The narrative turns back in time to the spring of the previous year. After the financial hardships of the first winter of her husband’s death, Anna is thankful when George Viccars, a journeyman tailor new to town, becomes her paying tenant, supplementing the meager living she ekes out from raising a flock of sheep and working part-time as a maid at Bradford Hall. George works for Anna’s neighbor, Alexander Hadfield, and turns out to be kind and polite; he immediately takes to Anna’s sons Jamie and Tom, and spends a lot of time playing with them. At night, he works by the fire and tells fascinating tales of faraway cities like London, York, and Canterbury. As their friendship becomes more intimate, Anna notes that she never had evenings like this with her husband, Sam, who worked all day in the mines and was too tired to talk when he got home.
This passage tells the reader a lot about Anna’s character. She’s highly independent, figuring out resourceful ways to support herself as a widow rather than relying on others or turning to a second marriage. She’s also very intelligent and, even when she’s most content, chafes at the tiny sphere in which she lives. Intellectually, she has much more in common with well-traveled outsiders like her tenant, George, than the simple villagers like her husband, among whom she’s lived her entire life.
The towns is greatly excited when Mr. Hadfield orders a box of cloth from London, which he and George store in Anna’s cottage. Even though he’s inundated with orders for clothes from the villagers, George finds time to make Anna a beautiful green dress. Anna is reluctant to accept the gift, worried that others will think it evidence of an improper relationship between tenant and landlady, or that it will make her feel beholden to George. But she has almost no possessions and only one dress, so she tries it on and is surprised by how beautiful and womanly she feels while wearing it. George kisses her and says that he wishes she would let him “provide for you in all matters,” hinting that he would like to marry her. But when Anna touches his face, she realizes he has a fever and orders him to bed, saying they will talk about this later.
This passage lays out Anna’s complex relationship with her sexuality. The beautiful dress shows George’s desire for her. One the one hand, it’s exciting and alluring to feel desirable. Still, she knows that accepting the dress has consequences. Any public demonstration of sexuality from an unmarried woman will bring disapproval from the community. On a personal level, she worries that even an implicit sexual entanglement threatens the independence she’s carved out for herself. Here, Anna characterizes female sexuality as fundamentally at odds with a woman’s social position and her independence.
Anna sleeps poorly, mulling over the possibility of marrying George. Preoccupied since her husband’s death with the survival of her small family, she realizes that she is still young (only eighteen) and wants to experience life and love again. She does her morning chores and leaves the house before George or her sons awake. As she kisses Jamie’s head, she reflects that although Christians are warned not to love “any earthly thing” more than God, her love for her sons is stronger than anything she has ever known.
Anna is ambivalent about her romantic feelings for George, especially compared to her incredibly strong bond with her sons. But she knows she’s attracted to him, and this attraction reminds her of her youth and potential, which she’s forgotten since her husband’s death. This is the first instance of sexual desire rescuing Anna from emotional lethargy and prompting her to action.
Arriving at the rectory, where she works as a housemaid in the mornings, Anna finds Elinor Mompellion working in the garden. Elinor is a rare example of a well-born woman who doesn’t think herself too good to work the land, or to be kind to her servants; Anna characterizes her as inherently good, saying that she “could not” perceive “the distinctions the world wanted to make” between those of high or low status. Elinor has been teaching Anna to read; although almost everyone in Eyam is illiterate, Anna has always been smart and hungry for knowledge, making letters in the dust as a child and loving church because it provided her access to literature.
Elinor nurtures Anna’s intellectual growth, teaching her more than is socially acceptable for a servant or a woman. This passage emphasizes Anna’s intelligence but also the fact that her friendship with Elinor is grounded in education and the sense of empowerment Anna derives from obtaining knowledge. Elinor’s inherent goodness is linked to her disregard for class distinctions, which suggests that such distinctions are inherently bad.
However, Anna doesn’t want Elinor to teach her herb knowledge, lest other people begin to think she is a witch. While Elinor is protected by her class from such suspicions, the town healer, Mem Gowdie, was once accused of witchcraft; people believed that because her teas and salves could cure illnesses, she could also cause miscarriages or bad harvests. The villagers still look “aslant” at Mem’s neice, Anys, who also works as a healer; Anna notes that her stepmother, Aphra, relies on Anys to cure her children’s minor ailments but fills the house with charms against witches when she visits. Aphra insinuates that Anys uses supernatural means to make herself more attractive to men.
Just as she emphasizes how much she loves learning, Anna reflects on the danger of seeming too educated or knowledgeable as a woman. The women in Eyam with the most knowledge, the Gowdies, are feared and ostracized, even though everyone else relies on them for medical care. The Gowdies show how hostile society is to any kind of female power, even if that power is manifested through knowledge that benefits everyone. Mem Gowdie’s accusation of witchcraft is a testament to the punishment waiting for any woman who seems suspiciously smart.
After completing her morning’s work at the rectory, Anna returns home to nurse Tom. She’s surprised her sons are sitting in the kitchen with Jane, the girl that watches them, rather than playing with George. Going upstairs, she finds George lying in bed, moaning with fever and disfigured by a huge sore on his face that smells like rotting apples. George, recognizing that he has a contagious and fatal disease, urges Anna to take her children and leave the house; but Anna stays to nurse him, fetching Mompellion to console him spiritually. Before George dies, he exhorts them to burn all his possessions and the cloth that came from London.
While apples used to symbolize prosperity and safety for Anna, they quickly come to remind her of the grotesque sores that appear on plague victims. Here, apples begin to represent the precariously thin line between vitality and decay. This passage also shows Anna’s instinctive altruism. Even though George tells her repeatedly that her own survival is at stake, she refuses to leave him to die alone. Her bravery and compassion are similar to Mompellion’s.