emmott had given herself over to the habitual gazing on beautiful things; flowers bursting with colours on the moors during her afternoon walks, the mottled beauty of the rock beneath the rushing water at the swallow, and the stars in the night sky...”
When she seeks to make peace with her mother over the tensions that have arisen due to Elizabeth Syddall’s pending marriage to John Daniel, Emmott chooses to make her mother a peace offering of a headdress of flowers for her upcoming nuptials. She chooses blooms of blue, yellow and pink, with winter heath and Columbine. Emmott chooses flowers with meaning: “She had assembled sprays of Jacob’s Ladder, considering as she did so her own wrestling with God over how all this could be and how it was at all possible for her to be as sad over a marriage as she was over a death.” The act of creating the headdress is a dual act of grief and reconciliation for Emmott.
Inspired by her work with the village apothecary, Catherine plants a garden of her own, lifting plants from her walks and enjoying a small space the is just hers: “Spending her days in the presence of such simple, earthy wisdom had had a profound effect on her and she was overjoyed to have found a new skill she could nurture and nourish as her own. Her herb garden was flourishing and she was more naturally able to combine plants and flowers now, knowing their medicinal properties and using them to treat little ailments in her own family.” The gift of plants to Catherine is a gift of independence, self-discovery and contentment.
*Spoiler Alert* Do not read any further if you have not read the novel and intend to
Flora features in the tragic deaths of both Emmott and Catherine. Emmott’s death is captured in the final line of chapter 30: “She stopped reaching for the ground and let herself drift, like the seeds of the dandelion clock spreading far and wide when all you want is to know what time it is.”
After her death, the gruff sexton, Marshall Howe, to whom Emmott had always been kind, buries her in the Cussy Dell- a place she loved to walk and the location of her meetings with Rowland. He takes Rowland to the grave of his love once the village reopens and here Emmott’s bereaved fiancé discovers the wildflowers Howe has left upon her grave; a crude representation of the type of funeral procession and burial a maiden taken so soon would usually have and a simple, appropriate token of gratitude for her kindness.
Likewise, flowers feature in Catherine’s doom. One evening in late August 1666 she declares to William, “Oh! Mompesson! The air! How sweet it smells!” (this is taken from the oral tradition surrounding her death). The overcoming of the olfactory system was regarded at the time as an early sign of plague as the organs were overcome by the advancing disease. For William it was a declaration of much gravity.
Every year on Plague Sunday (the last Sunday in August to coincide with the Wakes Week), Catherine is honoured with a wreath of red roses on her tomb in the churchyard of Saint Lawrence.
At the time of the outbreak, flora was an important part of daily, offering a potential relief from suffering in a world full of suffering and a simple pleasure in a life of hardship; as such it has its rightful place in the narrative.