Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
Year of Wonders charts one woman’s journey through a year of unspeakable pain and loss.
We know that God sometimes has spoken to His people in a terrible voice, by visiting dread things upon them. And of these things, Plague -- this venom in the blood -- is one of the most terrible. Who would not fear it? Its boils and its blains and its great carbuncles. Grim Death, the King of Terrors, that marches at its heels. Yet God in His infinite and unknowable wisdom has singled us out, alone amongst all the villages in our shire, to receive this Plague.
God warns us not to love any earthly thing above Himself, and yet He sets in a mother's heart such a fierce passion for her babes that I do not comprehend how He can test us so.
This was to be the last virulent outbreak of the Black Death in Britain. In 1665 contagion was carried to the village of Eyam in a bale of cloth from London. Noticing it was damp, a tailor’s assistant dried it by the hearth, inadvertently releasing the fleas that had come from infected rats. Over the next fourteen months, 260 people, about four-fifths of the population of this small community of hill farmers and lead miners in the heart of Derbyshire’s Peak District, succumbed to the plague. Whole families were wiped out, or – what seems even crueller – just one or two people from some families were spared. One woman buried six of her children and her husband in the space of eight days.
The story is seen through the eyes of Anna Frith, a housemaid who works for the minister Mompellion (Mompesson in real life). He was a charismatic man who persuaded the villagers to make the heartbreaking commitment to prevent the infection from spreading by voluntarily quarantining themselves in Eyam.
Anna, a recently widowed mother of two, is a resourceful woman with a strong spirit. She is taken under the wing of Elinor, Mompellion’s wife and becomes a loyal, fast learning protégée. As people start to sicken, Anna joins Mompellion and his wife to tend to the living, dying and the dead, and quell some of the villagers’ rising hysteria. The women pull together doing all that they can, even brewing up herbal remedies and delivering babies. As the death toll mounts, the novel reveals the best and the worst aspects of humanity. Bizarre and superstitious beliefs abound, people are murdered.
It is a grim but compelling story. Brooks uses her journalistic training to scrutinise events as they unfold. The onset of disease begins with the smell of rotting apples (the sign that the internal organs are collapsing). This is followed by a blotched flush beneath the skin resembling the bloom of rose petals. The pustules, ‘shiny, yellow-purple’ knobs ‘of pulsing flesh’ erupt next. The horror and inevitability of it is contrasted with the fragile hopes of those clinging to survival.
Anna is a sensitively drawn character who loves ‘high language’. Her faith eventually unravels and becomes ‘shot-shredded’. Yet this loss of faith releases her from the constraints of beliefs about wrath, sin and punishment. She comes to understand that the Plague is a chance event, and the power to overcome its ravaging effects lies with the villagers, not with God.
For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about some grand celestial design that had to be completed before the disease would abate. We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matter if we were a village full of sinners or a host of saints.
This is just one of the examples in which Anna grows throughout this year in unexpected ways, transforming a tragic experience into an annus mirabilis, a year of wonders.
The book begins in apple picking season, with the ‘tang’ of freshly chopped wood ‘still speaking of forest’, the hay ‘all golden in the low afternoon light’ and, more ominously, the ‘soft give’ of rotting apple underfoot in the orchard. A year has passed since the Plague began and Anna is so weary of death that she welcomes the sign of new life that she and the villagers pass by each day.
In the very middle of the street, a walnut shell lies broken, and from it, already, sprouts a sapling that wants to grow up to block our way entire. I have watched it from its first seed leaves, wondering when someone would pull it out. No one has yet done so, and now it stands already a yard high. Footprints testify that we are all walking around it. I wonder if it is indifference, or whether, like me, others are so brimful of endings that they cannot bear to wrench even a scrawny sapling from its tenuous grip on life.
Anna describes her village as a ‘thin thread of dwellings’ where people live ‘all aslant, on this steep flank of the great White Peak’: ‘tilting forwards to toil uphill, or bracing backwards on our heels to slow a swift decent.’ Some evenings she opens her cottage door to ‘a silence so thick it falls upon me like a blanket.’ This place which is not ‘vivid’ boasts the colour green as its strongest hue. ‘For the rest, we move through a patchwork of greys.’ She observes how within just a year, nature takes back what hundreds of years of habitation had claimed, so that the rutted main street is neither muddy or dusty according to season, but grassed over.
Brooks constructs a powerful sense of place as the seasons change over the course of a year. It is a time of winter, yet the spring will arrive, bringing hope and recovery for those who are left. Despite the horror of the Plague, there is a sense that it is part of the natural world.
Brooks has written five novels, Year of Wonders being the first; March (which won the Pulitzer Prize), People of the Book, Caleb’s Crossing and most recently, The Secret Chord. They are works of historical fiction and for each she has used a particular process that draws on her former investigative skills as a journalist.
In an interview with Australia’s Jennifer Byrne for The Book Show, she speaks of her need when planning a book to find a first-person narrator. She will then find a ‘shard of historical fact’, explore it and follow its line as far as it goes. Once the line starts to ‘fray off’, Brooks can then assess whether there is room for her imagination to fill in the story with ‘informed imaginative empathy’. But this is contingent on there being a character who can become the ‘voice of the novel’.
Brooks also speaks of getting the language right and will go on a ‘treasure hunt’ for the right word. For instance in Caleb’s Crossing, she needed to find the word commonly used for a foetus in 17th century America. She tracked it down in the Oxford Historical Dictionary – the word is shapeling. She says that once such a word is put into a character’s mouth, the reader is sent back to that time in history. For the Year of Wonders Brooks was able to find feminine voices from the 17th Century in the English Women’s journals of the time but laments that theirs is a largely silent voice in history. She confessed to Byrne that her immersion in the language of history can spill into her daily life; she realised she had gone too far when in telling off her boys, she quipped, ‘You are vexing me with your uncurt behaviours!’
The beautiful yet desolate Lyke Wake Dirge is a medieval funeral chant that originated further north in Yorkshire. It would be sung at the lyke, the traditional watch by the side of the corpse. It doesn’t pussyfoot. The lyrics allude to an ‘eye for an eye’ retribution, warning the living to look after the poor or else the Whinny Moor ‘will prick thee to thy bare bane’. I chose it for its grimness and its mixture of pagan and Christian elements that echo the novel’s themes. The song was covered by some of the sixties folk bands including Pentangle but I prefer this version. You can read more about the song here.
There are obviously powerful echoes with Eyam and the current Coronavirus pandemic. The social isolation the villagers practised was ahead of its time and the lessons of Eyam have been brought to light once more in the media.
Poet laureate Simon Armitage has written the poem ‘Lockdown’, addressing the restrictions imposed to protect against Coronavirus, making a link with Eyam:
And I couldn’t escape the waking dream
of infected fleas
in the warp and weft of soggy cloth
by the tailor’s hearth
in ye olde Eyam.
In an interview with The Guardian Armitage said that ‘as the lockdown became more apparent and the restrictions were closing in, the plague in Eyam became more and more resonant’ to him. He suggests that by making us focus, think and contemplate, poetry can become an act of consolation. Poetry certainly tends to circulate in times of need, as this Vanity Fair article examines.
A chilly, foggy November dawn provided a suitably eerie atmosphere for my walk around the deserted boundaries of the village in the gloom. The characters in Brooks’s novel stayed with me all the while, her words bringing this place to life in a way that no history book could. I must confess to feeling a trifle unnerved at times. But returning to the village, and watching as Eyam’s people awoke to the day, it became clear that this is a busy, family-oriented place and a lot of living had been done here since the tragedy.
Eyam is a pretty, vibrant commuter village in the heart of the beautiful Peak district, located 35 miles southeast of Manchester. At Eyam Museum, there are all sorts of historical details to discover about the way the villagers so carefully planned and managed the quarantine. The boundary stone at the southeastern edge of Eyam can be visited, where provisions of food, medicines and fuel were left by outsiders for the villagers to collect. Much of this was subsidised by the Earl of Devonshire from nearby Chatsworth House but the villagers also contributed to the cost of their supplies, placing money in six holes that were drilled into the boundary stone. Near the stone they would place a list of their needs, along with a daily list of the dead for friends and family members from neighbouring villages who were frantic for news.
On a hill above the boundary stone lie the ‘Riley Graves’, where Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six children. Keeping their distance to avoid the plague from spreading, families were forced to bury their dead in fields and gardens rather than the village graveyard.
For historical purposes ‘plague houses’ bear signs listing the names of those who died and those, if any, who survived. Homeowners have offset the considerable horror of this for their children by dotting fairies, toadstools and other magical symbols about the gardens.
Geraldine Brooks discusses her life and work with Jennifer Byrne here.
In this episode of Texts in the City, Ruby Murray discusses Year of Wonders with writer Toni Jordan.
The first chapter of Year of Wonders is featured here.
A film about the Eyam plague.
Take a four-mile walk between the villages of Eyam and Stoney Middleton.
Visit Peak District is the official tourism website for the area.
Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders, Viking, 2001
Flood, Alison. ‘Lockdown: Simon Armitage writes poem about coronavirus outbreak‘, The Guardian, 21/3/2020
Hickling, Alfred. ‘Journal of a plague year‘, The Guardian, 14/7/2001