All at once, the voices began: some in slurred murmurs, some crying out loudly upon the Lord, others weeping and beating their breasts. At that time, you see, we all of us believed that God listened to such prayers.
In the Spring of 1665, a stranger from London brought the Plague to the small Derbyshire village of Eyam. Led by their rector, the villagers made an astonishingly brave decision: to seal themselves off from the world, so they would not be responsible for spreading the infection any further. These events - retold for the most part through invented characters rather than the fictionalised shells of real people, huzzah - form the basis for Year of Wonders (2001), by Geraldine Brooks.
It is a gripping story in its own right, of course, and there is much to celebrate about the novel. Brooks makes understated but evocative use of descriptive language, which is slightly archaised without being unwieldy: one character remarks that London is "like a corpulent man trying to fit himself into the jerkin he wore as a boy"; the rector's wife Elinor is described as "all pale and pearly, her hair a fine, fair nimbus around skin so sheer that you could see the veins pulsing at her temples. Even her eyes were pale, a white-washed blue like a winter sky." Brooks also has an excellent feel for mid-seventeenth-century provincial life: for the contested but fiercely-held religiosity (the Puritans' day in the sun may have passed, but attendant tensions are clearly evident), and for the small-scale social interactions centred around home, field (or mine), and church, all bounded by the rhythms of the seasons and the work each entails:
I busied myself in preparation for a winter that was hard to conceive of on those heavy afternoons, when the bees buzzed into hives that brimmed with the heather-scented honey. There were apple ladders poking through the trees and tripods going up all around, waiting for a day cool enough for the hog-butchering.
The narrator, Anna Frith, is a young widow with two children. Her perspective and social status provide Brooks with a way to explore the position of women in village life without (generally) descending to hectoring (although some of the trends identified seemed to me a little out of step with recent scholarship on the period, like the simplistic lines drawn between women's and men's medicine). Free-spirited herbalist Anys Gowdie, while undoubtedly a somewhat idealised and stereotyped character, neatly sums up the more gloomy end of the scale for women's lives in this period: "Why would I marry?" she tells Anna, "I'm not made to be any man's chattel." A man's legal, social and moral authority over the women of his household is unassailable - should he choose to exercise it. There is a more graphic/extreme illustration of this when Anna's father threatens her with a scold's bridle, prompting her to recall how he inflicted the same punishment upon her mother:
I saw my mother's face framed in the iron bars, the desperate look in her wild eyes, the inhuman sounds that came from her throat as the iron bit pressed hard against her tongue. He had clapped the branks on her after she cursed him in public for his constant drunkenness. She had worn the helmet a night and a day as my father led her around, taunting her, yanking hard on the chain so that the iron sliced her tongue.
A broader assumption that seventeenth-century life was nasty, brutish, and short colours the whole novel - not unexpectedly, given that Anna narrates most of it in retrospect, but the picture is nonetheless a little exaggerated. Certain hoary cliches about pre-modern life raise their heads, like the suggestion that parents inured themselves to high infant mortality rates by, well, not paying much attention to their kids ("Why do you let yourself love an infant so?" Anna's stepmother asks her at one point. "It is folly and ill-fortune to love a child until it walks and is well grown." Anna, of course, being our window on this world, is more touchy-feely in her outlook). There are accusations of witchery, and contingent episodes of violence - together with, much more interestingly and likely more genuinely reflective of the time, some canny exploitation of said superstition (one character extorts money from the credulous by offering to perform folk magics for them). Similarly, religiosity represses fun (although to be fair, as a portrait of Puritan reform this is fairly accurate):
It was not a time when we were raised up thinking to be happy. The Puritans, who are few amongst us now, and sorely pressed, had the running of this village then. It was their sermons we grew up listening to in a church bare of adornment, their notions of what was heathenish that hushed the Sabbath and quieted the church bells, that took the ale from the tavern and the lace from the dresses, the ribands from the Maypole and the laughter out of the public lanes. So the happiness I got from my sons, and from the life that Sam provided, burst on me as sudden as the first spring thaw. When it all turned to hardship and bleakness again, I was not surprised.
In certain places the novel really shines, most particularly in conjuring the creeping dread of the apparently random way the Plague strikes - and, at the other end of the scale, in expressing the rector Mompellion's transcendent (if doomed) joy as he urges the villagers to seal themselves off from the outside world:
"Yet God in his infinite and unknowable wisdom has singled us out, along amongst all the villages in our shire, to receive this Plague. It is a trial for us, I am sure of it. Because of His great love for us, He is giving us here an opportunity that He offers to very few upon this Earth. Here, we poor souls of this village may emulate Our Blessed Lord. Who amongst us would not seize such a chance? Dear friends, I believe we must accept this gift. [...] Let us accept this Cross. Let us carry it in God's Holy Name! [...] Dear friends, here we are, and here we must stay. Let the boundaries of this village become our whole world. Let none enter and none leave while this Plague lasts."
(Interestingly, and without undermining the villagers' self-aware sacrifice, Brooks also shows us the limited options available to Eyam's residents, most of whom have lived in the village all their lives: unlike the local gentry family, who, with the mobility of wealth, aren't seen for dust, the average villager has not the means to escape nor really anywhere to escape to; the few who attempt it are greeted only with violence in the outside world).
It is all going well, then - for, ahem, certain Plague-ridden values of 'well' - until the final 50 pages or so of the novel, whereupon Brooks abruptly abandons her sensitive and earthy historicism, in favour of melodrama, lots of sex, and an improbably utopian ending.
Firstly, Anna's stepmother meets a shrill and unconvincing end. Then Anna and the rector go at it with life-affirming gusto until the latter morphs into a complete nutcase, mostly (it seems) to a) make some heavy-handed points about traditional morality and misogyny (already made, surely), and b) give a narrative reason for Anna to leave behind Eyam, and indeed England.
Pregnant, alone, and armed with whole months of education,*Anna strikes out for North Africa. Here, our previously-illiterate narrator quickly learns Arabic, becomes a respected physician, and finds liberated bliss in a harem. It's all rather sunny and unlikely, a rushed and jarring change of tone and a particular disappointment coming after the grounded richness of the rest of the book. I'd be intrigued to read a novel about dhimmi life in seventeenth-century Morocco, but this really isn't it, and should never have tried to be such.
[* courtesy of Elinor, with whom one of the press blurbs on the back of the book maintains she has a "Sapphic bond", although I saw precious little of same... ]