I’ve realised, quite recently that I really enjoy a historical novel. History was my favourite subject at school and I still have that desire to keep on learning about how people used to live. Social History fascinates me and when I look back at the books I have read over the past few years, the ones that I have really relished, are those that have brought back to life the lives of everyday folk from days of old.
Year of Wonders does just that and it is about the Plague. Not the cheeriest of subjects I know, however, Geraldine Brooks brings alive this grim period of English history, and she doesn’t jazz it up, she tells it like it was. It’s a time where people lived in squalor – if they were lucky – and society was trapped by the hype of superstitious tales of ghosts and witches and their evil curses. People living in fear of their landlords, their neighbours and any single women who happened to grow herbs – My fate would have been sealed.
Geraldine Brooks, I was surprised to discover is American. So well has she written this account of pustules, boils and fevers in the voice of young Anna a native of Derbyshire, I would have put money on the fact she was a local?
It is the year 1666 and when a handsome tailor arrives in the village of Eyam, he sets hearts a fluttering not only with his fancy fabrics and fancy looks, he is also a master of dressmaking, a seventeenth century Dior. But something is festering in his box of delights – that is not a euphemism – and it is the downfall of the community.
It’s not a cheery subject, the plague, but it is a fascinating subject, as is the ignorance of the time. A time where people needed to appoint blame to justify the horror of what was going in their everyday lives. A lot of the behaviour is appalling and violent, but we get a rare insight into what was behind the horror of these actions, what led people to behave as they did and buy into rumours and superstitions. Just like us modern folk, back then, hideous childhood experiences spilt over into adult life and those unlucky enough to be living with the horrors of their past aimed to drown out their memories with alcohol and violence.
It’s a grim time and a grim subject, but it’s a fascinating story and beautifully written, and what makes it even more readable, is that is based on the true story of The Plague Village of Eyam in Derbyshire.
I’m off to the Peak District in a couple of weeks for a spa break and to eat my body weight in Bakewell tart, but I will hopefully have the time to visit Eyam. I shall think of Anna and her family and count my blessings that I was born in Brighton in 1970 and not Derbyshire in 1660. Post-visit I will check myself for mysterious swellings and not freak out if I get a white head on my chin…. it’ll be due to an overindulgence of cake, not the plague.