My rating: 3.25 of 5 stars
“Whether it’s a sin against God or not. Whatever you could say it would be […] and offense to me […] It would be a deep offense to me, against myself.”
“It doesn’t matter – “
“It matters to me. I matter: in this, I matter”
That quote from the most heartrending passage in Philippa Gregory’s latest novel, Tidelands sums up the feelings the novel provoked in me perfectly.
Sometimes you know right away that a book isn’t going to be a quick read. Such was the case with this story of Alinor, the abandoned wife of a fisherman who uses her skills and knowledge to raise her two children in an unforgiving land and an even more unforgiving society during the English Civil Wars.
The story is set during the last months of the reign of Charles I of England and James’s part in the tale is driven by his loyalty to the crown. While James’s service to Charles serves as the vehicle to his meeting Alinor and the change represented by Charles’s ultimate fate is a symbol of the changes great and small it will take to change Alinor’s lot and the lot of women and the poor throughout history, the choice to set the story at this particular moment in history is not key to the true heart of the story.
Though much of the novel reads like a romance between impoverished Puritan Alinor and wealthy Catholic priest James, it is truly an exploration of women’s lives in a time when they had none. Part of why Tidelands was such a slow read for me was that I often couldn’t bear to read too much in one sitting because the appalling treatment of the women made me so angry that I had to put the book down. When I read historical fiction (or classic literature) I, like so many readers, imagine if I could live in the time or place in which the story is set. In reading Tidelands I quickly learned that England in the mid 17th century was not for me. The treatment of women as nonentities in the realms of politics, the home, the community, and the church while being thought of as the source of so many troubles was just heartbreaking to me. And it wasn’t just the Puritans with their storied intolerance of independent, intelligent women. My strong feelings while reading Alinor’s story just went to show me how far we’ve come in the ensuing 400 years but they also highlighted how much further we have to go before women worldwide are truly considered equal. We can pass all the laws we want but it is the mentality of inferiority that must change. And it isn’t just the men with this mentality. When Alinor’s daughter, Alys points out to her mother how she defers to men and to anyone better off than she (which is pretty much everyone!) even though she has more knowledge and experience than most of them, I realized that we still see women doing this every day. Sorry to sound preachy but this book brought up such strong feelings in me.
Alinor may have been a strong, independent (by the standards of the time) heroine but, for me, the true hero of the story is her daughter Alys who sidesteps the societal strictures throughout the story then barrels right through them at the end. It was only Alys and this ending that made me happy to learn that Tidelands is just the first in a series that will follow generations of Alinor’s family and gives my review the little extra quarter star.
If you’re looking for a thought-provoking read that demonstrates what fear of the unknown and prejudice has done throughout human history, I highly recommend Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time with its unique look at the repercussions of intolerance and the fear it causes.