“God’s Wrath Made Manifest”?
The 1600s marked both the dawn of modern medicine and the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment all over Europe. In England, these years also brought the Restoration—a revolution in every aspect of life against Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanism. English physicians charted the circulatory system, and the invention of the compound microscope and identification of bacteria were together about to begin unraveling the mystery of infectious disease. In 1662, King Charles established the Royal Society in order to promote the study of natural science. The world was changing rapidly, and its central focus shifted from God to man.
In 1665, in the remote English village of Eyam—a small and closely knit community of lead miners and shepherds, cobblers and weavers—the bubonic plague (“The Black Death”) has taken the town hostage both literally and figuratively. In a decision brought about by Michael Mompellion, the radical but much-admired town minister, the villagers of Eyam quarantine themselves in their “wide green prison” and vow to suffer the scourge alone. Believing that the plague is God’s judgment on their sinful world, most of the devoutly Christian villagers beg forgiveness and look for ways to assuage God’s ire—the most puritanical take up self-flagellation in an attempt to cleanse themselves. Almost completely cut off from the outside world (save for the ingenious “boundary stone”), and after panic has well and truly set in, the villagers turn on one another. In episodes that illustrate both the best of human nature (ministering to the sick) and the worst (a gravedigger profiteering from the dead), the townspeople grapple with their grief and fear. It is up to the story’s heroine—a young, widowed housemaid named Anna Frith—to raise the existential questions about the origins of the plague, and she therefore becomes the embodiment of the conflict at the center of the novel: God versus Nature.
It came to me then that we, all of us, spent a very great deal of time pondering these questions that, in the end, we could not answer. If we balanced the time we spent contemplating God, and why He afflicted us, with more thought as to how the Plague spread and poisoned our blood, then we might come nearer to saving our lives. While these thoughts were vexing, they brought with them also a chink of light. For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about some grand celestial design that had to be completed before the disease would abate. We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matter if we were a village of sinners or a host of saints.
After suffering the death of her suitor and her two children, and despite her own spiritual beliefs and adoration for the rector and his wife, Anna boldly rejects the idea that the pestilence is a call for repentance. And in a time of such turmoil, she shrugs off the social and religious mores that would keep a weaker woman in her place. With the knowledge about herbal remedies that she has gleaned from the village herbalists Mem and Anys Gowdie, and the support and tutelage of her patroness, Elinor Mompellion, Anna emerges more powerful and self-confident than before. At the end of the novel, it is clear she has become stronger than even Michael Mompellion, the town’s figurehead and religious rock. Anna’s questions—and her role as a village healer—will eventually lead her to her true calling. Caught up in the struggle between science and religion, Anna’s dilemma mirrors that of the world in her time. Ultimately she confesses: “I cannot say that I have faith anymore. Hope, perhaps. We have agreed that it will do for now.”
Geraldine Brooks is the author of two acclaimed works of nonfiction, the bestselling Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and Foreign Correspondence: A Penpal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over. She is also a former war correspondent whose writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal,New York Times, and Washington Post.
In your afterword, you describe chancing upon Eyam and its terrible history while living in England in 1990. Can you tell us a bit about your research—for instance, what you uncovered about the townspeople and perhaps didn’t include in the novel for whatever reason? What about the difficulties of writing a story that blends fiction with historical fact, especially given your journalistic, just-the-facts background?
The written record of what happened in Eyam during the plague year is scant. Apart from three letters by the rector, no narrative account from the year itself actually exists. The “histories” that purport to record the facts were actually written many years later, and historians have found inconsistencies that cast doubt on their accuracy. Therefore, there was no way to write a satisfying nonfiction narrative. And, since the story had taken root in my imagination, the only way to indulge my impulse to tell it was to take the leap into fiction. The factual basis of the story was actually very helpful to me: it was like having the framing of the house already erected—I could see the shape from the beginning. The things I decided not to use from the anecdotal accounts passed down over time were those things that would have seemed most like implausible inventions. For example, a young couple is said to have lived in the church around the plague time, seeking sanctuary from the law. The couple had been married by accident, having drunkenly taken part in a mock wedding at a tavern that was later deemed to have the force of law and sacrament. Unfortunately, the groom was already engaged to another woman. She, enraged, sought his arrest for breach of promise. The couple apparently lived a reasonable life in the church, assisted by sympathetic villagers. This story, although reasonably well substantiated, just seemed too odd to weave into my novel.
You describe the man on whom Michael Mompellion was based, William Mompesson, as “heroic and saintly” and yet you also believe that Mompesson and his wife sent their two children away before quarantining the town. How do you justify your description of the real man? And do you think this knowledge influenced your depiction of the “darker side” of the Mompellion character?
One of the fictional liberties I took with the story was a certain compression of timeframe. The plague was actually in the village for many weeks before the quarantine was agreed upon. Some people decided to send their children away into the care of relatives: there was nothing unethical in the Mompessons also choosing to do so. It was only as the epidemic really took hold that Mompesson saw the fearful virulence of the disease and became concerned about the consequences of its spread. There is nothing in the factual record to suggest that he behaved other than honorably throughout the village’s terrible ordeal. However, in trying to imagine him—a young man, not long out of school, not long in a village where most of the Puritan-leaning population did not share his religious views, yet still persuasive enough to bring people to such a momentous choice—I envisioned a man of powerful conviction and charisma. Such personalities are sometimes governed by unwholesome motivations, such as the belief that they are God’s infallible instruments. They can be dangerous, even deadly.
Do you believe Anna is an unlikely heroine, given the rigid class structures of her time and her sex? Why did you choose to tell this story from Anna’s point of view? Did your nonfictionÑand in particular your book Nine Parts of Desire, which deals with the lives of Muslim womenÑinfluence your decision?
I wanted a narrator who was part of the ordinary life of the village, but also had access to the gentry, the decision-makers. Since I knew that the real rector had a maid who survived the plague, she seemed the obvious choice. Anna’s character and the changes it undergoes were suggested to me by the lives of women I had met during my years as a reporter in the Middle East and Africa—women who had lived lives that were highly circumscribed and restricted, until thrown into sudden turmoil by a crisis such as war or famine. These women would suddenly find themselves having to step out of their old roles and assume vastly challenging responsibilities. I saw women who had traveled enormous personal distances—traditional village women in Eritrea who became platoon leaders in the country’s independence war; Kurdish women who led their families to safety over mined mountain passes after the failure of their uprising against Saddam Hussein. If those women could change and grow so remarkably, I reasoned that Anna could, too. And remember that the Restoration was a very fluid time. All the ancient certainties—the monarchy, the Church—had been challenged within these people’s lifetime. They had lived through regicide, revolution, civil war. Change was their norm. In the 1660s, women were appearing on the stage for the first time, were assuming influential roles in the Restoration court. Also, life in the villages was much less rigid and restrictive than we often imagine. I read a lot of sermons while researching the novel, and it struck me that the amount of hectoring from the pulpit on the proper behavior of women probably reflected a widely held view that a lot of “improper” behavior was going on.
In light of your research, can you put into perspective just how extraordinary the villagers’ decision to quarantine themselves was? What was happening in London, for example, at the same time?
The unique thing about Eyam’s quarantine was that it was voluntary. I was able to find no other examples of such communal self-sacrifice. In London, Samuel Pepys writes in his journal of the terrible treatment meted out to plague victims: “We are become as cruel as dogs one to another.” There, the houses of plague victims were sealed and guarded, locking in the well with the ill, with no one to bring food, water, or comfort of any kind. Pepys writes that you could hear the cries of the afflicted coming from the houses, which were marked with large red crosses and the words “God Have Mercy.”
In a piece published in The Washington Post after the September 11, 2001, attacks, you wrote: “Whether we also shall one day look back upon this year of flames, germs and war as a ‘year of wonders’ will depend, perhaps, on how many are able—like the passengers on United Flight 93 or the firefighters of New York City—to match the courageous self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam.” Will you discuss the parallels you have drawn here?
Eyam is a story of ordinary people willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of others. September 11, 2001, revealed heroism in ordinary people who might have gone through their lives never called upon to demonstrate the extent of their courage. Sadly, it also revealed a blind thirst for revenge that led to the murders of a Muslim, a Sikh, and an Egyptian Copt. I have imagined this same instinct to turn on and blame “the other” in the lynching of the Gowdies. Love, hate, fear. The desire to live and to see your children live. Are these things different on a beautiful autumn morning in a twenty-first-century city than they were in an isolated seventeenth-century village? I don’t think so. One thing I believe completely is that the human heart remains the human heart, no matter how our material circumstances change as we move together through time.