by Philippa Gregory
‘This was the walking night for the dead, this night and their saints’ days; but she did not think her drunken violent husband had been under the care of any particular saint.’
Alinor Reekie scratches out a living for herself and her children Rob and Alys in the marshlands of Sussex. She is twenty-seven years old, a wise woman and a midwife, and supplements the income from her talents by performing menial tasks for her richer neighbours. The family needs money. Rob has inherited his mother’s wisdom and wishes to study as an apothecary. Alys wants to marry a rich farmer’s son and lacks a dowry.
Set in 1648/9, Tidelands is probably the least “historical” of the Gregory novels I have read. It is no less enjoyable for that. The English Civil War is coming to an end. Cromwell and his Puritans are in charge and King Charles is in open prison on the Isle of Wight. Alinor’s husband has deserted her to join the Roundhead army and she does not know whether he is alive or dead. Not that she misses him. Zachary Reekie was a violent, abusive drunkard. However, 1648 is a dangerous time for women, especially women with Alinor’s skills and being without a husband makes life doubly dangerous for her. It is the age of witch-hunting. Superstition is rife and neighbours gossip.
‘James bowed his head. He could not deny that she was disposed to sin…. He spoke of the colour of her hair and how a curl escaped from her cap anmd blew against her face. He spoke of her scarred hands and her rough linen.’
On Midsummer Eve, in the graveyard, Alinor meets James Summer and gives him sanctuary when he is in danger of falling victim to the vicious tides. James is clearly a gentleman, but he is also a Catholic Priest and a spy for the exiled Queen Henrietta, his mission to facilitate Charles’s escape from prison. He is on his way to visit the local lord of the manor Sir William Peachey, a Royalist sympathiser. Despite the differences in their rank and religion, Alinor and James fall in love.
James becomes tutor to Peachey’s son Walter and engages Rob Reekie to be his companion. At the end of Rob’s service there is promise of his hoped for apprenticeship. James takes the two boys to the Isle of Wight as cover for his mission. However, when he gains access to the King, Charles refuses to leave.
‘Alinor felt Alys’ cold hand creep into her own. “Help me, Ma.” “How can I? This is a hanging offence. This is theft.” ‘
Back in England, James falls sick and Alinor nurses him in isolation. The inevitable happens. But James finds it isn’ t so easy to relinquish his calling or break with his noble family for a poor commoner; Alinor’s ambitions for her children are threatened by her poverty and by the whisperings around the neighbourhood that some of her talents aren’t natural.
In Tidelands, Philippa Gregory has forsaken royalty and instead focusses her story on the two fictional protagonists. This is romantic fiction and it is their points of view which matter. King Charles’s appearance is confined to a few pages. Despite some easily-anticipated twists, the novel is full of suspense and dark secrets, and engages the reader right to the end. I liked Alinor and James, though I had to suspend disbelief a little to do so. I especially liked Alys, the not so dutiful daughter, who shows initiative and tenacity throughout, and drives an unforeseen conclusion.
‘The king he had sworn to serve wanted none of his loyalty, and the woman he desired was a whore to the faeries…..He thought he was very far from God, and very far from grace, and a long, long way from home.’