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.
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: