Year of Wonders
‘Year of Wonders suggests that adversity brings out the best and the worst in people. ‘ Do you agree? In Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks recounts the tale of a small 17th century English village afflicted by the plague, through the honest and reliable narration of Anna Frith. The novel’s title alludes to the idea that though the plague is devastating, it gives rise to “wonders”. Brooks presents to readers an insightful exploration of the diverse reactions that people can have to adverse circumstances, from Anna Frith’s exceptional growth to Aphra’s descent into madness.
She also acknowledges the complexity of human behaviour: adversity is not always polarising, and people’s responses lie on a spectrum, where the distinctions between right and wrong are sometimes blurred. As the plague wreaks havoc on the villagers, it drives many to commit horrible atrocities. In contemporary England, witchcraft was a common accusation in times of adversity, and Mem and Anys Gowdie are particularly vulnerable to become scapegoats, being independent women with knowledge of herblore and midwifery.
Brooks shows her readers how difficult circumstances can lead seemingly rational, kind people to turn against those who had never wronged them. Fuelled by hysteria, a panicked mob murders the Gowdies, who were prime targets as “Aphra’s superstitious mutterings found many willing ears amongst the villagers”. We also see how adversity brings out the worst in people such as Josiah Bont, who takes on the role of sexton. Josiah, who “loved a pot better than he loved his children”, was a product of an abused childhood at sea.
As a result, he was an exceptionally cruel man, violently assaulting Anna when she was a child and subjecting her mother to the branks, though such punishment was not uncommon in the mid-seventeenth century. Nevertheless, he truly is at his worst when he attempts to bury a man alive and steal all of his possessions, and the community is rightfully outraged. Josiah’s actions are all the more horrible, as he takes advantage of his neighbours in a time of grief and hardship.
Not everyone’s actions are “satanic, and evil”, however. In Anna’s character, we see her rise out of her “fog” of grief and go on to do much good in the world She grows as she overcomes her pathological fears of mines and childbirth, becoming an expert midwife, and braving the mines in aid of young Merry Wickford. Through her defiance of the Bradfords and her father, we also see Anna become more courageous and “embrace [her] state”, alone as “a woman in the world”.
Brooks emphasises this through her use of a circular structure, as Anna is presented to readers in the Autumn of 1666 as headstrong and liberated: though “a servant has no right to stay, once she is dismissed”, Anna defies orders in order to tend to Michael. She has grown from “the timid girl who had worked for the Bradfords in a state of dread” into “Anna Frith, a woman who had faced more terrors than many warriors”. This is in stark contrast to the Anna we meet in Spring, 1665; “a widow of eighteen” who “misliked” herself for giving into her fears.
We see the full extent of Anna’s growth and change in the Epilogue, as she breaks free from her old life of servitude, becoming independent and leading a rewarding life under the tutelage of Ahmed Bey. Nevertheless, the human psyche is not completely divided into “dark and light”. Year of Wonders not only shows us the best and worst in people, but also the “patchwork of greys” in between. Michael Mompellion is a natural leader, rising up to carry his parishioners through their self-imposed quarantine.
He upholds his promise that “while I am spared, no one in this village shall face their death alone” and works tirelessly, driving himself to the brink of exhaustion in the process. Despite this, not all of his decisions reflect exemplary leadership, such as his harsh treatment of Elinor. After the plague has passed, we see this through Anna’s perspective, and she is horrified by his “coldness”, yet Brooks also makes it clear that Michael truly believed that his decision was right at the time.
Michael has lost his faith by this point, and believes that he was “most wrong” in asking the villagers to quarantine themselves. From the reader’s perspective, some of Michael’s actions are morally ambiguous. They do not have “that bright, clear-cut edge”, as in times of crisis, decisions often become a choice between the lesser of two evils. We may pity him after Elinor’s death, as he is overwhelmed by grief, remaining “still and silent” in his soporific state, yet we also expect him to demonstrate his leadership and therefore might be harsher in our judgement of him.
In Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks explores many facets of human behaviour in response to crisis; both the good and the bad. Though we clearly see the best and the worst in some characters, it is difficult to pass judgement on others, whose actions sometimes lie between the two absolutes of best and worst. In any adversity, circumstances can cause people to do horrible things, but we must remember that “if you are drowning in a sewer, your first concern might be that you are drowning, not how vile you smell”.