Year of Wonders is based on the true story of Eyam, a small village in the north of England, which made the remarkable decision to voluntarily quarantine itself when struck by plague in 1665. The text commences in autumn 1666, as Anna Frith, a young widow who serves the rector, Michael Mompellion, tries unsuccessfully to comfort her master on the recent loss of his wife, Elinor.
The narrative then reverts to the previous spring. A tailor from London, George Viccars, comes to the village to work and boards at Anna’s house. Anna is grateful for the extra income, as her own husband, Sam, died in a mining accident the year before. She is also grateful for Viccars’ good company and the generous interest he shows towards her two small sons. However, any relationship between them is cut short when Viccars sickens suddenly and dies of a mysterious and painful illness. Before his death, he begs that all of his belongings, as well as the garments he has made for the villagers, be burned. Anna is the only one who chooses to heed this advice.
Viccars has died of bubonic plague and the pestilence spreads rapidly throughout the village. The death toll mounts, and Anna is devastated when she loses both of her children in quick succession. As fear grips the community, some respond with violence and Mem and Anys Gowdie, the local healers, are targeted in a murderous attack. Michael Mompellion then takes control and uses his authority to implement the quarantine. After the defection of the Bradfords, the most powerful family in the area, responsibility for the welfare of the town falls heavily on the shoulders of Mompellion, his wife Elinor, and Anna herself.
The crisis brings out the best and the worst in the community. Some behave with great generosity and altruism, some with malice and greed. Joss Bont, Anna’s father, is the worst of these. Having set himself up as a gravedigger, he shamelessly exploits the townspeople, and pays a grim price when he is indicted and judged guilty of theft. In contrast, Anna works closely with Elinor Mompellion in attempting to learn what they can from the Gowdies’ herb knowledge in order to fight the plague. A strong bond is forged between them and Elinor entrusts Anna with the secret of her seduction as a young girl. Together the two women accomplish a great deal, including…