Philippa Gregory on the challenges and thrills of launching her new series
Historical fiction giant Philippa Gregory (The Spanish Princess) has a new series, and it launches Tuesday with the novel Tidelands. The first installment of the Fairmile saga takes place on the ever-shifting landscape of England’s tidelands and follows the struggles of Alinor, a poor woman trying to make ends meet to support her children after her husband doesn’t return from his time at sea.
It’s a fitting place for Gregory to wind up. Her first foray into the historical novel, the Wideacre trilogy, explored the lives of the working class in the second half of the 18th century; her more recent works have focused on the Plantagenet and Tudor families. Tidelands straddles these two worlds: While its main focus is the poorest family in the village, royals crop up occasionally and their politics play a large role in the novel. Even King Charles I himself makes a brief appearance.
EW spoke to Gregory about Tidelands and what readers can expect from this new series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This isn’t your first time writing about this time period and the English Civil War, so what drew you back to this time period?
PHILIPPA GREGORY: First of all, [I] wanted to write about a poor family living on the very edges of society, and it’s very hard to get anything other than the most limited material about poor people further back in time. The other thing is I wanted to write about was a woman confronting a society that is getting increasingly violent towards women, [where it’s] increasingly difficult for a woman to survive at the very time of the peak of the witchcraft madness which swept Europe and England as well. So, looking for the circumstance where a woman would be in clear and intense jeopardy lead me to the Civil War period, which was one of the worst times for women in England.
Right now we’re in this interesting time where power dynamics in today’s culture are changing, particularly with the #MeToo movement. Did the current climate influence your writing in any way or are these things just something that are always on your mind?
Of course, my education and my reading now and my living in the world is exactly that of a woman of today. I can’t write anything without being that person. So of course the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up movement and the other discussions are very powerfully in my mind, as really they should be in anybody’s mind, male or female. But obviously it’s of intense interest to women and to mothers and grandmothers, because I’m that as well. I’m not just a daughter and a sister, but I also have a number of attachments to especially to women and young people who will change the future, I hope. So of course it’s intensely important to me, but at the same time I don’t ever make in my writing direct reference from the present day to now. Because what I’m writing is what I’m trying to make into a really authentic historical novel. So the awareness of the people then, the consciousness then, that they bring to their circumstances has to be, to me, plausible for someone in 1640.
You’re a mainstay in the space of historical fiction, how do you think the genre has changed over time? Do you think your take on the genre has changed throughout the years you’ve been writing in it?
Well I know, because everybody said it at the time of my first novel 31 years ago, that I wrote something which was then very new. I brought to the historical novel radicalism, a sense of the importance of working people. It wasn’t just a top-down snobby novel, [Wideacre] was about the struggle of working people to control the estate they lived in. It was a novel about class struggle. It was also a novel about, in a way, feminism because it was the story of a young woman who wanted to inherit the estate and didn’t see why her brother should get it. It was a very sexy novel at a time when historical fiction was traditionally much more demure. So I brought to it a modern woman’s consciousness: that sex is worth writing about and is interesting in itself, that the struggles of working people are interesting of themselves, and that the stories of women are interesting of themselves.
And in a way, I’ve continued with that in some ways, and although I’ve written more about the Plantagenet family and the Tudor family — although they are royal novels, so you get really caught up into snobbery — these are obviously important people because they are royal. I’ve never thought that. I’ve always thought that they were important and interesting to write about because they have extraordinary lives. And I’ve always written about the women and not about the apparently more important husbands because I’ve always wanted to tell the stories that other people weren’t telling — and that’s always been the less-known wives, sisters, daughters. The women who are usually obscured by the kings.
The setting in Tidelands is unique. It’s set on this island that’s always changing and has its very own dynamic, both in terms of landscape and how people interact with one another. Why this setting?
I’m realizing how wonderfully — thought of unconsciously — the setting of this place that is not quite land and not quite sea but is both at different times today, really echoes how marginal [Alinor’s] life is. These are marginal lands, they are not part of the heart of England; they’re not prosperous; they’re not noticed; they’re not even properly mapped. And in this landscape, this woman who is not prosperous and not noticed and doesn’t know where she’s going is trying to scrape a living in a very, very poor landscape. It turned out to be a wonderful way of seeing how peripheral she is in the life of the country. They only know literally weeks after how a battle has gone which determines which way the Civil War is going to go. They hear about it really late and then only because someone happens to be passing through and has a pamphlet.
Equally, [Alinor] herself is so marginalized even in her society that she is living overlooking land that is sometimes land and sometimes sea, and she’s collecting, just for her own amusement on this shore, little tokens from a long ago distant historical past which are not currency, which are in a sense nothing, but she values it. So, it was a very evocative landscape for me.
How did it come to you?
It happens to be one I know really well because I lived there for about four or five years, when I was studying at Sussex University and living in the cottage which was owned by the conservation officer of the area. He and I used to go out every day in [the] summer and I would study and sit on the beach and watch over this colony of sea birds and literally watch the tide come in and go out again. So I didn’t realize at the time how this landscape entered into my consciousness until now, living in a very different part of England, I found that I could imagine it so richly.
Tidelands has its fair share of forbidden love. Why is that topic so intriguing for you to write and read about?
Looking over all forms of writing, easily fulfilled love presents you with a whole load of problems. There’s no dramatic tension. If the boy says to the girl, “I love you” and the girl says to the boy, “I love you too” and they then marry and live happily ever after, that’s a pretty short story. In any story about anything, you’ve really got to have a sort of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, something’s got to happen. So, forbidden love is a classic way of delaying the conclusion of the story one way or another, whether the story concludes happily or unhappily. In a sense, the route toward it is the most interesting. In most fiction, I think, it is the journey of the story rather than the arrival that is of the greatest interest. And in this case, they are forbidden at multiple levels. And it was so interesting for me watching them, writing them, trying to overcome all of the obstacles in their way and in the end having to face the fact that they were profoundly divided, not as they had always thought by the external social controls, but by their acceptance of them.
This is the first of a new series from you, so what can readers expect going forward?
I’m about halfway through the next book and I am actually ridiculously excited about it. It’s the second generation of the family; I won’t tell you how they get to where they get to, but we’re in London, entering into trade. They’ve got a little warehouse and in the course of book 2 they get into international trade and the family starts spreading. The setting is partly Venice, partly London, Venice at the time being a remarkable center of international trade and luxury goods and prosperity and also terrific political control and spying. So, my gosh, it’s exciting, I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I am with it. I write something every day and go off to do other things, and I can’t wait to get back to it. If I feel that way about it that’s usually a sign that it’s going to be quite a page-turner. I’m currently wondering if it’s got too much event in it and I have to calm it down a bit. At the moment, I’m just going with the flow.