The Mothers of Eyam

*This post contains musings on motherhood that may be triggering for those who have lost children or have never been able to have the babies they longed for*

I’m a mother. Here I am with my two sons. In many ways, Three is an exploration of motherhood and the expression of maternal devotion in the face of desperation.

*Spoiler alert* only read on if you are familiar with the story of Eyam and/or have read Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague (unless you don’t mind spoilers!)

Most people familiar with the Eyam story know that the village’s ’Patient X’ was the unlucky journeyman tailor & assistant to Alexander Hadfield, George Viccars. He was also the lodger of Mary Cooper (Alexander’s wife), sharing the home where she nurtured the two sons from her first marriage. Mary’s sons, Edward and Jonathan, are some of the early victims of the plague outbreak.

The plague cottage where Mary Cooper lived with her husband, sons and the unfortunate, George Viccars

Imagining Mary’s grief was my first skirmish as a writer into the devastating sorrow the people of the village would face. Having walked the painful journey of child loss with close friends twice, I had some insight into how broken losing a child can leave you but I also wanted to acknowledge the beautiful mosaics those shattered women, my precious friends, have become. My friends had to reassemble themselves differently following their bereavements but their kindness and strength still shines in the tragic new configurations of these mothers and I wrote that into Mary’s story. She is back to caring for others through the fog of her own pain.

Grief is a powerful and debilitating force. For Emmott Syddall’s mother, Elizabeth Syddall, I imagined the overwhelming loss of so many of her offspring as a ’hollowing out’ that rendered her unable to speak, unable to look, unable to engage with a world that could take away so much of what was precious. She is like a spectre in a house full of memories and the pain of her loss separates her from the still living who desperately need a mother.

For Emmott herself, she must mourn the loss of motherhood as a seemingly-promised gift she is never able to receive. Her separation from Rowland during the Eyam epidemic, the young man from the next village she was destined to marry, has always been a fascinating but tragic pull for me as a writer. When I mourn Emmott, I mourn the future she didn’t get to have; the babies she didn’t get to birth. Woven into my narrative is the tragic realisation that helping a newly-widowed mother who has just given birth is the undoing of Emmott and her future. Her kindness leads her to her final loss.

Catherine Mompesson is also a mother. The Mompesson children, George and Elizabeth, were sent away to Yorkshire before the quarantine of the village began. In Catherine we meet the anxious fears of a mother desperate to keep her children safe. Many of us have felt that nagging worry during the years of the pandemic and now during this time of war and nuclear threat. We know Catherine’s dread. She knows she will risk being unpopular, she will compromise her integrity, she will do what other mothers in the village cannot and they will feel the injustice of it as fury. But still she must choose her children above all that. It is a choice that saves them but means she never gets to say goodbye to them when she pays the ultimate sacrifice for remaining in the stricken village.

Catherine’s tomb in the churchyard of St Lawrence’s, Eyam

Yet by far, the most harrowing experience of any mother I had to write as an author was the devastating loss suffered by Elizabeth Hancock. Imagining her pain whilst conjuring her strength was so challenging for me as a writer. I cried several times writing the final Elizabeth chapters. What she managed to do, nursing and burying her husband and all but one of her seven children (her oldest son Joseph was not in Eyam at the time of the plague visitation), took her to the limits of what mothering demands. For me, the Riley Graves are as much a lasting testament to the ravaged Hancock family as they are to Elizabeth’s limitless love as a mother.

The scene where she lays down on the earth and spreads her arms wide across the graves of her family before leaving the village for good will always bring a tear to my eyes as both writer and mother.

Elizabeth buried her family by herself
The Riley Graves mark the final resting place of Elizabeth’s family
Oner was the youngest of Elizabeth’s six children who perished during the Eyam plague epidemic

Many readers connect with the women of Eyam in different ways but their experiences of mothering are often central to what readers tell me they find most moving about my historical fiction novel and the brave women at its centre.

I wish you a gentle Mother’s Day, whatever your circumstances, and hope both past memories and today’s celebrations meet you kindly.

Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague is available via Amazon in Kindle, paperback and hardback versions. Also available to purchase in Eyam itself from Eyam Tea Rooms and the Eyam Museum Shop, plus in my local bookshops in Warwickshire- Kenilworth Books and Hunts Bookshop in Rugby.

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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