In my last review of Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates, I wrote that Ms. Oates had died last year.  Ms. Oates is alive and well. This is an error that needs correction, and apologies go to Ms. Oates for the error.


 

Tidelands by Philippa Gregory (Atria Books, 2019)

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What separates Tidelands from other historical novels that Philippa Gregory has written, is that the heroine in this book, a twenty-seven-year-old woman, is a commoner, not a noblewoman like the Plantagenets or the Tudors, who are featured in Gregory’s previous sagas such as The White Queen, The Red Queen, The Kingmaker, and The Other Boleyn Girl. However, the strong theme that Gregory returns to frequently; women throughout history have not counted for much in terms of government, being recognized as talented artists, or being remembered for any accomplishments they may have made during their lives. 

Of Alinor, the main character of the novel, Gregory has stated, “She continues to insist on her own independent thinking and feeling. Dependent upon her neighbors for a living, dependent on a man for her status, she nonetheless thinks, feels, and lives for herself. At a time when women counted for nothing, she values herself. She is ---if only to herself--- a heroine.”

 The story opens in June 1648; the setting is Selsea Island, located in the  tidelands of Sussex. Alinor is walking in the cemetery of her church, hoping to encounter the ghost of her husband, Zachery, who had deserted her more than a year before. She will be happy if she meets the ghost. Alinor muses, “If he was drowned, she was free. If he was among the walking dead, she was certain to meet him, for she had the sight, as her mother had, as her grandmother had, back through the generations, through all the women of her family, who had lived here forever on the tidelands of the Saxon shore.” 

Suddenly, out of the darkness the visage of a man appears before her. While trying to discern if he is a spirit or human, Alinor takes in his appearance. “He was as handsome as a faerie prince from a story, with long, dark hair tied back at the nape of his neck, and dark eyes set in a pale face,” she thinks.

He identifies himself as James Summer and whispers to her that he cannot be seen; he is in hiding. As he imparts this information to her, he notices the details about her. “Her abrupt dismissal of his fear made him look again at her oval face, her dark gray eyes: a woman as beautiful as a Madonna in an icon, but drab here in the unearthly half-light, her tattered kerchief hiding her hair, shapeless in her ragged clothes.” 

The stranger confides in Alinor that he is of the old faith, and a spy for the dethroned King Charles. Since the time of Henry VIII, who had broken with Rome and created the Anglican Church, England had struggled with its religious dichotomy. Most people appeared to observe the new faith, but there were some, like Summer, who clings to the “old faith.” In fact, the handsome stranger confesses that he is a priest and, therefore, is in great danger if he is discovered.

Not only is the handsome stranger a priest, he is a loyalist spy to the deposed King Charles, who has been driven into exile on the Isle of Wight, while the country is ruled by Oliver Cromwell. He asks Alinor if she can hide him for just one night, and she cannot refuse him, despite the danger such an action would pose for her two children and herself.

Her act of kindness opens the door to a forbidden romance, in which both James and Alinor break solemn vows to which they have committed. Of course, the sin that they engage in has severe ramifications, which will force them to choose the paths they must take in their future. 

Alinor and James come from two different worlds; he has grown up privileged and educated, and Alinor scrounges for pennies by selling herbal remedies and midwifery. Any chance of a future together seems doomed despite the passion that they feel for each other.

The historical background of the novel is fascinating in lieu of what is happening on the political scene in America at the moment. Cromwell and his followers have dared to put the deposed King Charles on trial. Alinor’s brother, Ned, had attended the trial and reported to the congregation that the King refused to plead before his accusers. Despite the many witnesses who gave testimony against the former ruler, Charles refused to speak.

James, who also attended the trial, bore witness, to what he had observed during the trial. “The king would not plead for two reasons. He said that the court was not legally created; there has never been a court commissioned by parliament. There have only been courts commissioned by kings. And he said that no court could try a king who was ordained by God.” Therefore, Charles remained mute throughout the proceedings.

The final chapter of the novel leaves the reader in suspense, which although unsatisfying, leads us to the sequel in Gregory’s new series called The Fairmile. If you are a fan of novels which bring history to life, presents strong and interesting character development, and compels you to read until late at night, then you will relish Philippa Gregory’s new work, The Tidelands.