May 2011

It is 1665 and Plague has reached the tiny village of Eyam in Derbyshire.   The inhabitants make the extraordinary and heroic decision to isolate themselves from the surrounding villages & towns in an attempt to stop the disease from spreading.   Their self-imposed quarantine lasted for one year and in that time two-thirds of the villagers – men, women & children – died.  Was their selfless act appreciated?  What was the cost to the survivors and what was the effect on their faith, their relationships with each other and the social order of the community?

These are the questions Geraldine Brooks addresses in her marvellously-imagined novel.  There is very little documented evidence about this true incident but there is a wealth of local anecdote handed down over the years.   From this and coupled with her meticulous research (she is a journalist and war correspondent), she weaves a compulsive tale, seen through the eyes of 18-year old Anna Frith.

The Rector, Michael Mompellion, orchestrates their withdrawal.  He liaises with the nearby Earl of Chatsworth, who agrees to provision the villagers from his own purse with their basic needs in food, fuel and medicines, providing they seal themselves off from the outside world.   These would be left at the Boundary Stone on the edge of the village, to be collected only when the carters who had carried them were well clear.   Those who wished to purchase other items would leave the money in holes gouged into the Boundary Stone and filled with vinegar, which was said to kill contagion.

And so the village turns in on itself as it struggles to cope with the devastating consequences of this cruel disease, whose ‘blows fall again and again upon raw sorrow, so that before you have mourned one person you have loved, another is ill in your arms’.   As the story develops many themes are explored and challenged including friendship, love, duty, belief, fanaticism, witchcraft and even medieval mining.    Through her blossoming friendship with Elinor, the Rector’s wife, Anna becomes skilled in herbal medicine and midwifery and appears able to turn her hand to anything.   However, we cannot deny that she is a heroine albeit shaped, I believe, from a modern feminist perspective.  But I don’t think that detracts from the essence of the story.  I won’t give away the detail of who does or does not survive this tumultuous experience, but the twist at the end of the novel provided much of the animated discussion this book provoked.

Most of our group loved it but there were a couple who found the detailed descriptions of poverty and disease too harrowing.   We meet again on 9th June when we will discuss Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years.

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