Tidelands by Philippa Gregory: Sheer perfection in its sense of time and place, and is a bewitching - book review

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory
Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

After a raft of thrilling novels exploring the kings, queens, and politics of the medieval Wars of the Roses, Philippa Gregory turns her historian’s keen eye and novelist’s vivid imagination to another turbulent period of British history… the English Civil War.

Skipping forward two centuries, Gregory sweeps us away to the remote coastal marshes of Sussex in 1648 and into the life of a young midwife whose healing arts set her on a perilous path in a country increasingly suspicious of priests, Popery and witchcraft.

Tidelands is the first book of Gregory’s new Fairmile series and, in her trademark style, it’s a seething, smouldering, stunning story steeped in the atmosphere, passion, and dark corners of women’s history that have made her one of the world’s most popular novelists.

In a febrile England, held in the grip of a bitter civil war and a naïve, renegade king fighting a losing battle against the power of a rebellious, Puritan-led Parliament, Gregory sets her sights on the plight of an ordinary woman caught up in a destructive political and social maelstrom.

Brimming with danger, dark secrets, forbidden love and set in a haunting, moody, desolate landscape of stinking mud, sinking sand, hidden ditches and grinding poverty, this gritty, coruscating portrait of 17th century rural life is a far cry from the power play of the Plantagenet court.

On Midsummer’s Eve in 1648, England is in the grip of civil war and the struggle is reaching every corner of the kingdom, even to the remote Tidelands, the marshy landscape of the south coast near the ancient city of Chichester.

Alinor Reekie, the 27-year-old descendant of wise women, crushed by poverty and superstition, waits in the graveyard under the full moon for a ghost whose presence she believes will declare her free from her abusive fisherman husband, Zachary, who has been missing for many months.

Midwife and herbalist Alinor has been left to care for her two teenage children, Alys and Rob, but a woman determined to succeed on her own, and possessing skills that can so easily be interpreted as witchcraft, is always under suspicion.

Instead of discovering Zachary’s ghost in the graveyard, Alinor meets 22-year-old James Summer, a young Catholic priest on the run from the Puritans and an integral player in an audacious Royalist plot to free King Charles from imprisonment on the Isle of Wight.

Alinor, whose brother Ned is a fierce Parliamentarian, shows James the secret ways across the treacherous marsh to the safe haven of the local Catholic landowner Sir William Peachey’s home, not knowing that she is leading disaster into the heart of her life.

Rewarded for her help, and increasingly involved with the handsome priest whose interest in her has turned her from a woman of stone to ‘a woman of desire,’ Alinor is soon suspected by her neighbours of possessing dark secrets.

A woman without a husband, skilled with herbs, ever eager to make her own path in life, and now suddenly enriched, arouses envy in her rivals and fear among the villagers… who are more than ready to take lethal action into their own hands.

Gregory delivers her own special brand of history, mystery, political turmoil and spine-tingling menace as Alinor – an outcast who is ‘not a widow nor a wife’ – grows increasingly vulnerable in a land becoming more and more obsessed with witch-mania.

The civil war has brought great social change and it’s a dangerous time for a woman to be ‘different,’ particularly a wise woman like Alinor… rumours of ‘magic’ cling to her ‘like the mist from the mire’ but she has little choice but to continue with the only work she knows, even though it leaves her prey to suspicion and fear.

Into this uncertain, alien landscape steps the young, wealthy and hot-blooded priest James Summer, besotted and bewitched by a beautiful, graceful and working-class woman he never expected to find ‘in a place like this,’ and ready to take personal and political risks that could place them both in peril.

The glaring divides between poverty and privilege, men and women, Puritanism and Catholicism, power and powerlessness are relentlessly exposed and explored in a scintillating, slow-burn story that twists, turns and springs surprises at every juncture of Alinor’s gripping journey.

Rich in history and full of exquisitely observed characters from all walks of life, Tidelands is sheer perfection in its sense of time and place, and is a bewitching, superbly researched opener to what promises to be one of Gregory’s best series yet.

(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £20)