Background of the novel:
1. William Shakespeare wrote most of his known plays between 1589 and 1613, and died in 1616.
2. Elizabeth I was succeeded by James VI of Scotland (becoming James I of Great Britain upon his crowning), in 1603.
3. Between the years of 1649 and 1660, during the English Civil War, England had no monarch; instead, the country was temporarily ruled by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell as a military/parliament.
4. In 17th Century England, many people believed that witches were abound and were the cause of a variety of otherwise difficult-to-explain behaviour amongst people; if a person were found guilty of witchcraft, they were sentenced to death by hanging.
5. Puritans were those of a particular division of the Christian faith, differing notably from other branches in mostly their views on morality, which they believed to be incredibly important – and pursued down to the finest level of detail – and the structure and manner of their worship (shunning the interference of outside sources, such as rulers of the land, into religion, and not seeking happiness by normal means, taking it instead from their belief that they were acting according to God’s will).
6. (I couldn’t answer the first part of this question, as after seeing multiple versions of the book’s cover there seems to be no recurring phrase to consider as a ‘subtitle’.)
1. While some people may hold the expectation that historical fiction would be based on facts and research, painting a realistic picture of its setting, I would say that such an assumption is not, or at least should not be, usually present; historical fiction is labelled as ‘fiction’ for a reason, and as such is grounded too much in alternate reality, aiming too much to provide entertainment rather than information, to be considered an accurate, researched portrayal of its setting. Of course, there are exceptions – Year of Wonders, in part, being one – but even that does not provide a realistic enough picture of its time and place to make the emergence of such an expectation of factual provision becoming commonplace in the genre seem a good idea.
2. I believe that an author’s ability to shape their material into an effective and engaging narrative holds a higher position of importance than their willingness to adhere to historically accurate occurrences; if the author aims to engross their audience in the story, then every other aspect of the book is secondary to that goal. In the same way as one would be unwise to attempt to write a good book about a purposefully boring premise or character, there is little point in maintaining historical accuracy if such maintenance detracts from the entertainment of the piece. Even if the aim is not entertainment, but rather the conveyance of a particular theme, the same reasoning applies – there is little to no reason in maintaining historical accuracy if the themes being presented could be done so far more effectively without such accuracy.
3. Although it is obviously important in any medium to avoid anachronistic occurrences that could detract from the story, I do not agree that the ‘anachronisms’ in Year of Wonders could be classified as such, in that they do not seem to be truly anachronistic at all. By this, I mean that the attitudes of the main characters do not seem unbelievable, even considering the book’s setting, as any era will always have those who think differently – indeed, if not for this, this emergence of individuals going against the status quo who may obtain the rare chance to influence others, mankind’s common values would never have changed since its inception.
Each of the characters in question seems to have been written with enough explanation of their own values and attitudes that they are justified, even within the context. While these circumstances are certainly unlikely, they are not impossible, and attempting to call those two things one and the same is akin to labelling day the same as night by the mere fact that they lie next to each other in the cycle of time.
Reading the Novel:
1. It would seem that the reason for which Geraldine Brooks gave the name Year of Wonders to her novel is that, despite the devastating effects of the plague on Anna’s life, there truly were ‘wonders’ that happened for, and around, her in that year. She grew closer than she ever may have expected to a good friend; she salvaged many an innocent life with her (albeit shaky at first) willingness in being a midwife, which eventually led to her finding what she believed her true calling; she witnessed her town’s sacrificial act of goodness, sparing innocent bystanders from sharing in Eyam’s wretched fate; and, ultimately, she managed to find happiness, emerging from that most trying year scathed but still very much alive, restarting her life anew and settling down with two healthy, happy children to call her own.
2. Here is a list of my initial impressions of the characters in Year of Wonders: * Anna – A girl whose innocence was taken from her by that which she has experienced, seeming embittered and disillusioned with the world around her but standing as a strong pillar of kindness in spite of that. To those familiar with the terminology – for I can think of no better term for Anna’s character – she seems at first (and throughout the story) to be a ‘Mary Sue’. * Michael – A once-great man driven into an almost catatonic state by the events of the plague. * Elizabeth – An unpleasant woman, spoilt to the point of incredible greed and selfishness by the circumstances of her upbringing. * Jamie – A child like any other, energetic and inquisitive. * George – Good and kind-hearted, to the level that these qualities become suspicious. * Jane – A prudish and serious young girl, putting her religious views above all else in her life to a perhaps obsessive extent.
* Sam – Dull, yet kind; a simple man, content with his life. * Tom – A typical baby; along with Jamie, he is the subject of his mother’s devotion and love, and much of her reason for living now that Sam is dead. * Elinor – Kind and carefree, yet contemplative and devoted; Anna’s picture of perfection. * Mem – A woman weathered by the world, showing inherent goodness behind a more grumpy exterior as she remains to tend to a village of people who think none too highly of her. * Anys – A young girl showing the same world-weariness, temperament and awareness as her aunt, though whose morality is perhaps more tarred due to her selfishness, her bluntness and her disregard for typical values. * Stanley –Similarly to Jane, a person who treats worship and morality as being almost synonymous with life itself. * Aphra – Self-absorbed to the extreme and paranoid towards any outside forces in her life.
* Lib – A representation of a typical girl of the Middle Ages, serving as a foil to Anna’s more progressive character. * Colonel Bradford – A selfish, rude man, having grown accustomed to abusing the power granted to him. * Miss Bradford – A typical rich woman of the times, considering her wealth as a token of superiority. * Robert – A wandering young man of high-class birth, seeking simple entertainment after leaving his home town of London. * Mary – An unremarkable woman on face level, wanting only a plain and happy life. * Surgeon(s) – [Grouped together because they are of indistinguishable temperaments] Fearful men, seeking not truly to aid others at critical points but rather to gain a stock of money from their work and remain in safety themselves. * The sexton – A hard-working old man, trying merely to do his duty in a most difficult time. * Brad – Though not particularly evil, a superstitious, desperate and stupid man.
* Faith – Much the same as her father, Brad.
* Urith – The same as Brad.
* Martin – Same as above.
* Maggie – A hard-working, honest peasant woman.
* Jenny – Same as above.
* Brand – A cautious man, but one who has goodness within him. * Jakob – Kind and accommodating, despite his difficult lot in life. * Josiah – A cruel and angry man not afraid to use his strength to get his own way; like his wife Aphra, he seems to reject anything other than the concept of self. * Sally – An entirely innocent victim, her death seeming representative of that which makes the villagers start to abandon their faith. * Kate – Another desperate, simple peasant woman, seeking safety but throwing away reason in an attempt to reach it. * Merry – Like Sally, Merry is a unfairly victimised child, but unlike her, Merry appears to represent hope and strength. * Alun – A gruff man, set in his ways, but with a good sense of right and wrong. * Randoll – A simple villager with a good heart.
* Henry – Another plain villager, of a gruff and unpleasant temperament himself, but angered back into caring about morality by Josiah’s actions. * Lottie and Tom – Desperate parents who have suspended their disbelief of the supernatural in a vain attempt to protect their child. * John – A man whose already-fragile mind snapped from the fear and grief of the plague, spurring him to reckless action. * Urith – Meek; locked up in hiding due more to fear of her husband than of the plague. * James – A saddening old figure, his faith tested by his continued survival while more meaningful lives pass away in front of his eyes. * Mrs. Bradford – A fearful woman, whose subservience to her husband is so great as to surpass her care for her child’s life. * The Innkeeper – An honest, fair-minded man with a good sense of justice. * Ahmed – Refined, kind and accepting.
3. Brooks’ descriptions of the village and countryside are used to create suspense by portraying the change from a normal, perfectly functional town to a broken wreck; mentions of laughter, of playful children and of the sounds of work, are replaced by a foreboding silence, while the town itself becomes overgrown and filled with decay. The reason that these scenes – scenes of a once-lively town reduced to an image of death – create suspense is that, no matter where the characters focus, they will be presented by a reminder of the ruins around them, showing them just how close they are to that fate themselves.
4. The views developed by Brooks throughout the narrative seem to combine into one main theme – a willingness to question the status quo, to show that the current state of things may not always be for the best. This is shown through class divides (questioning whether the wealthy truly deserve their privileged status, as evidenced by the selfishness of the Bradfords), relative gender equality for the times (as both men and women play a crucial role in stopping the end situation from being even worse; if, as was typical of the times, only the men had been allowed to decide on issues – and, for example, Anna and Elinor had not been able to choose to act as midwives – the death toll may well have been higher), and the steadfast determination to perceive the plague as a religious occurrence rather than a natural one (which, by focusing eyes in the wrong direction, likely caused the loss of many lives; if the true reason for the plague had been discovered earlier, more effective countermeasures could have been taken). This general theme, and its components, reflects contemporary attitudes rather accurately – recent society has certainly become more open to changing the status quo, and such things as gender equality and reduced expectations of religion seem to have worked rather well in changing society for the better.
5. Contrast between characters can be seen between multiple pairs in Year of Wonders. Anna seems to have four main contrasting characters, each of a different kind – firstly, she and Aphra are contrasted in their desires, with Anna’s being largely for the wellbeing of other people while her stepmother’s are selfish. Michael Mompellion could be considered the second contrast to Anna, as he is an initially strong man weakened by his trials and losses while Anna’s seem to serve only to strengthen her resolve in the end. Anys is the contrast to Anna’s third defining characteristic; while Anna is a rather traditional girl despite her individual ways, and hides much of her true self and her opinions inside, Anys’ views would not seem entirely common in our day, and she has little reservation about speaking her mind bluntly.
Finally, Anna’s situation – that of a strong, outgoing woman, hidden behind the mask of a cautious, unglamorous girl – is opposite to that of Elinor, who appears in Anna’s eyes to be a near-flawless woman radiating energy but is internally scarred and in turmoil. Elinor, with her constant kindness and equal treatment despite her high-class family background, has another contrasting character of her own in Elizabeth, the rich daughter of the Bradfords who abuses her power and thinks only of her own desires. One more prominent contrast is between Colonel Bradford and Michael – while both being intelligent men, the Colonel seeks to employ this intelligence only to protect himself, whereas Michael aims to aid those around him.
The Structure of the Novel:
1. It seems that flashback has been used here for a multitude of reasons; it allows for a more direct before-and-after contrast to show the development of her character throughout the year (by virtue of snapping from one to the other; in a gradual build-up, the changes would be less noticeable), it reveals the inevitable end of the story so as to place an emphasis on the book’s characters and setting rather than its plot’s ramifications, and it creates a sense of curiosity as to just how events transpired within the focused-upon year to create such change as can be seen.
2. While beginning with a flashback is, as previously explained, effective in setting up a variety of paths to set the foundation for telling a tale, it is not a solve-all solution for storytelling; some aspects of the story cannot be satisfactorily fleshed out without the reader having some pre-established knowledge of the characters, setting and such things, and so I imagine that is for this reason that Brooks decided to revisit this time.
3. While I am not certain on this fact, it would seem that the middle thirteen chapters of the story were indeed narrated in chronological order; if this is not the case, then I would perhaps say that the signposting to show this anachronism was insufficient.
Leaf-fall, 1666: Apple-picking Time:
1. Key character interactions and quotations in this opening chapter are: * Anna’s devotion to the deteriorated Michael Mompellion, rousing curiosity as to what led to the situation. * Michael’s grief and bitterness over the loss of Elinor. * The cold, vengeful attitude held towards Elizabeth as a member of the Bradfords. * The mention that Josiah ‘loved the pot more than his children’. * Elizabeth being ‘sour-faced and spoiled’.
* ‘His hand is on the bible, but he never opens it’ – Michael’s religious habits contrasting with his shattered faith. * Anna’s motives in caring for Michael, showing her idolatry of Elinor: ‘I do it for her. I tell myself I do it for her. Why else would I do it, after all?’ * Michael’s frigid recital of a passage from the Bible, showing further his grief from the loss of Elinor and his feeling of betrayal from God: ‘Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table…’
2. I think that Brooks chose to use first-person narrative because it would seem that the story she seeks to tell is primarily one of a single girl’s character development; while third-person writing allows for a greater scope of focus on multiple characters or a wider story, the first-person perspective tends to allow the writer to more accurately portray the nuanced thoughts of an individual, and so it seems more fitting for this purpose. Another possible reason is that this subjective first-person story, shown through the imagined eyes of Anna Frith, paints the emotions and feel of the setting better than a first-person narrative may manage to easily do.
3. Archaic and dialect words contribute to the story by creating a more realistic setting; in a similar way to the aforementioned example of anachronism (an ancient Roman wearing a watch), the story’s sense of realism would be broken if the residents of a small, 17th century British town were to speak just as we do today.
4. Aside from the stated phrases, notable signs of decay, loss and disillusionment in this chapter are: * ‘The courtyard hadn’t been swept in a sennight. It smelled of rotting straw and horse piss.’ * ‘If there’s one thing I couldn’t stand anymore, it’s the scent of a rotting apple.’ * ‘…sometimes I feel that I’m tending just another in that long procession of dead.’ * ‘My neighbours’ cottage was empty, the ivy already creeping across the windows and the grey lichens crusting the sills.’ * ‘[Nature] has taken less than a year to begin to reclaim its place.’
5. Some examples of parallels between the physical desolation of the garden and the spiritual desolation of Michael are: * The idea that Elinor would be sorry to see what had become of her garden; just as it has been dirtied with weeds, so too has Michael’s spirit been corrupted by his anger and grief, and Elinor would be most saddened to see what had become of this once-strong man. * In relation to the previous point, Anna remarks, ‘I expect she would understand why it is so’. * Anna also remarks on how nobody could truly restore Elinor’s garden back to its former glory, drawing comparisons to how – no matter what efforts Anna or any others may make in improving Michael’s state of depression – they could never tend to him with the same skill as his wife could have; he could never return to being the steadfast bastion of strength that he was when he stood with Elinor’s support.
6. It does not, to me, seem that Anna’s relative stability in the face of Michael’s mental collapse indicates a message of feminist resilience; regardless of Brooks’ intention, the two simply seem to be different people, defined in this aspect by their characters rather than their genders. This view is supported by Aphra’s fall into depraved insanity, which certainly contained no message of women being inherently strong.
7. Examples of the complexities of Anna’s character shown in this chapter are: * Her prioritising of compassion above tradition – ‘A servant has no right to stay, once she’s dismissed. But I did stay…’ (Page 4) * Her hesitance to let any life be in need, unhappiness or danger – tending to the horse (‘I kept prattling, softly, as I used to with the children when they were scared or hurt.’ (Page 5)), not wanting to pull out the plant (‘like me, so brimful of endings that they cannot bear to wrench even a scrawny sapling from its tenuous grip on life.’ (Page 12)).
Courtney from Study Moose