• Rebecca

Reading 'Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague' in the midst of coronavirus

Hello my friends,

I know coronavirus is probably the last thing you want to hear about right now, and this post isn't intentionally about coronavirus, but it is about the spread of a horrid illness and a community making the decision to isolate themselves. So like I said, not at all about coronavirus.

A few weeks ago I picked up a random book off my shelf in a effort to tackle my ever increasing 'to be read' list. I remember reading the description and marvelling at the idea of an entire community going into quarantine because of a disease. How novel, I thought.

( Honey, you've got a big storm comin' )

The book in question is Year of Wonders by Gillian Brooks. It's been on my bookshelf for months and I probably only got it from a car boot sale because it's set in the 1600s. The plot follows a small Derbyshire village called Eyam (pronounced eem) and outbreak of the bubonic plague that struck in 1666. Cheerful, I know.

The villagers made the decision to completely isolate themselves from the surrounding towns, closing their roads and taking an oath not to leave. The characters are forced to go to extreme measures, like trading with the outside world by leaving money in a hole filled with vinegar to clean it.

What is most extraordinary about this story is that it's true.

The village of Eyam really did shut itself off from the rest of the world when cases of the plague started to emerge. It's thought the virus came into the village when an infected package of cloth arrived from London and the tailor's assistant that received it died covered in horrible sores.

The vicar of the village petitioned the people, encouraging that they quarantine themselves, cutting off all contact with the outside world. The only exceptions were essential trading and conveying information to a messenger at a safe distance. The villagers agreed to the idea, although there was, of course, concern about the impact this would have on everyone's lives. They also struck a deal with the local landowner, the Duke of Devonshire, who agreed that if the people of Eyam quarantined themselves, he would provide them with the essential food and supplies they needed. The advantage being that the plague would be less likely to spread to his other villages in Derbyshire. When the decision was finalised, the villagers were given the chance to leave, on the proviso they wouldn't attempt to return and running the risk that other villages might refuse to take them in.

All in all, it's a very interesting event in history and well worth reading about if you're in the mood.

But back to the book.

I actually really enjoyed this more than I expected given the grim circumstances. The ending was a bit chaotic, but the rest of the story, the events and the characters, felt genuine.

There are some elements that have been changed for the story, a few names and events, but the general premise is the same. The main character, Anna Frith, is a servant at the house of the vicar of the village, Michael Mompellion (this is a slight alteration on the real man's name, Mompesson) and his wife, Elinor. And through Anna's eyes, we witness these events unfolding. She is called upon to learn about the healing properties of plants, to assist at births and deaths, and to try and keep the village working together.

'and we smiled as we caught one another's eyes, aware of the common grace our decision had brought upon us'

The Year of Wonders by Gillian Brooks

By the time I finished it, I had a real admiration for these people, real and fictional, because a decision was made for the greater good and, even at the cost of major inconvenience, it was kept to. It's obviously not always a very cheerful book, there is a lot of death and entire families falling due to the plague. But it also promotes the necessity of working together, whether that be as a village or a global community, and how we should all strive for the greater good, even if that means going into a quarantine, (or in 2020's language, social distancing). Anna also celebrates what she is grateful for, she reminisces about the feeling of the sun on her face and the afternoons spent playing in the nearby river. This is a time to practice gratitude.

There are, of course, huge contextual differences between what happened in 1666 and what's happening now, but I would completely understand if people would rather not read a story about disease and quarantine at the moment.

But if you're up for it, I'd really recommend Year of Wonders.

I hope you're all keeping yourselves as safe as you can. These are scary times and none of us should take that lightly. For myself, I've just found out my workplace is closing now, possibly for weeks. And while I'm grateful I'll be able to do social distancing, I am concerned about the future and the impact of this.

I am really going to try and get lots of content out to you, so that'll be one positive from this thing.

Stay safe and I would wish you 'happy history ramblings', but perhaps we should keep to indoor rambling for a while?


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