Imagine you live in an idyllic English village. Suddenly your friends and neighbors begin falling ill and dying of a deadly infectious disease. In order to stop the spread of this virus to the surrounding villages and beyond, you and your neighbors make a monumental decision. You quarantine your village; no one comes in, no one goes out. For months you isolate yourselves, relying on the kindness of surrounding neighbors to provide food and supplies. You wait and watch, while the disease rips through families, sparing some lives and taking others. When it’s all over, 260 people—more than two thirds of the village—are dead, but the contagion has been stopped, potentially saving the lives of thousands of people—and your village will be remembered for centuries to come for its courage and self-sacrifice.
Sounds like a great premise for a novel, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s a true story. This is the story of the plague village of Eyam, a small village in the north of England, not far from where I grew up.
In the mid-1600s The Great Plague ravaged London, killing more than 100,000 people. Thanks to a stowaway flea in a bolt of cloth, the disease made its way to Eyam, some 150 miles to the north. Lead by the local vicar, Reverend Mompesson, the villagers made the horrific decision to isolate themselves and prevent the plague from spreading further.
I’ve always been fascinated by this part of history and the personal stories that have endured. There’s the story of Emmott Syddall, engaged to a boy in the next village. The two lovers continued their affair across the quarantine boundary from opposing riverbanks. Their story is commemorated in a stained glass window in the church. There’s the story of villagers leaving money in a pot of vinegar (to disinfect it) in exchange for supplies from surrounding villages. And there are the tragic stories, such as Elizabeth Hancock, who buried her husband and six children, and yet never became infected.
I first heard these stories as young girl visiting Eyam and they’ve stuck with me ever since. They’re an important part of my local history and I’ve always wanted to find a way to share them with a wider audience. I didn’t want to write historical fiction (plus Geraldine Brooks already did it, and undoubtedly better than I could have, in her 2002 novel Year of Wonders), and writing a contemporary version of the story was fraught with roadblocks, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and technology.
But I really wanted to tell this story, so I started writing. I started with the characters of Emmott Syddall and Roland Torre, and wrote some scenes with them. And I kept writing, until a new story started to emerge.
The story evolved, as stories do, in ways I could never have imagined, until it became my novel THE SMALLEST THING.
You’ll have to read the book for a more intimate tour of Em’s village, but for now, I’ll leave you with a few more snaps of Eyam, taken from one of my research trips.
You can still see the Plague Cottages, where George Viccars, the first victim lived. The cottages are still inhabited. You can also see the church and churchyard where some of the victims were buried.
One of my favorite spots is Cucklett Delf, where Emmott and Roland allegedly met, where outdoor services were held during the quarantine, and where a memorial service is held each year to commemorate the incredible sacrifice.
You can learn more about Eyam at their excellent museum.