Books and reading

‘Tidelands’: a change of focus for historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory

Lovers of historical fiction will know that Philippa Gregory is one of the most well known and respected UK authors, with titles such as The Other Boleyn Girl, The White Queen, The Red Queen, The Last Tudor and The Constant Princess on best seller lists, some made into movies or TV series. These books explored the stories of the women caught up in the wars and intrigues of the Plantagenet and Tudor dynasties in England. With her latest novel, Tidelands, the focus moves away from royals and courts, to the ordinary folk, the people who live with the consequences of the decisions and actions of royalty and aristocracy throughout history.

What hasn’t changed is the author’s interest in telling the stories of women. In Tidelands the central character is Alinor, a poor woman living in the marshy coastal regions of southern England in the mid seventeenth century. Alinor is a midwife, herbalist and healer – sought after by her fellow villagers in times of ill health or childbirth, but also regarded with suspicion at a time when the line between ‘healer’ and ‘witch’ could be so easily blurred.

Alinor’s England is convulsed by civil war, and the ‘old ways’ of the Catholic Church and many of the centuries-old village customs are frowned upon or banned. Villagers and nobles alike are forced to choose sides: for King or for Parliament. Declaring your choice could be dangerous, depending on which way the pendulum of victory swings, and villagers were sometimes all too keen to inform on their neighbours if there was gain in it for them.

Amidst all this turmoil and suspicion, Alinor wants to live a quiet life with her two growing children, not causing offence or getting involved in political or religious debate. She grows her herbs, prepares her healing tonics and tinctures, assists those who need her help, and labours on the local estate during harvest season. She is disadvantaged both economically and socially by being ‘neither a wife nor a widow’, since her abusive husband disappeared at sea. Some of the less generous villagers look at her with disdain because of this alone.

At the opening of the book, Alinor meets James, a Catholic priest on a mission to assist the exiled King Charles – and she is immediately drawn into a web of intrigue and secrets. She helps James across the hazardous marshes that surround her home. There is no turning back from this moment, as events draw inexorably to their dangerous conclusions.

The novel skilfully weaves the tiny details of Alinor’s and village life within the tapestry of a nation convulsed by political conflict and religious fanaticism. Philippa’s meticulous research shows in these details: the work of the harvest, the water mill where the grain is turned into flour, the herbs of Alinor’s garden, the customs around betrothal, dowries, marriage and childbirth, the work of collecting eggs and making meals. They drew me in until I could almost feel the mud under my boots, smell the smouldering fire of Alinor’s cottage, see the thick fogs of the marshlands. I love the details of daily life that sit alongside the grand sweep of historical events.

There is romance in the story, although this is not a ‘happily ever after’ sort of novel and the romance plays out in unexpected ways. There are chilling scenes of persecution that left me enraged and tender moments of family love and loyalty that are timeless.

Most of all, the setting plays a pivotal role throughout – the estuarine marshes are a fitting backdrop for a story about personal and political suspicion and treachery. It is an eerie, dramatic and marginal landscape on which the affairs of Alinor and her family, and those of the nation, are played out.

I loved this novel and I was happy to learn that this is book one in what the author calls the Fairmile series. I look forward to reading book two.

If you’d like to know more about Philippa Gregory and her books, check out her website: https://www.philippagregory.com/

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