Anna Frith, a housemaid in the English town of Eyam, remarks that she used to love autumn. The season produced rich sights, like the “golden” hay, and smells, like sap and ripe apples. All these things signified that the harvest was successful and the town will make it safely through the winter. This year, no one has harvested hay or cut wood, and farmers harvested the apples so late that many of them are rotten. However, Anna feels too exhausted to worry about what this might mean for their survival.
The novel’s opening passage confronts the reader with two markedly different communities: the orderly, productive village Anna remembers and the eerie scenes she sees today—where tasks are left undone and there are no people in sight. The juxtaposition of the Eyam of the past and the Eyam of the present lets the reader know immediately that a catastrophe has occurred, and it frames the catastrophe in terms of its consequences to community order.
Anna cuts up an apple and takes it to her employer, the rector Michael Mompellion, who spends all his time sitting silently in an upstairs room. She offers to read the Bible to him, but he declines. After tidying his room the best she can, she returns to the household chores. She’s the only servant left at the rectory and is responsible for all its upkeep, from cooking meals to feeding Mompellion’s horse, Anteros. She brings an apple to the proud stallion and plans to make the rest of the apples into cider, since she “can’t stand” their smell when they rot.
Although Anna is nominally a servant, it’s clear that she’s in charge both of her household and of the rector Mompellion, who seems to be incapacitated in some way, since he has turned away from the Bible, the symbol of his vocation. This reversal in class distinctions is another indicator that something very disruptive has happened in Eyam. Readers also learn here that Anna is committed to maintaining order as much as possible. She is determined to put the harvested apples to use, recalling the community’s days of prosperity, instead of letting them rot and remind her of the town’s current state of decay.
Leaving the rectory for the night, Anna walks home through the orchards to avoid meeting anyone. The trees make her remember good things from the past, like the night her husband, Sam Frith, asked her to marry him. Anna had two sons with her husband and was content, even though “it was not a time when we were raised up thinking to be happy,” because the austere Puritans controlling the town at the time discouraged anything they saw as frivolous enjoyment.
Anna marks the passing of time by which religious group controls Eyam, showing how foundational religion is to the community. She informs the reader obliquely that Eyam has recently undergone a profound religious shift, from Puritan to Anglican control. Although the town presents an image of religious homogeneity, in fact there are many conflicting viewpoints about what it means to be a Christian and how one should approach the divine.
However, after three years Sam was killed in a mining accident. Anna remarks that Sam’s was the first of dozens of dead bodies she has prepared for the grave in the last few years. She compares his death in the dark mine to Mompellion’s habit of spending all day in a dark room, and says that she tends to him as she would her husband. She tells herself that she does this for the sake of Elinor, her friend and Mompellion’s dead wife, but seems to doubt this stated motivation for her loyalty.
Anna’s stoic reference to her husband’s death shows that even in the past Eyam life was marked by tragedy and hardship. Moreover, her comparison of her husband and her employer shows how closely Anna feels herself tied to her employer. Although she’s their servant, Anna thinks of the Mompellions as family or close friends. Still, she can’t quite understand the nature of her relationship to them or the reasons for her loyalty.
Anna spends a lonely night in her cottage and returns to the rectory in the morning with a bucket of milk from her cow, which she intends to make into a sweet dish that will tempt Mompellion to eat. She describes the village, which consists of one small street on the side of a hill. All the buildings are made from local materials, just as the villagers only eat what they can grow. These days, instead of being dirty and muddy from too much traffic, the road is “grassed over” from disuse. Anna is amazed that while it took the villagers hundreds of years to carve out a small community, nature only needs a few seasons to “reclaim its place.”
The reader gets a sense of Eyam’s isolation and the ever-present anxiety about survival, since the villagers have only the materials and crops around them to rely on. Anna also shows her awe of “nature,” which she describes as a powerful but impersonal force, not necessarily related to the divine. Anna respects nature but fears it, too, noting its tendency to obliterate rather than nurture human presence.
At the rectory Anna finds Elizabeth Bradford, the daughter of a local family of landed gentry. Elizabeth demands to see Mompellion, pushing aside Anna’s excuses that he is too unwell to perform pastoral tasks and resenting that a servant even dares to speak back to her. Anna makes an ironic comment that the village didn’t expect to be “graced by your presence” after the Bradfords fled from the plague the year before. Elizabeth is so proud that she believes Anna is speaking in earnest.
Elizabeth, who has been absent during whatever disaster has occurred, still operates by the old social conventions which privileged her desires above all else. But her behavior is so outmoded now that she looks silly and delusional. Anna, a servant, doesn’t even bother to be deferential to her. Their exchange shows that events in Eyam have had profound consequences for class dynamics.
Elizabeth pushes past Anna and ambushes Mompellion on the rectory stairwell, demanding that he come to her mother, who is dying of a “tumor” at Bradford Hall. However, Mompellion is unmoved. He says that since the Bradfords have been absent for the last year when the town had need of them, they shouldn’t expect him care about their needs now. He suggests sarcastically that Elizabeth and her mother pray for God’s forgiveness, but says He will probably prove “a poor listener.”
Mompellion’s sharp words alert Elizabeth to her new place in the community; her class privileges can’t overcome the Bradford’s callous exodus from Eyam in its hour of need. Even more shockingly, Mompellion demonstrates an embittered ambivalence toward God. As the rector, he’s supposed to assure the townspeople that God is a constant presence in the world, caring for his people, but here he characterizes God as impersonal, if not outright malicious, in much the same way that Anna described “nature” before.
In the kitchen, Elizabeth breaks down in weeping so pathetically that Anna can’t help consoling her. Elizabeth confesses that Mrs. Bradford doesn’t actually have a tumor, implying that she has become pregnant out of wedlock and that Colonel Bradford has disowned her as a “whore.”
According to the mores of the day, women’s sexuality must be contained within the bonds of matrimony and controlled by their husbands. Transgressions of these oppressive customs are likely to have harsh consequences. Disowned by her husband and powerless without him, Mrs. Bradford is likely to die in childbirth. This pregnancy is associated with the stigmatization of female sexuality and its life-threatening results.
Anna is concerned by the sudden turn in the Bradfords’ circumstances, but even more so by Mompellion’s blasphemous speech to Elizabeth, which she sees as evidence of mental instability. She returns to his room, picks up the Bible, and reads from Psalm 103, about God’s forgiveness. Mompellion counters with Psalm 128, which says that “your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,” a bitter reference to his own dead wife, Elinor. Then he deliberately drops the Bible on the floor.
In a society organized around religion, religious doubts are almost synonymous with insanity. Anna attempts to rationalize current events through a literal interpretation of the Bible, the way she has always been taught to approach religion. However, Mompellion points out the unreliability of such interpretations. His final desecration of the Bible shows the profound religious shift that has taken place in Eyam.