Unsung Historic Heroines
I am always so fascinated by the tangled web of history. But I have always wondered how much truth we really see in the ‘factual’ stories surrounding historical events. Does history always relay WHO played a poignant role in how significant events unfolded? No. There will always be unsung heroes who do not receive the credit due, and none more so than women. It’s a fundamental reason why I chose the genre that I write about; I love to imagine that, behind the men glorified for their part in shaping history, a powerful female influence helped put them there.
Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend a lecture given by sixteenth century historian, Suzannah Lipscomb. The angle of her talk was on how the powerless women of the sixteenth century, made use of their voices to exercise some level of power. It was fascinating to hear about women using the power of words to affect their destiny and that of others.
As a writer with an interest in the seventeenth century, this talk struck a chord with me. It made me reflect on my personal approach to developing the characters of the historical women I research and write about. They are all connected to men documented as being of significant influence in the outcome of major historical events.
My novel, ‘A Shadow Beyond’, features the shocking and moving true story of the 1665 outbreak of plague in the Peak District village of Eyam. The village is famed for successfully imposing a quarantine that prevented spread of the disease across more of Derbyshire. History places two men as
the righteous heroes who were the pinnacle to the success of this quarantine: William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley. Both were clergymen to the parish of Eyam; Mompesson was Eyam’s incumbent Reverend and, prior to the restoration of the Monarchy, Stanley had been in post. Putting their religious differences aside, the story of Eyam tells us how these two men stood together to successfully lead the decision to quarantine the village. Whilst they certainly deserve the heroics that history bestows upon them, I believe that it was the heroics of a woman that were fundamental to this historic milestone. Here’s why:
At the time, William Mompesson was not popular with many of the parishioners. In spite of the restoration, most still wanted to return to their puritan, pre-restoration pastor, Thomas Stanley. According to the facts that are so prominently relayed, it was the solidarity of these two men that ensured the quarantine was successful. However, at the same time, an equally and perhaps more influential force was at work: Mompesson’s wife, Catherine.
Everything I have read points to the virtues of Catherine. By all accounts, she tirelessly worked to nurse the sick and cared for the grieving. Whilst William was battling with the challenge of being an unpopular authority in the village, in the months leading up to the quarantine, Catherine showed great compassion and empathy to her neighbours.
Catherine Mompesson also made the ultimate sacrifice. Unlike her poorer neighbours, she had the means to flee far from Eyam, but she did not. I’m not saying that she willingly ‘chose’ not to leave; I imagine, as the subservient wife, she was simply obeying her husband’s orders when she stayed. Regardless, the way she conducted herself, and the fact that she not only stayed, but put herself at risk every day by visiting the sick and the dying, must have positively leveraged the respect given to the Mompessons. I believe Catherine’s empathy hugely influenced response to the quarantine, possibly more so than the Godly command delivered by Mompesson and Stanley.
Catherine features in ‘A Shadow Beyond’ much more than her husband does. This was deliberate on my part. I wanted to use my research to develop her character as the strong and positive influence that I believe she was in Eyam. The influential role that Catherine plays in the character development of Rachel, my main protagonist, is significant. From the very beginning, we see Rachel reflecting on Catherine’s qualities.
Of course, Catherine is not the only strong real life female with a prominent role in my novel. However, she is the woman who I wanted to talk about in this blog. You see, I think that empathy is a powerfully influential tool for. Back then, women who used empathy well would have naturally been of some influence to those they built empathetic relationships with. Whether they realised it or not, I believe that women like Catherine, who demonstrated empathy, were of great affect on communities – including the men. I like to think that the actions and outcomes of every well-documented historic hero were indeed influenced by the unsung heroics of a woman.
‘A Shadow Beyond’ is available to buy on Kindle for £1.99 or £8.99 for the paperback at Amazon and selected UK bookshops.