Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Geraldine Brooks

Born to an American father and an Australian mother, Brooks grew up in a suburb of Sydney. After attending the University of Sydney, she wrote for newspapers in Australia and eventually moved to New York, where she graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism. She subsequently began working for American publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker, and spent the 1990s covering political events in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East, often in conjunction with her husband, a fellow journalist. Brooks published her first non-fiction book, Nine Parts of Desire, in 1994 and her first novel, Year of Wonders, in 2001. Many of her novels are based on historical material Brooks discovered in the course of her work as a journalist. Brooks lives in Massachusetts with her family.
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Historical Context of Year of Wonders

The late seventeenth century was a tumultuous time for England. Year of Wonders is set in 1666, the same year as the famous Great Fire of London that decimated much of the city. 1651, just fifteen years before, marked the end of the English Civil War, one of the bloodiest conflicts ever to take place on English soil. The war pitted Parliamentarian “Roundheads” (who wanted to establish a constitutional government under the Puritan Oliver Cromwell) against Royalist “Cavaliers” (who supported the king, Charles I). After winning the war and beheading Charles I for treason, Cromwell ruled the country, attempting to remold cultural and religious practices to reflect austere Puritan ideals. When Cromwell died in 1658, the heir to the crown, Charles II, returned from exile in France to rule the country, bringing with him more relaxed Anglican customs and fostering a decadent and elaborate cultural life in his court. While Eyam is too isolated and poor to be much involved in political events, its important to note that religious practices, which form the basis of community life, have been in upheaval for a decade prior to the story’s beginning, with people uncertain as to which church and which leaders they owe loyalty. Thus, even at the outset of the novel, the apparently dreary village of Eyam is not as stable as it seems.

Other Books Related to Year of Wonders

Set in the seventeenth century but addressing themes that are still relevant today, Year of Wonders has much in common with other literary works that refer to the past in order to illuminate the present. For example, Brooks’ novel shares many features with Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. Set during the 1692 Salem Witch trials, the play explores a catastrophe’s social consequences on an isolated, highly religious community, but it can also be read as a meditation on the anti-Communist “witch hunts” that gripped America during the 1950s, when Miller was writing. The true story of the 1665 plague outbreak and voluntary quarantine in Eyam has been the subject of numerous poems, paintings, books, and even musicals, including God and the Wedding Dress, a novel by Marjorie Bowen, The Roses of Eyam, a play by Don Taylor, and Plague Upon Eyam, an opera by John Drummond.
Key Facts about Year of Wonders
  • Full Title: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
  • When Written: 2001
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 2001
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Setting: Eyam, England
  • Climax: Aphra, driven mad by grief and rage, murders the innocent Elinor Mompellion during a religious gathering.
  • Antagonist: The bubonic plague; religious fanaticism; misogyny
  • Point of View: Anna Frith, first-person limited

Extra Credit for Year of Wonders

Annus Mirabilis. “Year of Wonders” is the English translation of “Annus Mirabilis,” the title of a poem by John Dryden commemorating 1666, a year marked by catastrophes including the Great Fire of London and the plague that is the focus of this book. While the word “wonder” or “wonderful” has a strongly positive connotation to the modern reader, for Dryden and his seventeenth-century audience it would have had a more oblique meaning, describing things that were extraordinary or beyond comprehension, whether a miracle or a tragedy.

True Story. While most of the novel’s characters, including the protagonist Anna Frith, are fictional, Michael Mompellion is based on a real person, William Mompesson, a charismatic local vicar who persuaded the plague-stricken villagers of Eyam to voluntarily quarantine themselves.