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Move over, Gloria Steinem—Anna Frith is our new favorite feminist.
In Year of Wonders, we watch Anna undertake a quest of self-discovery. She learns about herself, redefines her relationship to the world, and ultimately rejects the limitations that society places on women. All in the middle of an outbreak of Black Plague in the 17th century.
Now, the Anna we meet at the beginning of the novel is pretty different. At that point, she's a recently widowed mother of two who's still readjusting to life as a single woman. She's pretty independent, but she's not exactly upending the social order. In large part, this is due to her personal insecurity and sexual repression, both of which are abundantly present when she flirts with George Viccars.
Anna's not the only woman in the novel without much sense of independence or personal identity. In 17th-century English society, women had pretty clearly defined roles: obedient wife, loving mother. Not that there's anything wrong with those roles, but they're not necessarily for everyone, all the time.
As Anna begins her journey of self-discovery, she finds two very different role models: Anys Gowdie and Elinor Mompellion. Anys is a rebel who completely defies social norms: she sleeps with men (including Viccars), creates herbal medicines, and argues that wives are "shackled to their menfolk as surely as the plough-horse to the shares" (2.3.26). Elinor, on the other hand, retains a sense of conventional femininity while still defying sexism. She's the best of both worlds, if you ask Anna.
Although Anna's transformation has already begun, the plague kicks it into overdrive when it arrives. The deaths of her sons are particularly brutal because they upend Anna's sense of identity. She defined herself as a mother. With no more children, she feels that she's no one.
So what does she do? Well, at first, she just kind of flounders. In her grief, Anna turns to opium to ease the pain. It seems to work at first, but like any substance abuse, it eventually bites you in the butt and makes your problems worse. Take a look at how Anna wakes up after her second binge, for example:
This time, it was no outward horror that plunged me back into our hard reality, but my own realization [...] that I had no further means to secure such oblivion. (2.9.19)
How does Anna dig herself out of this hole? It's simple: she helps people. She delivers newborns. She invents herbal medicines with Elinor. She risks her life in a mine to help young Merry. Anna discovers two important facts from these efforts. First, she learns that she's actually fulfilled by helping people, especially when what she's doing involves medicine. Second, and most importantly, she realizes that anyone who tries to place gendered limitations on her is full of BS.
Then, the biggest tragedy of all for Anna occurs—Elinor dies. These two women were total besties, and Anna now wonders how she can survive alone. We think that she should be comforted by something Elinor told her before her death. Check it: "I wonder if you know how you have changed. It is the one good, perhaps, to come out of this terrible year" (2.13.15).
Well, Elinor is kind of right, but it's complicated. Evidence? Well, for one thing, Anna ends up sleeping with Michael Mompellion, whom she has long been attracted to. This is great, on the one hand, because it represents Anna overcoming her sexual repression. But it's also kind of lame because it feels like she's betraying Elinor. This goes double after Michael reveals that he withheld sex from Elinor to punish her for her past sexual activity.
That's when Anna makes a big realization. Unlike Mompellion, who's now a broken man, Anna herself has become stronger over the past year: "I understood that where Michael Mompellion had been broken by our shared ordeal, in equal measure I had been tempered and made strong" (3.15.45).
That's what Elinor was trying to tell her. After all, would the old Anna travel to Algeria to become a medical assistant for a prominent Muslim doctor, along with two new daughters who were born out of wedlock? We don't think so. It might have been painful to reach this place, but Anna has become a stronger, more independent woman as a result of her personal wonder year.