Lisa Manterfield and I have been following each other around the internet for a long time now. She’s a novelist with an appealing “voice”, an eye (or perhaps an ear?) for an intriguing concept, and the story-telling chops to pull them off. (The magic is in the storytelling, not the idea.) Her newest novel, The Smallest Thing, is not a historical novel, but is inspired by a historical incident. Lisa is with us today to share that story with you.
Take it away, Lisa:
Most of my school field trips have faded from my memory, save for a few outstanding moments. I remember a visit to a local farm, because a girl in my class was bitten by a Shetland pony, and a daytrip to the coast, because all my teachers went into the North Sea without taking off their nylons. One trip I do recall vividly was a visit to the Plague Village of Eyam, not because anything unusual or catastrophic happened that day, but because of what happened in the village and to its courageous inhabitants more than 350 years ago.
In 1665, bubonic plague was tearing through London, on its way to claiming the lives of more than 100,000 of that city’s residents. But 150 miles away in the tiny village of Eyam, the catastrophe was nothing more than the occasional snippet of news brought in by traveling merchants. All that changed when the local tailor received a bolt of flea-infested cloth from the capital and inadvertently brought the plague to Eyam. Within a week, the tailor’s assistant, George Viccars, became the village’s first plague victim.
The disease spread, well, like the plague, and soon took the life of the young son of George’s landlady, before hopping the wall and infecting the neighboring family. As more villagers became ill, the local rector—the allegedly unpopular Reverend Mompesson—recruited the help of the more amicable former rector to implement a plan. He proposed that, in order to prevent the spread of the disease to neighboring farms and villages, and perhaps to the thriving market town of Sheffield, the village of Eyam should put itself under voluntary quarantine. Despite the increased risk to their own lives, every villager ultimately agreed.
The rector set up an ingenious trade system of leaving money at the boundary in a vinegar-filled trough that became known as Mompesson’s Well, to be exchanged for provisions from the outside. To slow the spread of the disease within the village, church services were moved to an outdoor site at nearby Cucklett Delf, burials in the churchyard were halted, and a rule was imposed that each family must bury its own dead.
The plague ravaged the village for fourteen months, claiming the lives of 260 of the estimated 350 residents, including Mompesson’s wife, Catherine. The disease wiped out entire families, but also randomly skipped over others. Elizabeth Hancock of Riley Farm buried her husband and six children within the space of eight days, but never contracted the disease herself. Marshall Howe took on the role of gravedigger (reportedly in exchange for a share of the dead’s possessions), but despite handling countless bodies, he never succumbed to the illness. He did, however, take it home to his wife and children. They did not survive.
What has stuck with me all these years are the personal stories of loss and courage. Despite the almost certain death sentence, the villagers did not break the quarantine. One young woman, Emmott Syddall, maintained a long-distance courtship with her fiancé, Rowland Torre, who lived outside the village. Their secret rendezvous across the safety of Cucklett Delf is commemorated in a stained glass window in Eyam church. It’s said that Rowland was one of the first people brave enough to enter the village after the quarantine was lifted. Only then did he learn that Emmott had not survived.
I have thought about these stories often over the years, and wondered, had I been in that situation, would I have been so courageous and unselfish? More recent research suggests that some wealthier citizens were able to leave, and some reports claim that Mompesson sent his own children to safety in Sheffield. Would I have stayed for the benefit of others or would I have done whatever it took to save my own life? I imagined the scenario long enough that it finally became the basis for a novel. And when the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa brought deadly viruses back into the news, I reimagined the story of Eyam in the present day. The result is The Smallest Thing, a contemporary retelling of the story of Emmott Syddall and the plague village of Eyam.
Today, much of the village of Eyam remains as it was in 1665. The Plague Cottages, where the story began, are still inhabited. You can find the stained glass window depicting the story in the beautiful Eyam church and Catherine Mompesson’s grave in the churchyard. It’s a short drive to see Mompesson’s Well and the Riley Graves, and a fifteen-minute walk will take you to Cucklett Delf to see the natural church. A commemoration service is held there on the last Sunday in August, a reminder of the sacrifices made by the villagers, and the untold lives they saved.
Lisa Manterfield is the award-winning author of A Strange Companion and I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to Motherhood. Her work has also appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Los Angeles Times, and Psychology Today. Originally from northern England, she now lives in Southern California with her husband and over-indulged cat.
You can find out more about Lisa and The Smallest Thing at her website: http://lisamanterfield.com/