Apologies to those who were relieved when I recently announced I’d come to the end of my Philippa Gregory phase. Here we go again. I got a note from my wonderful local bookshop (Wardinis, since you ask) when online orders were allowed and thought this latest looked looked the perfect lockdown book. Delivered and gobbled. I have no desire to binge on Netflix in lockdown but I could re-read every Philippa Gregory on my bookshelves and be happily entertained for a few weeks, in a mindless-but-it’s-still-history sort of way.
Tidelands is a very readable book. Typical Gregory, meticulously researched setting, lots of truth in the detail and flights of ridiculous fancy to drive the story along.
There’s a woman. She’s extraordinarily beautiful (of course). She has a son and a daughter and her bullying husband has left her. Because he’s a no-hoper or because she’s a witch, one or the other. Doesn’t matter. He’s gone but not not dead, so our woman Alinor is in no-man’s land. Literally, because it’s 1648 and a woman needs a man to give her substance.
Enter James Summer, who is a Catholic priest working from exile in France to restore the buffoon king of England, Charles I (who in my mind looks strangely like Boris) and trounce Cromwell’s army. He is a cautious and secretive man on important missions of state, though on impulse he throws caution to the winds and falls madly in love with Alinor.
Alinor is not really a witch (of course not, there’s no such thing) but she is beguiling and dabbles in herbs and potions and has the magic hands of a midwife, though she credits hygiene and experience because an accusation of magic-making means facing the witch-in-the-water test, and she is very afraid of deep water. And so, it turns out, she should be. Anyway, she falls for the lovely James Summer in return, and although she is a midwife and a mixer of potions and slightly witchy-like, she has passionate romps with him with no contraception and no inkling she is pregnant until she begins to show, despite all the signs. She also has a strong sense of right and wrong, despite which she tempts this man to give up everything for love of her. Really? She is a near destitute woman with two children very far below his station — I think Philippa Gregory’s social history lets us down here because that’s a fairy-tale step too far. Her son is an angel but angelic daughter a conniving little liar and thief. Mum gives her no comeuppance; not sure where the moral compass went there.
Despite the fun of the fancy, Philippa Gregory is a real storyteller and an important one. History is written by men about men and Gregory says she hunts for “illiterate powerless women though many sources: unjust courts, biased reports and fanciful medical records.” Good for her, she has my vote. Women have had so little agency down the centuries, and Gregory shows us a whole world of common women about their daily lives: their pecking order, the striving for advancement, the need to protect a reputation and their kindnesses to each another, their raising of children, their work. Our heroine may be extraordinary but her world is very down to earth.
I recommend everyone turn off Netflix and keep a stack of Philippa Gregory’s on their bookshelves for guests, rainy Sundays, and lockdowns.