Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1520
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.
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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 together and take on new roles. A newly orphaned girl, Merry Wickford, faces the loss of her family’s lead mine because of local tradition, which states that mines could be held only by those who could make them produce. To protect Merry’s claim, Anna and Elinor use the fragments of knowledge Anna had from her deceased husband, Sam, to draw a dish of lead from Merry’s mine. They are welcomed in the Miner’s Tavern, which serves as the village’s gathering place and unofficial court, as new miners.
The congregation abandons the church building in favor of gathering in a meadow, in hope of avoiding the plague. The dissenting Mr. Stanley speaks in firm support of Rector Mompellion, and the village’s recalcitrant Puritans begin rejoining services.
The plague remains into the spring, and the village’s trials grow worse. Josiah continues as a gravedigger, taking advantage of those in need and spending his ill-gotten earnings on alcohol rather than on his family. The rector’s attempt at intervention leads to a nearly violent argument, as Bont begins digging an unrequested grave for Christopher Unwin, who has the plague. When Unwin recovers, however, he faces Bont, who attempts to murder, rob, and bury him. Bont is brought before the Miner’s Court for justice and sentenced to have his hand nailed to the entrance of a mine. He dies of exposure when no one rescues him. Aphra, Bont’s wife, blames Anna for his death.
It is now summertime, and Elinor becomes ill. She begs Anna to take care of Michael and calls out to her former lover in her delirium. Her illness proves to be a simple fever, and she recovers within days. A woman who had lost all of her possessions to her husband’s asceticism dies of the plague after receiving bedding and clothes from well-intentioned neighbors, leading Rector Mompellion to conclude that the villagers should burn their surplus possessions. They clean their houses and then gather for this meager bonfire, an act of purification and sacrifice.
During the bonfire, the supposed ghost of Anys Gowdie is caught. The ghost turns out to be Aphra, who has been disguising herself and selling charms to the desperate. Mompellion protects her from the angry crowd by announcing he will address the charges against her the next day, ordering the young men who had captured her to detain her overnight. The men hold her in a manure pit, reducing her to near-insanity by morning. Mompellion offers sympathy and a light penance, then sends her home. Anna leaves food for Aphra and her daughter but is driven away with shouts and curses, as are other neighbors. After several days the daughter disappears, and Anna peeks in to find the child’s body suspended in Aphra’s cottage. After that, Aphra is left completely alone.
After the burning, the plague cases decline, until a week goes by with no new deaths. The Mompellions cautiously plan to recognize the end of the plague with a thanksgiving service in mid-August. The villagers gather for one last service in the meadow and are ready to celebrate, but Aphra appears as the service begins. She is carrying her daughter’s body and hysterically waving a knife. A scuffle ensues, and Aphra kills Elinor. Rector Mompellion holds Elinor’s body until he is forced away at nightfall. The next morning, he sends messages of the end of the plague and of Elinor’s death, then retreats to the rectory.
Anna is desperate to help Mompellion and grieves for Elinor, trying to hold on to her friend’s life through her work at the rectory. She takes Mompellion’s horse, Anteros, on a wild ride through the countryside, celebrating her survival. Mompellion’s discovery of this pulls him out of his room, and he and Anna engage in a brief affair. Once after lovemaking, Mompellion confesses to Anna that he and Elinor had never had sexual relations, that he withheld his affections to force her to atone for her sins with her lover.
Anna retreats to the still-closed church to grapple with her feelings, where she encounters Elizabeth Bradford, who is praying for her mother. Mrs. Bradford is in labor with a lover’s child and is likely to die, an outcome seemingly desired by her husband. Anna offers assistance and safely delivers the baby girl. She discovers Elizabeth attempting to drown the baby to hide the pregnancy and to protect her mother. Anna offers to take the baby and raise her someplace else, and Elizabeth agrees.
As Anna prepares to leave, Mompellion appears in her cottage, recovered from his madness. He warns Anna that the Bradfords are likely to kill her to hide the baby’s birth, and he encourages her to flee. He offers her Anteros, and a letter of introduction to Elinor’s family. Rather than go to Elinor’s home, however, Anna decides to go her own way and heads to a port city. Pursued by the Bradfords, she takes the first available ship and leaves the port.
Anna arrives in the city of Oran. She becomes an assistant and wife to a respected Arab physician, finally using the healing knowledge she had struggled to gain with Elinor. She is raising Mrs. Bradford’s daughter, Aisha, as her own, and in the harem gives birth to Michael Mompellion’s child; she names her Elinor.