The Elizabeths of Our Own Times: Saying Goodbye in a Pandemic

*Contains spoilers. Only read on if you have read Three: A Tale of Brave Women & the Eyam Plague or you don’t mind finding out the plight of characters in advance.

For those of you have read Three: A Tale of Brave Women & the Eyam Plague by Jennifer Jenkins, the story of Elizabeth Hancock will be a familiar yet harrowing tale. Many of my readers send me heart-broken messages about Emmott Syddall (“Oh no, Emmott’s sick, I’m scared to read on” and “We don’t talk about chapter 30 in this house” are the most memorable to date) but for some, it is the absolute devastation of Elizabeth’s story that really connects with them at a deeply human level.

At the time of the plague outbreak in 1665-1666, Elizabeth Hancock lived at Riley farmhouse, on the outskirts of Eyam, with her husband John and six of her seven children. She and her household managed to keep themselves safe from the pestilence until August 1666, in the second year of the outbreak, when two of her children sickened, quickly followed by her husband and then the remaining children. Elizabeth was left quite alone, with her only living child living outside the village of Eyam at Sheffield, where he was serving as an apprentice. She made the decision to break the quarantine enforced by the two village rectors and leave the village to go to her son Joseph, but only after burying her husband and her six children herself.

This well-known image of Elizabeth Hancock is the lasting legacy of the Brave Men of Eyam book form the Victorian era. Elizabeth is depicted bringing out one of her children for burial.

The oral history of the village describes the people of Stoney Middleton, inhabitants of the next village, watching Elizabeth come out time and again across the dale to bury her dead, with each passing day adding to the mounds of earth outside the farmhouse. One can only imagine what that was like for Elizabeth, how alone she must have felt being so isolated from the rest of the village and facing the weight of the dead alone, both physically and emotionally. When I wrote Elizabeth’s final chapters of Three it was not with dry eyes.

I wrote letters recently to the households where I am hoping to set some of the action for my next book

I recently started turning my thoughts to the settings for my next book and sent letters to prospective properties in a bid to find some more information about places where I hoped to set some action. Through this I was invited into a house and there I met a very lovely women who, as well as some very interesting details about the history of her house, told me the heart-breaking story of how she had lost her husband to Covid, the restrictions at the hospital that meant not everyone could say goodbye and the rapidity with which the events unfolded, with an ambulance called on Tuesday resulting in an untimely death by Friday. I could hardly hold back my emotions as she narrated her story and in that moment I thought of Elizabeth. How did she relate the trauma of what had happened to her to her only living child once she arrived in Sheffield? How surprised he would have been to see her and how quickly the pleasantness of being reunited with his mother would have turned into the pain of unprecedented loss as she recounted all that had befallen the hapless Hancocks. Did she let it all tumble out amid a torrent of tears the minute he opened his door to her? Was she too overcome with the horror of it all that she stayed silent, perhaps for days? Did he watch her, concern in his eyes, eager to know what had happened to his family but his enquiry silenced by her pain?

A woman mourns lost loved ones at the National Covid Memorial Wall in London

This day looked set to bring her more pain than she could possibly bear.

Elizabeth Chapter 42, Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague by Jennifer Jenkins

As I listened to this lovely, welcoming woman tell me her story of loss, struck by the gentleness and acceptance with which she was able to do it, I thought of Elizabeth and wondered how many times this story has played out in history, again and again, right up to our own times and the current pandemic. How many times have brave women had to say goodbye to their husbands, partners, children, babies and then carry on as the world just stubbornly keeps on spinning? We see it in the news reports from Ukraine, we hear it recounted by teary-eyed women talking about the non-existent goodbyes they had with their loved ones drifting away in isolated hospital beds, we know the stories of countless women who exited the world wars without lovers, husbands and sons. Elizabeth’s story is representative of that experienced by so many over the centuries, ad infinitum. Yes, she had to bury her husband and children herself, where many today have offered their good-byes through iPad screens, sending tear-soaked words down phone lines or simply whispering to an image of the memory they hold of them ‘as they were’, but the plot line is the same, again and again.

Was there a feeling lonelier than that felt in the moment when you see your reflection in your dead husband’s eyes?

Elizabeth Chapter 42, Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague by Jennifer Jenkins

Its why when our politicians offer us less than their best, we balk at it. Every heart on the Covid Memorial Wall is a painful story of unwanted and heart-rending goodbyes. That cannot be overlooked. I didn’t allow Elizabeth’s goodbyes to drift into oblivion. Our stories of grief should be remembered. Sometimes they bring us together with a beautifully honest person, unexpectedly on a quiet street where you were just expecting a house but what you encountered was a legacy.

The legacy of the departed is captured in stone: The National Covid Memorial Wall (L) and the Riley Graves of the Hancock Family (R)

He wished he could build great tombs for them, as the rector had done, down in the village for his wife. So that they would never be forgotten, so what she did would never be overlooked or erased from memory.

Joseph’s Chapter (51), Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague by Jennifer Jenkins

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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