We may think of mental health as being a modern phenomena but people have been finding ways to keep their emotional well-being healthy for most of history. Today is World Mental Health Day so I am going to take the opportunity to explore the ways in which our three protagonists fight off fear, anxiety and hopelessness during the plague epidemic in the village of Eyam in 1665-1666.
The things they turn to are not so very different to our own strategies in modern life: nature, purpose (through work and tasks), creativity, helping others, friendship and laughter, prayer and contemplation.
For Emmott, nature is ultimately soothing and restorative. She is frequently found walking in The Delph or through the dale, appreciating the beauty of the wild flowers. The idea of nature providing a remedy for us in troubled times is one that has recently resurfaced through books like The Wild Remedy by Emma Mitchell. In it, the author documents her ongoing battle with anxiety and depression and the medicinal properties to be found in nature from month to month.
“Emmott took the long way back after her rendezvous with Rowland, taking the opportunity to feel the early spring sunlight falling across her face in gentle rays as she walked slowly beneath the trees. She welcomed the chance to look at the first of the spring flowers, noting white clusters of snowdrops and the odd crocus bravely emerging into the fresh morning air. She likened herself to these courageous young shoots, newly emerging after the utterly burying experience of the winter of her days. It felt time for her to begin to face the sun again, to imagine a future for herself and what remained of her family.”
She tries to convey her love of nature to the gravedigger, Marshall Howe, though he does not appear to understand:
“I usually take my walks in the Delph. I’m a great lover of the space there and I like to pick the flowers. They bring some cheer to a home, don’t they?”
Later on in the novel we discover Howe has in fact listened to this important disclosure Emmott makes about how important and meaningful the natural world is to her.
Emmott finds a sense of satisfaction and mental wellness in knowing she has a purpose and a role to play in the village. Despite the sadness and loss she has faced, this sense of purpose and the ability to help others helps Emmott to get through the challenges of the plague visitation.
“The experience of helping Mary Rowe, though tainted with its tragic end, had shown Emmott that she had uses outside of the tasks she performed routinely in Bagshaw House. She had kept herself calm, overruled her fear and used what little knowledge she did have to comfort and support William and Mary at a time they needed it the most. She wanted to do more of that.”
Many often find writing is a useful tool for keeping their mental health in good shape, processing their thoughts and sharing life with others. Emmott uses letter-writing to maintain the connection with Rowland while they are apart and, though it is hard to capture her thoughts and feelings in words, she tried.
“…she was struggling to find the vocabulary for the things she felt and the things she want to say. How did you convey this feeling of invisible evil? How could Rowland understand that fear that threatened to strangle her? Frustrated by the inability to capture what she felt in words, she resorted to the things she did know how to say-that she missed him and she thought of him often and imagined near-hourly the next time he would be able to hod her in his arms like he did on the rare occasions they were alone.“
Many find writing a useful tool for mental health, such as keeping a journal or writing poetry. Likewise, time with an animal can be very soothing for many. Emmott is just starting to feel herself gaining strength and positivity again following the death of her family members:
“Though her thoughts at times had taken her to dark places during the winter months, these past weeks, buoyed by the downturn in deaths, Emmott had found that her thoughts about the future were gradually becoming brighter, finding their way between fear and doubt like resilient and determined rays of sunshine breaking through the tree canopy in the dense woods that surrounded the village.“
Emmott catches herself humming along with the trill of her pet linnets, harmonising with her beautiful pets as her mood gradually lifted from the depths of grief. Many find their pets have a very positive impact on their mental health.
Emmott finds a sense of joy and satisfaction in knowing she has helped people. The sense of purpose it brings her to see she has made life a little easier on someone lifts her own spirits.
“It made Emmott feel good to know she had taken a brave step in showing up at the Allen’s door.“
Often without a sense of purpose, belonging, necessity, people can feel their mental health decline. The validation of achievement can be a mental health tonic for many.
For others, a sense of spirituality or the presence of faith can be very important for mental health. Emmott’s faith is simple and genuine and she is frequently moved towards prayer by being in nature so often.
“On entering the lane, she glimpsed the roses in the cottage gardens and a prayer rose up out other, unbidden and swift in its ascent, a quiet and heartfelt prayer for the beloved father she had lost.”
Catherine finds solace in nature, similarly to Emmott. She enjoys regular walking in the woods and on the hills surrounding Eyam, feeling the benefits for her physical state (she is consumptive) as well as the local flora offering intellectual stimulation as she pursues her newfound love for apothecary. Her offer to help the ageing Humphrey Merrill with his remedies and tinctures is met with gratitude and surprise as he watches her fall to work.
“The old man marvelled at what women could do when given opportunity.”
Almost everyone will find a sense of belonging and purpose brings with it mental health benefits. When the apothecary no longer needs her help, Catherine notices how this loss impacts her.
“Catherine realised her sorrow at leaving behind the work she had done with Humphrey Merrill. The demand now would be less. He wouldn’t need her…People would always be ill in Eyam; the usual everyday complaints would require remedy. Perhaps there was a place for her still?“
During the course of the novel, Catherine finds a place and a purpose for herself, beyond just being the rector’s wife. We see her come alive and truly find herself in the work of her hands for the benefit of others.
Friendship and connection is key for mental wellbeing. Knowing there are other people you can do life with, laugh with and who will walk the hard things in life with you are so important. In the novel, Catherine builds an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth Frith, the outspoken wife of the churchwarden. They are incredibly different but Catherine feels a growing warmth for this other woman who is so unlike her.
“Catherine smiled at her improbable new friend. They were an unlikely mix, quite contrary in many ways and yet there was something so refreshing about the way Elizabeth was determined to interact with the world on her own terms.”
Having a friend during hard times is a really good way of keeping our mental health on track. Catherine does lots of laughing with Elizabeth. Likewise, it is laughter that brings Emmott’s mother out of the depths of her grief when she finds friendship, and later love, with John Daniel.
Elizabeth is a private person, liking the remoteness of her life at Riley Farmhouse and shunning the busyness and gossip of village life. With six children living there, she is rarely alone. Unlike the other two protagonists, she does not nurture a strong traditional faith but she is equal to them in her love of being outdoors and feeling a connection with nature and through this recognising a spiritual side to herself. This is particularly captured on Christmas night as she and John make their way home after an evening of joy with their neighbours, The Talbots:
“There had been stars that night as many as she had ever seen, as if God himself had set some more in the sky just for them alone to enjoy. This is how she encounters God; in the sky and the earth, on the wind and in the scent of the trees. This was her church; creation in all its glory.“
Many people find that mental well being and nurturing their spiritual growth go hand in hand. Nature is one of the best and most soothing places for us to do that.
When I am struggling mentally, I reach towards music- to song, melody and lyrics. That plague-ravaged Christmas in Eyam, the villagers find the singing of a Christmas carol a tonic for their ongoing mental anguish and suffering. Elizabeth hears their impromptu concert up at Riley and finds herself drawn into the collective joy it offers. Joining with others for moments of shared happiness even when in the midst of great pain can be very mentally soothing.
“She stood for a few moments in the quiet, enveloped by the December cold and the growing dark of night falling. Then suddenly there was a song on the breeze, being carried up th hill towards Riley. She recognised it as a carol, people singing in the village. ‘They have not quite lost all their cheer then’ she’d said to herself and as she re-entered the farmhouse she realised she was humming it without planning to.”
Elizabeth uses her creativity to ensure the Hancock’s Christmas will be a special one despite the fear of plague. She uses her skill of sewing to create her daughter, Elizabeth, a doll as a Christmas gift. The sense of satisfaction and contentment creating can bring us, as well as giving and sharing what we have used our talents to make, can be a useful strategy when life gets overwhelming. Kindness and generosity are just two strategies in a toolkit for keeping ourselves mentally well and Elizabeth recognises what this simple gesture will achieve for her and her family when they all need a little hope.
And so we see, these women all had strategies for getting themselves through a year most would describe as ‘a year from hell’. The experience of the arrival of plague did not make them strong. They were strong and the epidemic at Eyam gave them a chance to develop their resilience and to find ways to keep going when the ever-present threat of fatal infection consumed them.
We all have mental health. Days like World Mental Health Day function to make us stop and check in with ourselves, considering what we might need to do to maintain our wellness.
If you are struggling, first of all you should know that it is okay to not be okay. Then you should do the things that you know build up your mental reserves and reach out for those around you who can love and support you when life gets hard.
If you are overwhelmed, the following are charities that will help you: