*Sigh.* Folks. Before we get into this, the customary preamble. These things may seem unrelated at first, but hopefully they’ll make sense shortly enough.
There’s a tossed-off line in Stella Gibbons’ excellent Cold Comfort Farm (the movie is also a scream if you haven’t seen it) where one of the characters, an irritating self-satisfied clod of a fellow, is working on a thesis which holds that all of the Brontes’ novels were actually written by their brother Branwell.
The little-known film Titanic came out the winter after I started college, and I saw it somewhere between 15 and 20 times in theaters. Yes, I was slightly obsessed, but the bulk of my enjoyment came from the history surrounding the actual event (I am old enough to remember when Robert Ballard discovered the wreck site in 1986 and got obsessed with it then). I loved the historicity of the costumes and set design and the actors playing actual people and finding out more about those to died and those who survived (I also discovered Ioan Gruffudd in that film, let’s not kid ourselves). The whole Jack and Rose frame story was pretty tiresome and flimsy.
And so, we come to Year of Wonders. Why, you might ask, am I reading a novel about the Great Plague of London now of all times? Well, one, why not, and two, I’ve been fascinated with the bubonic plague for ages. As more of a medievalist, I’ve read and know a bit more about the Black Death of the 14th century than the second instance of the 17th, but I’ve done my fair share of Restoration era reading, even if it has been more focused on that time period’s criminal activities (do yourself a favor some time if you’re bored and track down some broadsheets about highwaymen and famous criminal confessions. Reality entertainment has been with us forever).
Year of Wonders is based on events that really did happen in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1665 and 1666. Eyam is some 160 miles north of London, but the plague arrived there — perhaps in infected fleas living in a bolt of cloth sent to the local tailor. But the plague did not escape the bounds of the village — the residents maintained a self quarantine for over a year, losing some half to two-thirds of their population (numbers vary) to the disease before it finally burned out in the summer of 1666. The quarantine and other protective measures were apparently devised and maintained by the village’s two ministers, William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley, as well as the obvious faith and forbearance of the residents themselves. It was not such a huge sacrifice as it would be today not to leave one’s home village, since many people in the 17th century rarely went further from home than the nearest market town, and there was more than enough work to keep people close to home — Eyam was a mining town and most families also maintained small farms and herds of livestock. Boredom was not a common visitor to your average person in those days unless they were of the landed class. But even so, to sequester themselves away from help as the disease tore through their families and neighbors at random would have been a sore trial for any people in any age.
There is good history to be had in this book if you know where to look. The lines of the religious schisms left over from the Civil War and Protectorate are there, and what the Church of England might have looked like in a small northern village after the Restoration. 17th century lead mining techniques are fairly well described, as far as I can tell, which is fitting for a story set in a town founded on the trade. The trade of folk healers and cunning women is described in detail, most of which is quite well done (until it isn’t — more on that in a bit). The garments are accurately described, the surrounding countryside is beautifully evoked, and the telltale signs of the disease itself are all set down. Even the fits of hysteria — religious, despairing, murderous — that would occasionally break free in a small town beset with a disease like this in such times within the course of a year are all perfectly recounted.
So why didn’t I like this book?
One big reason is that I’m not 18 anymore, and I can’t as easily overlook a really thin frame story in the service of interesting history. The other big reason is that sometimes, historically, you just know that certain people did things, and no amount of people theorizing otherwise can change that.
The narrator of Year of Wonders is Anna Frith, and oh boy, Anna is just a marvel. She is who we all would be if we got hold of time travel. Despite the fact that she is born into the sort of family that any reasonable storybook heroine would call a stretch (a drunken abusive father and an evil stepmother!), she escapes into a reasonably happy marriage and creates a life for herself, with two children and a job working at the rectory for Michael and Elinor Mompellion. But hark, she is exceeding clever, having taught herself letters from gravestones, and soon Elinor has taught her to read. And then, over the course of the narrative, she also becomes a midwife, a miner, a cunning woman, and a doctor. One Derbyshire woman, married at 14, who had never traveled more than five miles from home, manages all this in the scope of a year. Granted, it was an eventful year, but it strains credulity slightly for the 17th century, ardent, unrepentant, irritating feminist though I am. Women could definitely do some of those things in those days — usually if they had the immense head starts of wealth, privilege, adequate nutrition, and access to the right materials.
Not to mention for other characters, we have Elinor Mompellion, beautiful rector’s wife and angel incarnate; Anys Gowdie, local village healer and woman who on more than one occasion utters the phrase “so mote it be” in all seriousness despite no sign of being a Freemason or time traveling neopagan; and Aphra Bont, aforementioned wicked stepmother. There are also some men, the main one of whom is Michael Mompellion, the village rector who is young and handsome and doubts his faith in all the rightest and smolderiest of ways.
From the Goodreads introduction blurb (so no spoilers, really): “As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love.” Can you guess what will happen? WELL? CAN YOU?? Readers, I sure the hell did. Let’s just say that the frame story is weak sauce, takes a sharp right turn into some real, real bad Harlequin territory, and then tries to have its feminist cake and eat it too with an ending that made me roll my eyes to the heavens. And while they were there, I asked poor maligned William Mompesson and his wife Catherine for their forgiveness in reading this woofery.
My biggest problem with this book — and I hope this doesn’t come off wrong, because I am very honestly a feminist, and I believe that history needs more feminist voices, because women obviously did have a bigger hand in the things that happened through time than what men wrote down. We have always been a driving force, even if we weren’t always the loudest voices or the hands who held the pens or the asses that sat on the thrones. Often we have been the whispers in the ears, the counsel sought in the dark, the silences that sometimes spoke louder than words (I’ve been a student of the great courtesans of history forever — they’re fascinating women).
My biggest problem with this book is that its main thesis is not dissimilar to Mr. Meyerburg’s attempt in Cold Comfort Farm to claim Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for Branwell Bronte. What happened in Eyam in 1665 and 1666 was really rather extraordinary for the time. It took an inordinate amount of faith — in God and each other — to maintain that act of self exile for 14 months, but the residents did it. And who really knows why? For the good of their neighbors, for the glory that awaited them in Heaven, for some other reason? All we know is that Yersinia pestis was not discovered until 1894, during the third great epidemic of plague. There was some little understanding of germ theory by the time of 1665 (plague seeds were discussed as early as the 1550s), but microorganisms, bacteria, and the science of epidemiology were far in the future. Whatever scientific knowledge combined with religious zeal caused the residents of Eyam to quarantine themselves at great personal cost came from William Mompesson and Thomas Stanley, the two clerics and likely two of the only reasonably educated men in the town — certainly two of the only ones who stayed once the plague became apparent. But the story tries every which way to put the success of the village down as much as possible to the women — to supernaturally skilled Anna, to Elinor who seems at least as well educated as her husband, and to Anys, who honestly seems to have stepped out of a similar device to that used by Claire Randall. Poor Michael does his best, but without these women, the village would have descended into madness long ago.
If this were a modern novel, I honestly wouldn’t care and it wouldn’t seem so out of place. But when you put what is very clearly a modern feminist voice over a period tale, it rings false. It sounds like the author has an axe to grind, whether it serves the larger narrative or no. What happened in the village of Eyam is worthy of telling to the greater world, but I don’t think it needed this device as the on-ramp. Also, I think Wicca is great, and I have nothing against neopaganism, but English cunning women and folk healers were by and large not pagans and they certainly would not have viewed themselves as such. Anys would have been just fine without putting a bunch of Thelema in her mouth.
In short, if you already know enough about the time period and subject matter that you’re just interested in seeing what the book does right, go ahead. If not, I’d give this a miss.