Philippa Gregory usually has me spitting feathers because of her wild flights of fancy distorting the lives and characters of real historical figures. If you want to make things up, write about fictional characters! This time, she has written about fictional characters, and she’s also avoided the bizarre extremes she went to in, for example, The Wise Woman. Hooray! And I really want to be able to say that this book, set in 1648, is brilliant, because it deals with the struggles of a poor woman to survive in a rich man’s world, and the issues faced by ordinary people at a time when political leaders were tearing the nation apart. However, whilst it’s not bad, it’s not that good either. Much of it revolves around a very unconvincing romance between the woman and a Catholic priest. The Thorn Birds is one of the greatest novels of all time. This is not! But I’ve read worse.
Just in case anyone’s actually reading this – I’m never sure if they are or not, especially as my viewing stats are being weirdly distorted by some sort of Spambot Stalker! – I’ll try not to include too many spoilers, because I know that Philippa Gregory’s books are very popular and that a lot of people will be planning to read this one. It’s 1648, so Charles I has been defeated and is imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, Oliver Cromwell is in control, and a Royalist comeback seems unlikely. It’s a fascinating time period to be writing about – all the social, cultural and religious upheaval. The very idea that the monarchy can be overthrown, and what that might mean for the rest of the social structure. The shift towards a more Calvinist form of Protestantism, and changing attitudes towards old ways and old traditions that have existed for centuries. And most people just wanting to get on with their lives in peace. We’re not at Westminster, or in a grand country house – we’re in Selsey, on the Sussex coast. And our heroine is one Alinor Reekie, a midwife-cum-herbalist like her mother and grandmother before her, whose fisherman husband has deserted her and their two children.
Apropos of nothing, I wonder what made Philippa Gregory choose the surname “Reekie”. It’s very unusual. It’s also Scottish, so unlikely to be found on the south coast in the 17th century. What I really want to know is if she got it from the ridiculously-named Rykie Reekie who features in one of Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books!
Anyway. Woman living without a man, midwife-cum-herbalist, 17th century – obviously this immediately flags up the likelihood of accusations of witchcraft. That in itself is a fascinating subject, with everything it says about attitudes towards women at this time, and about how quickly panic and persecution can spread. It features in a lot of books, such as The Familiars and The Heretic’s Daughter. Alinor is already regarded with suspicion by some of her neighbours. She then meets a man who’s lost on the shore, and he turns out to be a Catholic priest disguised as a Protestant minister, on his way to meet up with the local squire. She helps him to get where he’s going, and, in return for her help and her silence, she’s given some money, and her son’s given a place at the manor house and the promise of an apprenticeship. Then her daughter catches the eye of an eligible young bachelor. Things are looking up for her … but people become jealous, and suspicion as to how this change in her fortunes has come about means that she’s the subject of more gossip than ever.
It all sounds very promising, and there are also some interesting descriptions of local life, especially about the harvest festivities. But somehow it doesn’t quite work. It never even feels as if we really get to know Alinor that well. And she embarks on a romance with the priest, James, which just doesn’t ring true. It’s full of Mills and Boon language, which doesn’t really fit it into the context of the book. She’s the most beautiful woman ever. He’s the most handsome man ever. They long to see each other’s beautiful hair (they both seem to be weirdly obsessed with hair). It doesn’t matter that he’s a priest and (as we later find out) the son of a baronet, and that she’s from the lowest of the lower classes and may or may not have a husband still living. Oh please. And James even seems ready to believe some of the stories about her being a witch, which definitely doesn’t fit with the Mills and Boon stuff.
He’s not just a priest – he’s a Royalist spy, who’s been sent by Henrietta Maria to rescue Charles I. He goes to the Isle of Wight, where he meets Alinor’s husband, who’s not dead at all. But Charles I won’t come with him. So he’s disillusioned about everything, and decides that he just wants to return to his home, in Northallerton, and marry Alinor – once her husband’s been declared dead, which he can be after he’s been gone for 7 years, but, hey, they can live over the brush the while. He seems to have changed his mind about everything in his life remarkably quickly, and I’m not sure that it really works. The idea that someone might come to feel that everything they’d always believed and had been fighting for is wrong, or even just isn’t worth it, is perfectly valid, especially when writing about wartime, but this was all too quick quick quick. I never felt that we really got into his head, or into Alinor’s.
We also see both him and Alinor’s Roundhead brother attending the trial of Charles I, but, even though it’s such a momentous occasion, it doesn’t really seem to have that much impact on either of them. The book’s just lacking in spark.
Meanwhile, Alinor has discovered that she’s pregnant. When James returns to Selsey, he’s extremely shocked, and says he’d have assumed that a midwife-cum-herbalist would know how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Yep, my thoughts exactly! His reaction is that he wants her to take some herbs to induce a miscarriage. He can’t cope with the dishonour of her coming to his home with an illegitimate child, who’ll have bear her husband’s surname. Er, hang on. If he was worried about the effects of the child on the stain of illegitimacy, fair enough, but he only seems to be worried about himself – which hardly rings true, when he’s fine with the idea of them living together outside marriage for the next six years and assumes that people will be OK about that. Anyway, what’s the problem? No-one in Northallerton is going to know anything about an obscure woman from the other side of the country. Just say that the baby’s the orphaned child of her poor dear sister/brother/cousin/best friend. No-one’s going to know any different. Even if they suspect, what are they going to do about it? Why does something so obvious not occur to either of them?!
Then a neighbour discovers that the money she’s been saving for her daughter’s dowry has been stolen, and replaced by dross. There’s more to it than that, but, as I said, I don’t want to include too many spoilers. Alinor is accused of the theft of the money, for her own daughter’s dowry, and of witchcraft by dint of turning the money into faerie gold. How is she supposed to have both stolen the money and transformed it?! Anyway, they seem to be more bothered about the idea that she’s transformed it. This isn’t the best of witch trial stories. People were usually accused of causing someone to fall ill, or a pet to die, or a cow to stop producing milk. Turning money into “faerie gold” is a bit of a daft storyline – although, compared to Philippa Gregory’s attempts at writing about witchcraft in The Wise Woman and her Wars of the Roses novels, I suppose it could have been a lot worse.
They can’t do a “swim/duck the witch” trial because she’s scared of water. Right, because they’d be so concered about that! So they decide to spin her on the miller’s wheel instead. She nearly drowns, but survives. So she’s cleared of witchcraft. Er, hang on. I appreciate that this actually wasn’t a swimming/ducking, but it was the same general idea – they were still shoving her under the water. Even though they couldn’t duck her because she was scared of water (??). The whole idea was that witches would float. So, if the accused didn’t drown, they were a witch. If they weren’t a witch, then they’d have drowned. There was no option of surviving the ordeal and being cleared! It didn’t work like that.
Alinor and her daughter then both took off to start a new life elsewhere … and this is apparently the start of a new series, possibly intended to be a very long family saga. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either – and that was a shame, because it was a good idea. But, however much I moan about Philippa Gregory’s books, they are undeniably very popular. Hey, I keep reading them myself! So she must be doing something right!