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The tide is changing
Philippa Gregory’s Tidelands represents a major new trajectory for an author who was propelled into literary superstardom in 2001 with the publication of The Other Boleyn Girl, the first in a 15-book series that centers on real historical women from the Plantagenet and Tudor lines. The new novel blossomed from an epiphany of sorts while Gregory was rereading John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. In a brief scene from the classic family epic, Soames Forsyte travels to a rural area of England in search of his family’s homestead, only to find himself completely alienated from his ancestral roots and literally stuck in the mud.
“I looked at the history of other families I know, and I looked at my own family, and I thought, most of us start in a muddy field somewhere,” Gregory says, “and so I thought, that’s where I want to start this story.”
Speaking by phone from London, the author reassures readers who may be apprehensive about her abandoning her royal roots: “I’ve already started writing book two of the series, and I have to say, I think it’s completely thrilling.”
Gregory published her first novel, Wideacre, in 1987, while she was completing a Ph.D. in 18th-century literature. Since then she’s written about the British slave trade, English colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, nearly every era of medieval English history and beyond. But a common thread runs rather ostentatiously throughout her extensive and eclectic bibliography.
“I like stories about women,” Gregory says. “A lot of my books—The White Queen, The White Princess, The Lady of the Rivers—they are about the power that women have over each other’s lives as daughters and mothers and grandmothers.”
One of the things that attracted Gregory to her Plantagenet and Tudor characters was the faintness of their official historical footprint. Though these heroines were well-born, Gregory says, “they don’t all have very well-recorded histories. We still don’t know, for instance, Anne Boleyn’s date of birth. I mean, it’s just extraordinary that we don’t. We don’t know how old Catherine Howard was, and that makes a huge difference to how you regard her. You know, [if] she’s a girl of 14 or a girl of 17, you read her behavior very, very differently.”
For Tidelands, however, which opens in 1648 during the English Civil War, there were indeed historical subplots (such as the attempted rescue of King Charles I from prison in the months leading up to his trial) that demanded what Gregory describes as “very tight, meticulous research,” but for the most part it is a study of the period’s social history. The story centers on the intelligent and dignified Alinor Reekie, an herbalist, midwife and lay healer. Abandoned by her feckless and abusive husband, Alinor lives alone with her children in the tidelands, a marshy estuarial region along England’s southern coast.
Although Alinor is fictional, she represents a type of woman that would have been found in most rural communities of the era. Through the recorded social history, Gregory knows what would have gone on inside Alinor’s birthing chamber and what sort of medicine she might have used.
“It’s sort of funny that you would think when you’re writing an imaginary character, you’d be much freer of the research,” Gregory says, “but I’m not, because I never imagine the stuff that has been recorded. . . . So when I decided I wanted to write a book about a fictional woman, it was absolutely natural to go to someone whose life we can know about because we have some social history about the time. We know what she would be eating and what she would be paid for different tasks. I could create somebody, in one sense, that could stand for women in that time.”
Of course, women in Alinor’s day were, as in most every other period of history, vulnerable to the whims and insecurities of the men who were formally in charge. As Gregory observes, “One of the things that happens when people don’t record women’s history is that they miss that almost hidden power structure.” In Alinor’s case, due to her livelihood as an herbalist and midwife, as well as the reputation of her mother and the insinuations of her absent husband, she lives in fear of being labeled a witch.
Witchcraft as a catchall bogeyman is an age-old tool of social control, which has echoed into the future in other guises, such as the vilification of feminism. “[When I began] speaking out as a woman, if you said you were a feminist, certain people immediately assumed things about you,” Gregory says, “basically, that you were a man-hater, that you were emasculating, which was very like fears around witchcraft. Both of those things can be taken very badly by audiences who are frightened of what they might mean and give in to fear before inquiry.”
Tidelands is the first entry in what Gregory hopes will be a sweeping series of six to eight volumes that follow Alinor’s descendants up to nearly the 20th century, leading them, generation by generation, from poverty to prosperity.
“I’ll have my people, as it were, scattered around the world in the most exciting places,” Gregory says with an audible twinkle. “That’s the joy of purely fictional writing. Before, I couldn’t really say, well, I’ll see where the story takes me, because I know what the story is. This is a whole new career in a way, and it feels very much freer.”