By Emily Horner
It’s the 1640s during the English Civil War in a bleak, rural village of the Sussex marshes. Not much goes on except the tedious hardships of its villagers struggling to survive. Amongst the villagers is Alinor- a herbalist, midwife and single mother of two teenagers, whose absent husband shows no sign of return. “It’s a dangerous time for a woman to be different.”
Alinor is living in poverty after her abusive husband abandoned them, leaving her to pick up the pieces. But she is steadfastly ambitious in bettering her family, and receives good luck in doing so due to her beauty “in a place like this” – though suspicion arises and turns to gossip and jealousy, adding to the rumours of witchcraft that already follow her.
Her beauty and bravery attract the attention of James Summer, a Catholic priest travelling under an alias, clinging onto his unfashionable faith in the tumultuous political times of 1640s England. However, it is not a typical ‘boy meets girl’ or ‘rags to riches’ story. They are from different backgrounds which never makes things straightforward. Alinor has a sense of self-worth despite her poverty and abandonment which never waivers and her courage stands out, like every Philippa Gregory heroine. Towards the end, the reader is taken through a series of plot twists, and shouldn’t assume that they can predict how it ends.
This novel is unique for Gregory, renowned for her Tudor and Plantagenet novels, and best known for her first Tudor novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, which won Romantic Novel of the Year in 2002. Now Gregory takes her readership to a different century entirely and turns her attention to the common folk of England away from the Royal court, about fictional characters as opposed to real historical figures. The English Civil War occurred during the reign of King Charles I, because the parliament and monarchy were at odds over who should run the country and what religion the country should follow. The Catholicism of the monarchy, or the Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell? Alinor is caught between the two sides, with her lover being a Catholic priest and her brother a passionate supporter of parliament power.
Tidelands is the first novel at the start of Gregory’s new Fairmile series. It is a slow burner, but becomes faster paced as the story progresses, proving to be an addictive read. Perhaps this is needed to set the scene and convey to the reader that the villager’s life was hard and monotonous, and the faster pace later is to symbolise the fear of rushing water which becomes a feature of the story.
Alinor’s courage in this bleak place is melancholic, as it was her courage in sticking to her own principles that leads to her downfall in the end, in an unsatisfying cliffhanger.
Perhaps that is where the second novel of Fairmiles will pick up.