God and the Wedding Dress by Marjorie Bowen

the-1938-club After the success of last year’s 1924 Club, Karen (of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Simon (of Stuck in a Book) are back with The 1938 Club, the idea being that bloggers read and review books published in 1938, building up a picture of the literary scene in that year. I found lots of possibilities – 1938 seems to have been a particularly great year for literature – but I knew I was only going to have time to read one of them. Luckily the book that I decided on turned out to be a good choice for me.

The intriguingly titled God and the Wedding Dress is set in the seventeenth century in the village of Eyam in England’s Peak District. William Mompesson, the new Rector of Eyam, has recently arrived in the village with his wife, Kate, their two young children and Kate’s sister, Bessie, but the family are finding it difficult to adjust to their new life. They have all been used to luxury and comfort, but Mompesson’s new position requires them to live within their means, avoiding unnecessary extravagance. With Bessie’s marriage to the wealthy John Corbyn quickly approaching, however, the women are determined to make it a day to remember and so they send to London for a beautiful – and very expensive – dress.

God and the Wedding Dress Unfortunately, both women are unaware that with plague sweeping across London, Mompesson has been advised not to have any contact with people or items coming from the capital. By the time the Rector hears about the wedding dress, it’s too late: it has already been delivered to the tailor, the box has been opened, and the tailor’s apprentice is about to die a rapid and unpleasant death. It seems that the plague has arrived in Eyam.

What follows is a story which is both depressing and inspiring; the story of a small community working together in the face of unimaginable horrors, making sacrifices for the good of others which will have deadly consequences for themselves. It’s also a true story, based on the real events of 1665/66 (it’s not the only novel to have tackled this subject – Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders is also set in Eyam, although I haven’t read that one yet). Eyam itself really exists and is known today as ‘the Plague Village’, while many of the characters, including William Mompesson, were real people too.

Although we do change perspective from time to time, most of the story is told from Mompesson’s point of view, which I thought was the right decision. Mompesson, like his wife and sister-in-law, likes the finer things in life, but also has a desire to live the way his parishioners expect the Rector of Eyam to live. He is in conflict with himself, but also with the people around him. At first he views the villagers as little more than pagans, trusting to spells and charms to protect them from the plague. He finds it difficult to gain their respect and it is only when he joins forces with Thomas Stanley, the former Puritan minister of Eyam who was appointed during the time of Oliver Cromwell and who lost his position following the restoration of the monarchy, that Mompesson really begins to feel part of the community.

In her foreword, Marjorie Bowen states that there are many different types of historical novel and ‘this author has tried most of them’ which may sound conceited until you look at the very long and impressive list of books she wrote! I have read three of them in recent months (the other two being Dickon, a fictional biography of Richard III, and The Viper of Milan, a wonderful story set in Renaissance Italy) and I can say that the three I’ve read are all quite different in subject, style and tone. This is a quieter, more reflective novel, as much about a man’s inner struggles as it is about the history surrounding him.

I enjoyed God and the Wedding Dress, although it is obviously not the most cheerful of novels and not one to read if you need all of your characters to have a happy ending. It’s a fascinating story, though, and an important one because I think the sacrifice made by the people of Eyam deserves to be remembered.


Other 1938 books previously reviewed on this blog:

Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

24 thoughts on “God and the Wedding Dress by Marjorie Bowen

  1. Simon T says:

    What a great title – though I would never have guessed that was what it was about! Did the plague actually spread by a wedding dress? I have been to Eyam, and it is an interesting place – every old house has a stone outside telling you who died there, and how old they were.

    • Helen says:

      As far as I can tell, the plague really did arrive in Eyam in a parcel of flea-infested fabric from London, though not specifically a wedding dress, which I think must have been an invention of Marjorie Bowen’s. I would like to visit Eyam now that I know something about it’s history.

  2. jessicabookworm says:

    I am pleased to hear you are continuing to enjoy Marjorie Bowen’s novels; because of your reviews she is on my to-read list. While, as you said, this isn’t the happiest of themes it does sound like a interesting and more intimate way to look at the plague.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve always found it interesting to read about the plague and how people tried to cope with it without even understanding what caused it. The fact that this novel was based on real people and events made it even more fascinating.

  3. Lisa says:

    I’ve read Year of Wonders, which was my introduction to Eyam. This story sounds really interesting, and I’ve been meaning to look for Marjorie Bowen’s books.

    • Helen says:

      I did start to read Year of Wonders once but didn’t get past the first chapter because I wasn’t in the right mood for it. I’m thinking about trying it again as I would be interested to read another interpretation of the Eyam story.

    • Helen says:

      Nothing that made me specifically think of the 1930s, but I do love to read older historical fiction novels as they seem to have a very different feel from the ones being written today.

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    I hope someday you have a club of books from the 1940s. I have read tons of them. I have read Year of Wonders, in fact I have read all of Geraldine Brooks’ books except for The Secret Chord which I will be reading next month for a reading group. I learned a good bit about plague. I have also read Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor, that #4 bestseller and bodice ripper tome from 1944. There is a whole long passage in there about plague featuring Amber curing her lover from it, after which he throws her over.

    • Helen says:

      I think Karen and Simon have said that the next club they host will be a year from the 1940s. 🙂 I read Forever Amber years ago and enjoyed it. I can’t remember much about it now, but the plague section has stayed in my mind.

  5. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    Marjorie Bowen does sound like she has a lot to offer. It would be very interesting to compare this to Year of Wonders — which I read but some time ago, so I don’t have a strong memory of it. The Eyam story is such a striking and tragic one.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Oh! From the title of the book and the cover I wasn’t expecting a book about the plague. I’m certainly interested in this one.

    • Helen says:

      I would never have guessed just from the title and cover either. It was a surprise when I discovered it was actually a book about the plague.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think so – Marjorie Bowen’s real name was Gabrielle Margaret Campbell, so there’s no connection with Elizabeth Bowen as far as I know. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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