Study Guide

Year of Wonders

by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

It is autumn, 1666, and in the lead-mining village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England, Anna Firth is reflecting on the past year, in which two-thirds of the village’s population had died from the effects of the bubonic plague. Anna is keeping house for Michael Mompellion, the village rector, who has been sitting in his room and refusing food and company since his wife, Elinor, had died. Elizabeth Bradford, the daughter of a wealthy family who had fled the village and the plague, returns and demands assistance from the rector, who rouses from his room only long enough to angrily turn her away.

It is spring, 1665. A journeyman tailor, George Viccars, seeks lodging with Anna. Newly widowed and the mother of two young boys, she welcomes the income, Viccars’s attention to the boys, and his companionship. However, their budding romance ends as soon as it is declared. A bolt of damp cloth, ordered from London, has carried the bubonic plague into Eyam. Soon, Viccars dies; from his deathbed he had encouraged Anna to burn the fabric. The townspeople, however, still insist on claiming their prepaid clothes-in-progress, on which Viccars had been working, thus spreading the infection.

After a late summer respite, the plague reappears. Anna’s sons and the boys of her neighbor Mary Hadfield are among the first to die. The villagers first respond with self-interest. The Bradfords had already asserted, in a dinner-party discussion, that flight from the village was the only sensible response to the plague. Other villagers respond violently, as the Hadfields and other villagers murder Mem and Anys Gowdie, the town’s herbal healers, accusing them of witchcraft. The killers suffer no punishment because no officials will come to the village, and more than half the murderers die of plague within a week.

The Sunday after the murders, Rector Mompellion addresses the village. Supported by his predecessor, Thomas Stanley, a dissenting Puritan minister, Mompellion calls upon the villagers to take an oath to remain in the village and avoid spreading the plague. He presents the plague as an ordeal, a trial that will refine the souls of the village people just as they themselves refine ore into lead. He promises that no one will die alone, and he has obtained a pledge from a nearby earl that the village will receive support and provisions while the plague runs its course. The Bradfords are the only villagers who do not take the oath; they flee immediately, following an angry confrontation with Mompellion.

Anna has been working in the rectory and, after taking the plague oath, she and Elinor Mompellion grow closer. As the deaths spread, the two are pressed into service—first as midwives and then to provide the cures that the Gowdies, the herbal healers, would have offered had they not been killed. While working, Elinor confesses her past to Anna—that she had a lover before marrying Michael and that she had conceived the lover’s child and aborted it with a poker, leaving her unable to have more children. Together, Anna and Elinor study the Gowdies’ herbs and the rector’s medical texts.

As she and Elinor comfort the sick, Anna finds signs of trouble in the village. Some villagers are obtaining charms, at great cost, allegedly from the ghost of Anys Gowdie. Josiah Bont, Anna’s dissolute and abusive father, begins working as a gravedigger, extorting high payments from his clients. One afflicted man insists his wife burn out his bubo, or swollen lymph node, with a hot poker, and another takes up self-flagellation. Townspeople who had stubbornly held Puritan beliefs engage in wild sexual activity.

At the same time, some events are cheering, as villagers come closer...

(The entire section is 1520 words.)

Year of Wonders Chapter Summaries

Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary

Anna Frith used to love fall—the wood stacked near the door, the bales of hay gathered in the yard, the rumble of apples in the cellar bins. But this year, the wood and hay are scant, and the apples are marred with brown spots. A cart of apples has arrived at the rectory, and Anna slices one of the few good ones to take to the rector, who sits as he always does in his dim room. Three years before, the villagers had joked at how young the rector was, but now his face has grown haggard. Anna asks if he would like her to read to him, assuring him that his late wife Mrs. Mompellion taught her the skill. But the rector winces at the sound of his wife’s name, and tells Anna that he does not wish her to read today.

Anna leaves the rector and takes a few spotted apples out to his horse, Anteros. The stable is not very clean, and the great horse has not been much exercised since there is no one besides the rector who is either strong or skilled enough to handle him. Anteros takes the first apple, and when Anna reaches for a second, Anteros lifts his head and sprays apple juice while boxing the air. Anna goes back into the house, and she can hear the rector in his room above, pacing the floor. She retrieves his plate from outside the door—none of his food has been touched. She plans the next day to press all the apples for she cannot see anything go to waste. Besides, she can no longer stand the smell of rotting apples.

On the way home to her cottage, Anna often walks through the orchard, for there she imagines that she hears the voices of children and she can think of Sam Frith. He had asked her to marry him when she was just fifteen, and there was no reason to say no. Her father was a drunkard and her stepmother regarded her only as a pair of hands to do work about the house. Sam was a miner who owned his own mine and cottage. He had no children from his first wife, who had already passed away, and Anna quickly became pregnant and birthed two sons. She spent three...

(The entire section is 812 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 1 Summary

The winter after Sam’s death was hard for Anna and her children, so when George Viccars comes into town the following spring looking for lodging, Anna welcomes him into her home to occupy a vacant room. Mr. Viccars is clean and neat, a journeyman tailor by trade. He has secured a position with Alexander Hadfield and is more than able to pay Anna sixpence a week for her attic room. By the end of the first week, Anna feels like she should pay Mr. Viccars for bringing laughter back into the home. Mr. Viccars laughs and plays with Anna’s three-year-old son, Jamie, and the boy is happy for the fun because his nanny, a young Puritan girl named Jane Martin, is stern in her ways. Anna seeks to repay Mr. Viccars by making him better dinners than she would otherwise, and he praises her cooking. In the evenings, Mr. Viccars and Anna sit by the hearth, and he tells her stories of his travels. Mr. Viccars seems to not be confined at all in life, whereas Sam Frith’s life was all about confinement in the dark, cold mine. Although Anna is intrigued by his tales of many places, George Viccars himself has had enough of the city with the racket of carriages and the sight of blackened walls and longed to be in the country.

Mr. Hadfield has ordered a box of cloth from London, and when it arrives, the villagers are excited to see what colors and fabrics are currently in fashion. Mr. Viccars has much work to do after the cloth arrives, but a few days later, Anna comes home to a gift of a golden green dress that Mr. Viccars has made for her. She does not think it proper to accept such an extravagant gift, but Mr. Viccars asks her to at least try it on for him. She does, and he is taken by her beauty. He asks her suddenly to marry him. He places his hands on her waist and kisses her, but Anna pulls away—he is quite fevered and she sends him at once to his bed.

Anna wakes early the next morning to avoid everyone and think more about her desires. She...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 2 Summary

The next morning, the sexton comes early for Mr. Viccars’ body, and the rector tells Anna to stay home to rest. Before Mompellion leaves, he tells her that she should heed Mr. Viccars’ advice to burn all his belongings. Anna is upstairs scrubbing the floorboards when Mr. Viccars’ customers begin banging on her door. Anys Gowdie is the first, and she asks Anna why she did not send for her and Mem to give Mr. Viccars an infusion of herbs. Anys says that she has come to claim a dress that was finished but for the hem, and Anna jealously imagines Mr. Viccars working with Anys on a fitting. Anna tells Anys that Mr. Viccars told her to burn all his work, but Anys will not settle for it and demands the dress. Anys leaves satisfied,...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 3 Summary

The weather in the village following the death of George Viccars is lovely, but Anna’s son Jamie remains sad because he lost a good friend in Mr. Viccars. At the end of each day, Anna checks on her small flock of sheep, and she finds one of her ewes struggling in labor. Anna can feel the nose and one hoof of the lamb in the birth canal but cannot get her hand around the animal. Jamie slips his small hand in to help, and soon the lamb is born. They leave the ewe to clean her baby and go down to the stream. There, Anna feeds Tom while Jamie splashes and plays in the water. Suddenly, the rector appears, and Anna is mortified by his appearance at the stream while she is feeding her baby. But the rector seems undisturbed, and he...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 4 Summary

Anna recalls stories that her father used to tell her about cruel torture aboard the ships on which he worked. The whips, he said, would cut to the bone. Anna reckons that Plague is like those whips, always hitting in the same raw spots. While grieving the loss of his little brother Tom, Jamie also falls into a fevered state. Elinor Mompellion sits with Anna and Jamie, and she admits that Mr. Mompellion suspected Plague when George Viccars was ill. The rector has written to some friends who study medicine, and they have suggested some means of combatting Plague, so the women try these methods on Jamie. A lump has appeared on Jamie’s armpit, and one of the treatments calls for the roasting and preparing of certain ingredients to...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 5 Summary

Snow blows into the village burying Anna’s lost sheep; she finds them frozen in a snow-drift, huddled together on an outcrop rock. More people in the village die of Plague including Grace Hamilton, whose two children are left sickening after her death. Mr. Mompellion holds a funeral for Anys, but Mem cannot be in attendance because she has developed a severe cough from having nearly drowned in the flooded mine. Elinor Mompellion cares for Mem in the rectory. Over the next few days, Mem’s breath becomes increasingly shallow until the time when she takes her last breath. The law does nothing to punish those who caused the deaths of Anys and Mem—the justice of the peace from Bakewell does not want to enter the stricken village....

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 6 Summary

The villagers smile at each other in honor and appreciation of the “common grace” that their decision to quarantine themselves has brought upon them. Arriving home, Anna is caught unaware by Maggie Cantwell, the Bradfords’ cook, who is pacing outside the cottage. Having to serve, Maggie had not been at the church when the rector delivered the decree. Now, she is livid because the Bradfords have barred her—and all their other servants—from employment and lodging in the house. Anna offers for Maggie to come inside, but Maggie, no disrespect intended, will not enter the cottage that is known as the Plague cottage. Maggie cannot believe what has happened, for now she has nowhere to go. Anna agrees to help Maggie retrieve the...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 7 Summary

One chilly morning, Jakob Merrill, who lives nearest the Boundary Stone, runs out to shoo away a carter when he realizes that there is a body on the cart. Brand, the pantry boy from Bradford Hall, has returned with Maggie Cantwell, the cook, on the cart. Jakob sends his son Seth to notify the rector, and Michael Mompellion and Anna go out to help. It takes all their strength to get the large woman down from the cart, and when they do, they see the horror that has been inflicted on Maggie: the right side of her face is drooped, and she is covered in dried fruit pulp. Brand explains that once they arrived in Bakewell, someone recognized Maggie and shouted that everyone should beware of the travelers from the Plague village. They...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 8 Summary

Anna recalls a terrible accident that Sam once had while mining—he dropped a great stone on his foot, crushing his ankle. Mem Gowdie had to remove many bone splinters from Sam’s ankle, so she gave him steeped poppy to ease his pain. Sam later said that the dreams he had after having drunk the poppy were the best he ever had in his life. Anna means to return the vial of poppy that she stole from Mrs. Mompellion’s whisket; however, given such bad times, Anna wishes for a small respite. When she takes the poppy, she dreams of her children cloaked in gold, and Anna holds their hands as they drift through brightly lit streets. But the sound of the church bell draws her from her sleep, and Anna must once again face the dark reality...

(The entire section is 660 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 9 Summary

Mompellion toils endlessly to dig graves to keep up with the dying villagers. Few able men are left to help with the task, and those who are still alive busy themselves with making a subsistence for their families. Elinor fears that the strength of her husband’s will exceeds the strength of his body and that this time, such a quality will be to his detriment.

The next morning, Anna and the rector go out to the Merrill farm to attend Jakob, who is dying of Plague. On his deathbed, Jakob confesses the sins that he committed against his wife and tells Mompellion that he fears his soul will be damned and his children will have no one to care for them. Mompellion assures him that the sins of the past will be forgiven, and...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 10 Summary

One morning, Anna is at her well fetching water when she sees her father coming down the road carrying a large sack. She does not think that he will begrudge her some help, so she calls to him. Anna learns that he has just come from digging two graves for Widow Brown and that she has paid him with pewter items from her house. In the coming days, Anna notices that her neighbors eye her strangely when she passes, and she hears that apparently her father has set himself up as a grave digger, requiring tremendous sums from people who have no other choice than to pay him to dig graves for their dead family members. When Anna tells her father that he disgraces their family, he spits at her and continues on to the tavern.

On...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 11 Summary

Anna cries for the loss of her father and at the rectory, Elinor asks Anna to tell her everything that her father did to her as a child. Anna finds that the painful tales pour out of her as she sobs. Afterwards, Anna feels she can think more clearly. She tells Elinor that she suspects that Aphra’s strange behavior at the cairn is a sign that she has obtained charms to try to protect her family from Plague. Elinor says that she is not alone—she fishes out a piece of frayed cloth from her whisket. Margaret Livesedge claimed that she got the cloth from the ghost of Anys Gowdie when her baby was sick with Plague. Anna tells her about Kate Talbot’s charm, and Elinor says that Mr. Mompellion has also found these sorts of charms in...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 12 Summary

Elinor and Anna visit some of the elderly villagers and all but one are doing well. They find James Mallion sitting in the dark looking undernourished, so they take him outside and Anna mashes food for him. He grabs her arm and asks her why he has been spared when so many young people have died. She cannot respond, so she pats his hand and shakes her head. On the way back to the rectory, Elinor begins to cough, and even though she tells Anna not to worry, Anna weeps.

Over the next three days, Elinor’s fever rises and Mr. Mompellion and Anna try to comfort her. Anna enjoys the time when Mr. Mompellion is called away so that she can be alone with Elinor because Elinor has become such a significant person in her life:...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 13 Summary

Even though Anna does not want to abandon Aphra to her madness, she does not go back to her croft, reasoning that Faith is already dead and there is nothing more she can do. Her mind is taken over by something that she has noticed—since the first Sunday in July, no new persons have come down with coughs, fevers, or Plague sores. When the villagers gather at the Delf the following week, there are no newly missing faces. Mompellion does not directly address this new phenomenon in his sermon, but simply says that life endures.

The next morning, Anna finds Andrew Merrick’s rooster among her hens, and in her wonder, the rooster flies off in the direction of Merrick’s abandoned cottage. Soon after, Andrew Merrick...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Part 3, Chapter 1 Summary

The villagers bury Faith next to her brothers, but they will not permit Aphra to be buried within the precinct of the village. Anna and Brand toil to dig a grave for her in the rock near Joss’s cairn. Elinor is buried in the churchyard. Mr. Stanley offers the prayers as Mr. Mompellion’s grief is too great to allow anything else. Mr. Mompellion moves about less and less until he eventually confines himself to his room. Not even Mr. Stanley can get him to come to his senses—apparently Mr. Mompellion has lost his faith.

After Mr. Mompellion harshly dismisses Elizabeth Bradford from the rectory, Anna goes to the rectory and whispers to the horse Anteros that since they are alive, they might as well live. She takes the...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Epilogue Summary

Anna recalls a poem about the sea that Elinor once showed her. But having traveled across the sea, Anna thinks that the poet knew nothing at all about the sea. Anna now spends her days in her own room, a circular dwelling in the great house that overlooks the garden and the sea. From her window, she can see boats from Venice and Marseilles and distant ports. Anna’s journey over the rough swells of the sea had not been an easy one, and she feared that she and the baby would not make it to shore.

After leaving the village, Anna is supposed to meet Mr. Pulfer in Bakewell, and Anteros carries her safely to this destination. But when Mr. Pulfer pulls his cart of ore to the road that will lead Anna to Elinor’s family’s...

(The entire section is 573 words.)