Putting Flesh on the Bones: Crafting Narrative from Fact in Historical Fiction
For many readers of my historical fiction novel, Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague, as soon as they reach the final page and close the book they have one question: how much of this really happened? It’s a good question, especially if you have become emotionally attached to the characters. Emmott Syddall, Catherine Mompesson and Elizabeth Hancock will do that to you. As you journey through the harrowing plague year with these three brave women, reading through the lens of a modern pandemic makes it all too easy to find yourself in their choices and challenges. As one reviewer puts it, “It is as if these three women, who really did exist and have now been reimagined for the Covid-19 generation, have been craving someone, another woman, to put their lives properly to bed…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.”
Three tells their story, through the everyday experiences of living during the plague outbreak to each woman’s known outcome. These three women are different ages and from different familial situations; Emmott is in her early twenties and betrothed to Rowland Torre from the next village; Catherine is in her late twenties and the wife of the village rector, and Elizabeth is the mother of seven children, six of whom live with her and her husband at Riley Farm on the outskirts of Eyam. Through the novel we witness the way they cope with the trials of an ever-present threat, how they respond when plague comes calling and the costly decisions they must make along the way. The domesticity of it is something readers find compelling because it connects so closely with their own experiences, especially during the current pandemic. One reader commented “I loved that it is from the women’s perspectives; it gives it warmth and grounding and is alive with brilliantly evocative scenes of domesticity impeccably researched.” Knowing the historical-geographical-social situation of your characters is so important if you want them to appear plausible and yet still accessible for modern readers. When you get that right you allow your readers to “hope and dare to dream with Emmott, rage and cry with Elizabeth and identify and sympathise with Catherine”, as one reader nicely summarised.
I wanted to know these real women, to meet them warmly between the pages of a book. To do that, I not only needed to find out all about the time and place in which they lived but also to craft authentic characters who could live, breathe, speak, feel, cry. The novel explores the obvious themes of death, loss and grief that you would expect from a plague novel, but there is also the question of how faith presents and survives in a time of great distress and suffering, alongside the need to search for the human in the face of another, even when faced with their inadequacies and short-comings.
I had some pre-existing knowledge about Eyam and what had taken place there in the mid-seventeenth century from teaching it to my Year 2 classes in history (up until December 2018, I was a primary school teacher and assistant head teacher) and a vague recollection of learning about it myself as a child during my own schooling. The vinegar in the holes of the boundary stone where money was left and goods were brought remains a vivid image from a historic dramatisation on an old school TV on wheels; a very early childhood memory. I first visited the village itself with my family about twelve years ago, to do a bit of fact-finding for teaching my history topic. We pushed our young son around the village streets in his buggy, reading the iconic green signs outside each afflicted house and I was pulled in. It immediately captivated me, especially the love story of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre (a young man from the next village) whose romance played out against that unsettling backdrop of plague. Emmott was my initial inspiration for wanting to write a novel about what took place in the village of Eyam over three hundred years ago. Her story was so moving. When I discovered the stories of Catherine and Elizabeth, I decided I wanted to make room in this potential writing project for them too. The challenge then was how best to tell it.
In order to write a story affiliated with historical truth but containing a strong human thread that readers could identify with today, I made good use of the pandemic as a lens through which I could view their story. The pandemic has not offered us many gifts, but for me the gift of time to begin writing was certainly one of them. I finished eighteen months of research in February 2020 and then the arrival of the pandemic and my near-immediate furlough from my job at Coventry Cathedral in April 2020 offered a serendipitous moment wherein I could begin writing about the Eyam epidemic through the lens of an ongoing pandemic. The perspective and insight this gave turned this book into something it may otherwise not have been. I found I could use my own life experiences and contemporary challenges to bring the plight of characters from the past to life convincingly. As another reviewer said, “they are women who hold together a community in need” and I think we can all feel an affinity with that idea; they just kept doing what they knew how to do, as we all did during those initial months of the pandemic.
Making real people from history come to life is challenging and you are restrained by the historical outcomes for those individuals (if you plan to stick to history, which I did, much to the dismay of some readers who wished history had been different, something I could certainly empathise with!). In giving my three protagonists a chance to live again, I drew upon my observations of people I knew and of strangers, paying attention to mannerisms, the way clothing was worn, movement and speech, and how these can unconsciously communicate something about a character. I stick with the original names throughout, which can get a little confusing at times. Somebody needed to explain to the people of the seventeenth century that not everybody needed to be called John, Catherine or Elizabeth! But telling the known parts of the story with accuracy was an important yardstick for me, so I did not deviate in the use of names and I trust my readers have the tenacity to navigate that.
For each lead woman, I had a clear idea of how they looked, how they moved, their little gestures and their typical way of speaking. An online writing fiction course with Future Learn had taught me some writing techniques to include when writing characters, such as having them interact with something that is inanimate but has emotional significance, or starting a scene with some meaningful dialogue and then having them display their emotions through actions.
The structuring of the novel takes some commitment from the reader, especially in the early chapters, to consciously follow the individual perspectives of the three protagonists whilst establishing a narrative that belongs to the whole village. A reviewer on Amazon says “Structurally, its inspired. Jenkins takes three interconnected women based on real people and alternates the narrative between them. Layer upon layer, it builds the family relationships and dynamics of the village. Some of them are petty day-to-day concerns; others are profound.” In this sense, those minor characters make major contributions to how the predicament of the entire village is understood by the reader and the diverse scenarios that me be traversed by every household during that wretched time. Some of my minor characters- of which very little is known or found within the historical record- are heavily based on real people I know.
Three is a moving work of historical fiction. There are moments of laughter and human tenderness alongside the most tragic times of grief. It is the novel I wanted to write. The women I wanted to allow to live, speak and breath are contained within its pages. They await a reader ready to discover their story.
(c) Jennifer Jenkins
About Three: A Tale of Brave Women and the Eyam Plague
In 1665 a box from London brought more than cloth from plague-ridden London to the quiet village of Eyam in Derbyshire. For the next year the villagers had to learn to live with a silent enemy. ‘Three’ tells the story of three very different women in their courageous attempts to keep themselves and their loved ones alive as Eyam closed its doors to the outside world, instead facing the malevolent danger alone. Emmott Syddall, Catherine Mompesson and Elizabeth Hancock were each determined to live and the courage each of them found was as unique as the women themselves. Will 1666 bring salvation?
This work of historical fiction, written during a pandemic whilst reflecting on another, fuses creative imagining with historical fact to bring three female protagonists to life…
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