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Q&A: Bestselling author Philippa Gregory goes historical in a modern world

Philippa Gregory’s new novel Tidelands is a marked departure, in both character and setting, from her tales of the royal Tudor and Plantagenet courts. But it also keeps perfectly in line with Gregory’s oeuvre in its placing a complex, dynamic woman at its center. 

Gregory, an international bestselling author of over 20 novels, including The Other Boleyn Girl — which was made into the 2008 film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson — will read from Tidelands at the Decatur Book Festival on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at First Decatur Baptist Church. 

As a recognized expert of women’s history, Gregory’s bread and butter are these female characters. And while Tidelands‘ main character might not be a real person in the way Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn are, she’s as fully drawn as if she were, written in a way that highlights her strength and spirit during a time when women could literally be put to death for exhibiting either.  

Tidelands, the first in the forthcoming Fairmile series, tells the story of Alinor, a descendant of wise women, a poor midwife and herbalist living on the edge of the ghostly tidelands in Southern England during the English Civil War of 1648. Alinor lives at the height of the European witch trials, and as an ambitious woman with no husband who’s also skilled with herbs, she invites the constant suspicion of neighbors and surrounding villagers, “who are ready to take lethal action into their own hands.”

Philippa Gregory

Gregory writes in the novel that “women are never innocent” — a sentiment that echoes loudly across time from England’s 17th century to the boardrooms, locker rooms and bedrooms of today, where women still fight to be seen, heard and believed. Indeed, many of the struggles Alinor faces in Tidelands, women still continue to rally against in the modern era. 

The author spoke to ArtsATL all the way from London — about witches, women’s history and writing Alinor Reekie — in advance of her arrival in Decatur for this weekend’s festival. 

ArtsATL: What was the impetus for Tidelands? What was it that sparked Alinor’s story in you, and how did you go about putting her together as a character?

Philippa Gregory: I think I started off knowing that I wanted to write a story of the ordinary people of England. I wanted to go through some generations of a family, and I knew I wanted to start round about the 17th century. I wanted [the main character] not to be somebody very grand. I wanted them to, in a sense, find their fortunes, as so many people did, through the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. 

So I wanted to start in the country with a poor family, and all my life I’ve worked on women’s history, so it was absolutely natural that I would start with a poor woman. And at this point in English history — this is a time where poor women without the protection of a husband do come under suspicion because of the disruption of the [English] Civil War, and a general lack of confidence by society in itself, really. It desires a scapegoat, looking for people to blame. 

You’ve got the rise of fears about witchcraft and herbalists, and Alinor is an herbalist. You’ve got the desire by the male physicians to squeeze women out of surgery and medicine and really compress them into nursing. So there’s a lot of pressures on a woman like Alinor, and I sort of chose her as an example of quite typical women of the time but who come under these really quite specific time-based pressures. 

ArtsATL: Tidelands is a departure from your tales of royal courts and kings and queens, making it easy to spot the differences between Alinor’s life and the lives of the main characters of some of your other books. What were some similarities you discovered in the struggles of women of royalty and the struggles of a common woman like Alinor in your writing and researching for this book?

Gregory: Although my previous work was set in the Tudor and Plantagenet courts, it always did focus on the women — sometimes the less well-known women. And they, as women, experienced a lot of the difficulties and the dangers that Alinor faces. Although they are, in some cases, queens and princesses, they have no legal right when they get into dispute with their husbands, who, even if he isn’t a prince, still has high legal status as the husband. 

I wrote a book called Three Sisters, Three Queens in which the sister of Henry VIII couldn’t get her land or her rights from her abusive husband because he was a man and she was a woman, even though she was a princess. So, in many ways, the difficulty of being a woman — the dangers attendant on labor and childbirth, the dangers attendant upon trying to make your own way in a world which is fundamentally biased against women — they’re similar. 

It’s obviously easier if you’re wealthy and educated and you have a supportive family, but for all women, its’s very difficult to make your way in the historic past. 

ArtsATL: Could you elaborate a bit on some of the ways in which economic status would have impacted a woman like Alinor during this time in history?

Gregory: She’s at the time where the Elizabethan Poor Laws have changed the nature of charity in England, so she’s no longer in the class of people who, if they run very short of money one week, are entitled and expected to go to the house of the local lord and say, “I can’t feed my children.” And the local lord is expected — obviously they didn’t always — but is expected to help out. 

Coming out of the medieval period, there isn’t that closeness between gentry and poor anymore. And what’s put in its place is a system of taxation, which the lords and the gentry have to pay. They pay the parish overseer, and he distributes the money as he thinks fit, but excluding people who, in his judgment, are not worthy. 

So it starts becoming much more judgmental about who gets money and who doesn’t. And it really breaches the community in a very severe way, which actually I don’t think we ever recovered from. This really feeds into the problems of the witchcraft trials — that very often the people who are named as witches are those that the parish overseers and their neighbors fear are going to become a cost on the parish. 

For Alinor, it’s a real combination of disadvantages for her that her neighbors fear her as a woman of particular skills and ability as a midwife at the very time that people are starting to cast aspersions on midwives, at a time when she can’t make the money she needs to make from her midwifery work. 

It’s a kind of perfect storm. [Alinor] is a very disadvantaged woman, and she has to bring all of her courage and her perseverance to survive it. 

ArtsATL: Tidelands is set during the height of the European witch trials, when women like Alinor were regarded with suspicion and malice simply because they may have been poor or unwed or seen as outsiders in the community. The novel is being published, however, at a time when there seems to be renewed interest in the esoteric, in herbalism and witchcraft, when many women today are taking back the moniker of the witch as a form of empowerment. Was including these motifs an intentional nod to that, or was it something that interested you independently of current trends? 

Gregory strives to be true to the era that she is writing about.

Gregory: My interest in her story was very much in her as a historic character, so I was more interested in how she exemplified what was going on in her century than how she exemplifies what’s going on in ours. But one of the things that’s always powerful about writing a historical novel is that modern readers read from the novel into their own lives. That’s something that happens again and again. For instance, I had a lot of correspondence after I wrote a novel about Catherine of Aragon, whose husband, Henry VIII, betrayed her and leaves her, completely selfishly, for a younger woman. A lot of women wrote to me and said, nearing the end of their marriages, that they felt very encouraged by Catherine’s dignity and her courage. 

And I’m getting a lot of response, even in these first days of publication, from people who say that what they’re reading from [Tidelands] — a lot of people talking about misogyny and about the pressure upon women to guard their reputation, how much Alinor suffers from basically sexual abuse and how common that is in modern life still.

I am a modern woman writing in these days, so of course I’m aware of the stuff that’s going on around me, but I am trying to write a story that’s absolutely authentic to its period. There is obviously a crossover, but I think that’s really for the reader to make. 

ArtsATL: One of the lines that struck me most powerfully from the book was when Alinor reminds James that “women are never innocent,” speaking about how the burden of proof always falls on the shoulders of women — in Alinor’s time and in our own. Indeed, the power dynamics between men and women that play out in historical England are, to a terrifying degree, still playing out now in England and America and all over the world. 

Gregory: Yes, I honestly think that’s true. If ever one writes something true about women in the past, its source is earlier than the novel it’s written in, and its effects go on beyond the period it’s written in. And it’s heartbreaking, really, to see how little we’ve achieved. 

Although we’ve got the vote, although we’ve got legal rights — which Alinor wouldn’t even have dreamed of; it wasn’t even a period where women were starting to think that that would make their life better, wasn’t even in her imagining — we still have tremendous difficulty with sexual guilt, with women being blamed for men’s desires. 

ArtsATL: I read that you intend for the story of Alinor and her family to span hundreds of years, across generations, as part of the Fairmile series. And Tidelands itself reminds readers that Alinor is just one in a long generational line of healers in her family. What is it about cultural and genealogical inheritances that interested you as a subject?

Gregory: I think the more that we’re learning about DNA and genealogical history, the more we see that there are, genuinely, types. And there’s this whole thing about ancestral history, that it seems that we repeat our ancestor’s experiences. This is very new psychology and very new DNA work, but it’s just so rich for a novelist to think that, basically, how we’ve been writing, always been writing, actually has its basis in reality. 

So, that’s really interesting to me. But also, I think that the time that we are in now — in England, we’re in a period of great social upheaval and social change. The society I was born into was a much more stable and steady state than the one I’m living in now. And that’s a time where you do want to look back to your past and see how other people managed challenging and difficult times, particularly how women reacted to them and what the role of women was in times of great unrest and upheaval. 

ArtsATL: Is that part of what made you want to submerge yourself into the world of historical fiction to begin with? What is it that brings you back to the genre time and again?

Gregory: I have no consciousness which isn’t historical. 

I’m sitting talking to you opposite the BBC building, where I’ll be going later, and while I’ve been talking to you, I’ve been looking at the Eric Gill statues and knowing about Eric Gill the artist and thinking about the building, and, you know, I can’t be somewhere without a sense of the historic past of it and what that meant. 

In a sense, I’ve always written historical fiction. I’ve written some contemporary fiction, but even contemporary fiction has a real sense of the resonances of the past in it. 

ArtsATL: At the end of the day, regardless of subject or historical moment in time, what is it that you hope readers are able to take away from your novels and their characters?

Gregory: I think I’d like them to understand that we, as women, are heirs to a story of heroic struggle. Just as men have always known that they are heirs to heroic male struggle, we, too, have a history. And it’s just as important and significant, and big, as male history — although it’s not always been told.