I’m joined today by Sara Read who has a fascinating guest post relating to her novel The Gossips’ Choice. The book is set in the time of the Great Plague in 1665 and as the author says, she never imagined when she was writing the novel that we would be living through a pandemic when it was published!
Ordinary Life in the Shadow of the Plague
The Gossips’ Choice is set in 1665, which is the year of the Great Plague, the last major plague outbreak in England. This outbreak is thought to have killed 100,000 Londoners or 1 in 5 of the city’s population. The official figure is around 68,000 because the figures were compiled by parish clerks and not all of them were candid about the scale of the outbreak in their locality, and also because non-conforming religious groups – such as Baptists and Quakers – were not permitted to submit figures. Others just fell through the system.
The fictional town in which my novel is set is called Tupingham. Tupingham has so far escaped the plague, but that doesn’t stop residents worrying about it. They monitor death tolls as the lists are released, and consider locking their town gates to travellers in the evenings. The protagonist, midwife Lucie Smith, is understandably relieved that her son Simon has fled the city to spend the summer in his home town. He brings with him a new book of advice and remedies for the plague that was printed on Charles II’s orders by the College of Physicians.
When I was writing the novel in the summer of 2018, I never thought we would be living through a pandemic with so many parallels such as we are seeing in spring 2020 with the outbreak of Covid-19. Thankfully this new disease has a much, much lower death rate than our ancestors would have known from their plagues. In 1665 there was no social media, so news reached the provinces with a time-lag of days or weeks and was more limited in quantity. The Smiths relied on information received in letters sent to Simon by contacts that had chosen to remain in the capital. Similarities between the way the authorities handled the plague and measures in place now include requiring those with symptoms to isolate themselves and their families, and requirements to keep the area clean and free of rubbish stood in place of our instructions to wash our hands frequently.
One similarity between then and now which Lucie Smith and I share is a knot of anxiety in the tummy which seems to be a perpetual part of life now too. While I am pleased in the main with how I conveyed what it might have been like to live with the threat of this highly contagious disease back in the seventeenth century, it will be interesting to reflect on how my construction of Lucie’s character might have been different with the hindsight of having lived through a pandemic myself.
Thanks to Kelly at LoveBooksTours for inviting me to take part in the blogtour. The Gossips’ Choice is published by Wild Pressed Books and is will be published on 6th May in paperback format. You can pre-order your copy here: The Gossips’ Choice
From the back of the book
“Call The Midwife for the 17th Century”
Lucie Smith is a respected midwife who is married to Jacob, the town apothecary. They live happily together at the shop with the sign of the Three Doves. But sixteen-sixty-five proves a troublesome year for the couple. Lucie is called to a birth at the local Manor House and Jacob objects to her involvement with their former opponents in the English Civil Wars. Their only-surviving son Simon flees plague-ridden London for his country hometown, only to argue with his father. Lucie also has to manage her husband’s fury at the news of their loyal housemaid’s unplanned pregnancy and its repercussions.
The year draws to a close with the first-ever accusation of malpractice against Lucie, which could see her lose her midwifery licence, or even face ex-communication.
About the author
Dr Sara Read is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. Her research is in the cultural representations of women, bodies and health in the early modern era.
She has published widely in this area with her first book Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England being published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013.
She is a member of the organising committee of the Women’s Studies Group, 1558-1837 and recently co-edited a special collection produced to celebrate the group’s 30th anniversary.
She is also the co-editor of the popular Early Modern Medicine blog. With founding editor Dr Jennifer Evans, Sara wrote a book about health and disease in this era Maladies and Medicine: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540-1740 (Pen and Sword 2017).
Sara regularly writes for history magazines such as Discover Your Ancestors and History Today. In 2017 she published an article ‘My Ancestor was a Midwife’ tracing the history of the midwifery profession for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine in 2017. She has appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Freethinking programme and is often to be heard on BBC Radio Leicester and BBC Radio WM.