Summary of “Apple-Picking Time”
Year of Wonders opens in the fall of 1666. Anna Frith, a young woman, is the house servant to Michael Mompellion, the village rector. Michael is extremely despondent because his wife, Elinor Mompellion, has recently died. Anna is trying to get him to regain his strength by eating apples, but he refuses to open up.
Anna remembers happier times, particularly the period when she was married to Sam after she turned fifteen. She mentions that Sam has been dead for a while, though he gave her two sons before his death. However, Anna is incredibly lonely because her two sons died from the plague. When she is back on Michael's property, though, her focus is on Michael and on trying to get him to respond.
One day, the wealthy Elizabeth Bradford arrives and demands that Michael come and give her sick mother attention. Michael refuses to go see Mrs. Bradford, remarking that he will not give her family any relief because the Bradfords fled the village when the plague first appeared. Their move hurt the villagers significantly, and Michael denies the Bradfords in much the same way that the Bradfords ignored the villagers' plight. Elizabeth, however, pleads with Michael. She says that her father, Colonel Bradford, was abusive and controlling; she doesn’t want the Colonel’s behavior to influence her mother’s health.
After Elizabeth leaves without Michael, Anna tries to comfort him with a passage from the Bible. He then recites another verse back to her, yet this verse is not uplifting: it discusses how a man’s home is full, supplied with a wife and children. Michael lets the Bible drop to the floor. Anna tries to catch it mid-air, but Michael harshly grabs her arm. She flees immediately, still feeling the pain from his grasp.
Summary of “Ring of Roses”
The novel leaps back to of spring of 1665, when Anna is eighteen years old, widowed, and looking for ways to supplement her income. When a tailor named George Viccars comes to the village, she takes him in as a lodger in her spare room. Her son enjoys George’s company because George offers attention and lighthearted play when Anna is too busy. Anna also begins to like George as well; their discussions revolve around topics like prostitution and whether or not it is right. Both Anna and George find themselves in consensus that the profession isn’t something to be scoffed at, especially when a woman desperately needs some way to make money.
As his relationship with Anna grows, George receives a box of fabric from London. He begins making several gowns for the village women, and he even makes one for Anna for free. She tries it on, and the two kiss briefly. Yet Anna notices that George is flushed and fevered. She puts him to bed immediately.
The next morning, Anna is still agitated from the previous evening. She makes George and her children breakfast and then heads to the rectory. Elinor Mompellion is in her garden and tries to teach Anna about certain plants and their properties, but Anna doesn’t pay attention. She is worried that people will think that she is a witch because she is widowed and interested in herbal remedies. She contemplates Anys Gowdie and Mem Gowdie, who have had these accusations flung at them for years. Even Anna’s selfish stepmother Aphra Bont believes that Anys is a witch, though she is also jealous of Anys’s beauty.
Anna goes back home after spending the day cleaning the rectory. She checks in on George and finds that he is severely sick. George displays sores and discolored skin; Anna also smells rotting apples as she steps into his room. George deliriously tells her to leave the room and demands a priest. Michael shows up immediately and looks after him. George screams “Burn it all!” as a warning and premonition. He dies two days later.
From the first chapter of Year of Wonders, it is apparent that Anna is a strong, forward-thinking woman. She is observant and open-minded, yet kind. She wants the best for Michael and refuses to give up on him after the death of his wife Elinor. Yet she is extremely lonely, as exemplified by how she talks about how much she misses Sam and her two boys. Indeed, her life is considerably happier before her sons’ deaths, when she finds comfort in George Viccars’s presence. George isn’t just a distraction, though. There is an undeniable attraction, and his conversations with Anna are smart and energetic: the two new companions bounce ideas and opinions off each other.
One such opinion belongs to Anna, who believes that women who go into prostitution shouldn’t be judged for their actions. She doesn’t see the women as evildoers or sinners because she intuits that something happened to them that made them turn to prostitution in the first place. George finds it strange that a young religious woman would hold such an idea, but Anna’s history explains why she keeps an open mind about how women are sometimes forced to make ends meet. In her case, the death of her husband and the demands of caring for two young boys required her to enter the workforce as a housekeeper.
Anna is lucky to have a viable option that allowed her to keep her reputation intact. While she never judges women for their life choices, she knew better than to choose a career that would put her and children at risk. This idea comes to light when Elinor is trying to teach Anna about plants and the remedies they offer. Anna discusses how a woman in her position would cause a stir in the community if she were to do anything that resembles witchcraft. Introducing Anys and Mem sets up a dichotomy between the civic-minded Anna and the less-than-respectable Gowdies. Even though the Gowdies aren’t actually witches, negative perceptions of the Gowdies are pervasive in the community, so that Anna must be careful about how she conducts herself and her affairs.
Though Anna is relatively open-minded about the Gowdies, her stepmother Aphra is less forgiving. Aphra judges Anys not only for her medicines and tonics, but also for Anys’s beauty. Anys has a power over men of which many women are cautious. This jealousy feeds into such women's fear of Anys’s non-religious ways, occasionally making women like Aphra seek out the Gowdies' help while simultaneously speaking ill of the Gowdies behind their backs. All of these instances play into the theme of inter-female relationships, which often turn competitive and suspicious: women are conditioned to shun particular women who pose a threat to the traditional ways of the community.
Also present in the novel at this early stage are the themes of loss of faith and loss of life. These themes are especially strong in the characterization of Michael. After Elinor’s death, Michael goes into a state of severe depression, which appears to be a result of losing a faithful and devoted woman whom he loved. This state is different from Anna’s; she has had time to get over the loss of her husband. However, her grief offers no respite and she has learned to accept her losses. She knows that Michael will reach such a place in his life, and for Elinor’s sake Anna wants to help him find peace.
The biggest loss of all, though, is the loss of faith. Michael, the town priest, has lost both his worldly love and his devotion to God. This sense of loss is present in his response to Elizabeth Bradford, when he tells her that God has stopped listening. The Bible falling from Michael's hands to the floor also symbolizes his loss of faith. In one swoop, everything he held onto and believed in leaves him after the horrific year of the plague.
Another instance of symbolism is the green dress that George makes for Anna. After wearing mourning black for so long, she is thrilled at the prospect of having a beautiful green dress crafted specifically for her. Green is the color of new life, beginnings, and fresh starts. These are all in Anna’s mind as she thinks about George and the kiss they shared. Yet this start is inverted, as many symbols in Year of Wonders are. Nothing about the plague resembles the villagers’ normal life, so any symbol of happiness and beauty is immediately crushed by sickness and pain.