How the Great Plague might change your writing

For a writer, no experience is worthless, however bad. No more immune from tragedy than the rest of us, writers can at least share that experience with readers, hoping that by doing so they may dull their pain, or that of others. Shakespeare lost his only son and in her enthralling novel Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell suggests it inspired him to write his greatest play, Hamlet.

Not long before Covid hit, I was reading another historical novel set during London’s Great Plague outbreak in 1665. Growing up in the UK I had learnt in primary school of the bare facts, the date, the Great Fire which followed in 1666, but it had no particular emotional significance for me. And reading that novel in the heady days of 2019, the worst outbreak of bubonic plague since 1348 was no more than an interesting backdrop to a murder mystery. I shuddered at gruesome and heart rending facts, thrown in as historical colour- the mass burials, the nailing up of doors of infected houses, condemning the healthy to die with the sick. But it had happened so long ago in another world. Nothing lingers in British folk lore other than (perhaps) a grim glimmer of memory filtering down the centuries through the prism of the nursery rhyme “Ring a ring of roses”.

And now, in the stark light of this 2021 day? I picked up my first novel The Welsh Linnet recently and reread the sections on “camp fever” (probably typhus) in 1643 Oxford.

“Stanley’s small and gloomy room stank of sickness… I would not have recognised Matthew … His eyes were immense in his face with the fever. There were tell- tale purple spots on his chest and arms. He felt very hot to the touch... As it began to grow dark, … the sick man spoke his first coherent words. “Nicholas, don’t die. Hold on, I’m here.” 

The Welsh Linnet by AJ Lyndon

The deadly sickness brought by armies to Oxford during the civil war was a convenient tool I used for development of the characters’ personal relationships, but if I were writing the book now, I believe those nursing the sick would be more fearful; and would spend time brooding on the random nature of the pestilence and praying for its end.

Perhaps it is natural that the reality of outbreaks of dangerous contagion, common throughout the world until discovery of vaccines, should have been forgotten by most people, even those born before the last polio epidemic in the 1950s.

Somehow I doubt that when this war against the 21st century plague is over, those of us who lived through it and survived will spend time reminiscing about the “good old days” of Covid. But for those of us who write fiction, whether we choose to omit any reference to these events from our fictional worlds or include them as a backdrop to thriller or romance, I do not think our stories will mirror those we might have penned in that parallel universe where Covid-19 did not exist.

It’s not only memories of diseases which disappear from collective memory. I have often wondered why the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, the usual subject of this blog, have been forgotten more completely than Plague or Fire, almost as if airbrushed from history. They killed a greater percentage of the British population than the First World War.

Was it fear that dredging up any talk of the recent conflict might reignite the smouldering embers of discontent and revolution? Might bring back the days of daily fears – that today would be the day that brought death or starvation to their town or village in the shape of marching troops from either side. Or was it relief that with the Restoration of Charles II it was all over and best forgotten? An “enemy” had been defeated, but it was an enemy within and a brief flirtation with republicanism – the short-lived English Revolution which preceded those in America and France by a hundred years, had failed.

A literary critic, writing during the Franco era, dismissed George Orwell’s passionate account of the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia with the comment that “the Spanish are a fine people” and it did not do to dwell on the past. That patronising comment made me cringe. Yet I think I am a little more able to understand than I was 18 months ago, why those in England, Wales and Scotland who lived through the horrors of brother killing brother and friend friend, wanted only to resume whatever remained for them of “normal” life. Why they kept their memories to themselves and did not pass them down the generations.

Bringing the dead to life

“He deserves to lie near his home, and not among strangers.”

“Nay, Sir. Let him lie. It will not bring him back; and making a great pother in the midst of war about one young lad is foolishness, when there are thousands like him who lie in mass graves.”

Writers are often asked why we write, or why we choose a particular subject. For me, the two are inextricably intertwined. Writing about 1640s England and Wales, I long to create a modest memorial to those who fought in a largely forgotten civil war which nevertheless shaped the freedoms that today we take for granted.

Those who died in the war were lucky if their place of burial was marked, or even known. The fortunate ended up in hallowed ground, a churchyard. Churches and cathedrals are sprinkled with memorials to gentlemen who died in the conflict. Inevitably it is easier to write about them because their names and families are known. One such memorial to a civil war officer in Cornwall and his sister inspired Daphne Du Maurier to write a romance, The King’s General, about the famous Cornish general Sir Richard Grenville and this real, but unknown gentlewoman, Honor Harris.

For me, a research trip in 2016 to the Cotswolds turned into something of a pilgrimage thanks to those memorials, one in particular. He was a captain in King Charles’s forces and he died in the last battle of the civil war. His father had him buried under the floor of the nave in the church a stone’s throw from where the fighting ended. It is an unusual grave because the metal plaque covering it had a full length carving of the young man. He is dressed in his uniform. His curly hair falls to his shoulders and his face retains a boyish roundness. Beside him is a musket, indicating he was an infantry officer.

I spent a long time standing beside his grave and when I got home to Australia, I Googled him and found his will online. In the 17th century it was unusual for men to make a will until they thought they did not have long to live. Most wills were written by fairly elderly men, not by a man of 21 who was unmarried and still living in his parents’ home. And then I realised he had done so because, in joining the army he thought, correctly, he might not have long to live. The date of the will may tell us when he received his commission.

As a gentleman’s son, he had money he had inherited from his grandfather, which was “still in the hands of my father”. I already knew the name of his father. From the will I discovered the names of his mother and numerous siblings.

The young musketeer became an important character in my second novel The Tawny Sash, and I have grown very fond of him, marrying off his sister Jane to one of my major characters, Harry. Here he interrupts Jane and Harry immediately after Jane has fallen from her horse and Harry has proposed to her.

He had clearly run all the way from the stables. He wore a torn leather tunic over shirt and breeches. From the smears on them he had been helping the grooms muck out the horses.

“Jane, have you been riding Beauty without my leave? She came back trailing a broken rein. What happened? Why are you laughing, Harry? It is no jest.”

His frown of annoyance was replaced by puzzlement as Jane, between gasps of pain, joined Harry in hysterical laughter.

It is August 1644, and he is about to join the army.

The new commission nearly came to grief as it was being passed from hand to hand and hot tallow dripped onto the parchment… The festivities in the great hall only ended when Jane belatedly remembered the sleeping puppies, now removed from her father’s closet to a corner of the disused minstrels’ gallery above them. The candles, in any case, were almost burned out.

The new officer has just over 18 months to live. He will be killed in action at the age of 23.

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