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Dark Tides


Dark Tides

No kings and queens? No executions? This can’t possibly be a Philippa Gregory novel! I must confess that my guiltiest TV pleasures include the STARZ versions of Gregory’s 15th- and 16th-century historical fiction: THE WHITE QUEEN, THE WHITE PRINCESS and, right now, THE SPANISH PRINCESS (about Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife). These richly costumed, swashbuckling, habit-forming adaptations reinforce her status as one of today’s most engrossing chroniclers of Plantagenet and Tudor history.

In DARK TIDES, her new novel, there is, admittedly, a king. The year is 1670, and after a bloody civil war during which England briefly became a republic under Oliver Cromwell and Charles I lost his head, the monarchy has been restored. Beyond that, royals are largely irrelevant to this, the second book in Gregory’s Fairmile series (which began in 2019 with TIDELANDS). The cast of characters, as always in her work, features strong women --- one of them quite irredeemably bad --- but this time they’re of relatively humble origin.

To shift her attention from aristocrats to plebes was a conscious decision on Gregory’s part. She writes at the end of TIDELANDS of her new interest in how an ordinary family reflects the fortunes of an entire nation --- and “how often these fortunes are invisibly guided by women.” (She is currently at work on a nonfiction history of women in England.)

The central figure in TIDELANDS, set on Sealsea Island in Sussex, is Alinor, a midwife and wise woman. Under suspicion of witchcraft, she’s nearly drowned by the locals, then taken to London by her adult daughter, Alys. Both women are pregnant at the time, abandoned by the men in question and left to fend for themselves.

"[Livia's] sheer wickedness lends energy to the narrative, and I’ll bet that Gregory had fun writing her.... Gregory’s storytelling chops and engagement in the untold history of women makes this book an inspiring feminist entertainment."

Fast-forward 21 years. When DARK TIDES begins, Alinor and Alys, along with the now-grown children (who believe Alys alone to be their mother), own a modest warehouse and shipping business on the Thames. Two visitors set the plot in motion. Sir James Avery, his family property restored under Charles II, has come to London to propose marriage to Alinor (rather belatedly, as he is the father of her illegitimate baby). Livia, widow of Alys’ brother, Rob, a physician in Venice, has arrived with her baby to inform Rob’s mother and sister of his death by drowning. Rejected by Alinor, James soon makes an alliance with Livia in her plan to import antiquities from Venice, allegedly for the benefit of the family.

My heart leapt when I saw the word Venice, because it is a city I know well, and love, and I knew that Gregory would give a vivid picture of its 17th-century self. I was right, though the exotic scenery and secretive vibe (“a city of spies”) take a back seat to various plot machinations. Alinor doesn’t believe that Rob is dead (she has “the sight,” we are told, a sort of mystical intuition) and asks Sarah, one of the two 21-year-old kids, to go to Venice. Her mission: to discover the truth about Rob’s purported death and Livia’s character.

Venice serves Gregory not only as a means to develop Sarah as another intrepid, forceful female protagonist, but also as an environment reminiscent of the marshy area of Sussex where the family once lived. Livia tells Alinor how much Rob loved the lagoon: Both his birthplace and the watery Italian city exist in precarious balance between land and sea. “We’ve always lived on the edge of deep waters,” Alinor says, and it’s clear that the settings of TIDELANDS and DARK TIDES have metaphorical as well as geographical significance.

I’m not going to ruin the plot by disclosing what Sarah finds in Venice, but I must emphasize that Livia --- her name echoes that of a Roman empress suspected of multiple poisonings --- is a beautiful, manipulative, fascinatingly duplicitous creature. Her sheer wickedness lends energy to the narrative, and I’ll bet that Gregory had fun writing her.

Far more virtuous --- but not dull --- is another character: Alinor’s brother, Ned. Having fled to New England along with other former rebels and regicides, this likable young man is happy to be living with no king to tell him what to do. Yet he doesn’t agree with his friends that the local tribes are “savages”; rather, he loves and respects his indigenous neighbors. Now, war between settler and Native American is imminent, and soon Ned will have to choose sides.

This part of the novel, I must say, seems mainly a device for Gregory to display her research on colonial history and present a modern, enlightened view of tribal life and customs. Although incredibly detailed on everything from smoke signals to snowshoes to ice fishing, Ned’s story is connected to the rest of the book only by the slimmest of threads.

Actually, I’m of two minds about the multiple settings for this novel, and the frequency with which Gregory jumps from London to New England to Venice and back again. The result is a rather jerky rhythm, giving none of the three narratives a chance to settle in and capture our attention. 

Still, Gregory’s storytelling chops and engagement in the untold history of women makes this book an inspiring feminist entertainment. I had no idea, for example, that in England at the time, as Alys tells Livia, “a wife can have her own business, earn her own money, she can declare herself independent of her husband --- a feme sole.” (Of course, the man has to give her permission to do so.) Even Mrs. Rose, an indentured servant and Ned’s love interest in New England, is “an enterprising woman” who dreams of presiding over an inn. And Sarah, a milliner’s apprentice, imagines an independent shop of her own, no husband required: “I don’t have to marry some fool to save me from this.”

Livia, on the other hand, while also aspiring to power and wealth, pursues them by less honest means, seducing both Alys and James. It’s dismaying that by the end of DARK TIDES, she seems well on her way to victory. We’ll see what transpires in the third volume of the series, but I believe that in Sarah, this consummate villainess will find a worthy opponent.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on November 25, 2020

Dark Tides
by Philippa Gregory

  • Publication Date: June 8, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 1501187198
  • ISBN-13: 9781501187193