England 1648. A dangerous time for a woman to be different . . .
Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, and England is in the grip of civil war between renegade King and rebellious Parliament. The struggle reaches every corner of the kingdom, even to the remote Tidelands – the marshy landscape of the south coast.
Alinor, a descendant of wise women, crushed by poverty and superstition, waits in the graveyard under the full moon for a ghost who will declare her free from her abusive husband. Instead she meets James, a young man on the run, and shows him the secret ways across the treacherous marsh, not knowing that she is leading disaster into the heart of her life.
Suspected of possessing dark secrets in superstitious times, Alinor’s ambition and determination mark her out from her neighbours. This is the time of witch-mania, and Alinor, a woman without a husband, skilled with herbs, suddenly enriched, arouses envy in her rivals and fear among the villagers, who are ready to take lethal action into their own hands.
I’ve really enjoyed all of Philippa Gregory’s books that I’ve read, though I’ve missed quite a few in recent years. I was drawn to this one because it is set during the English Civil War, one of my favourite periods of history, and because it’s the beginning of a new series and so I didn’t feel as if I had to catch up on all the ones I’ve missed.
It tells the story of an ordinary woman, and how her skills with herb lore and midwifery lead to accusations of witchcraft. It’s a familiar story, but so beautifully told and with such depth of historical insight that the lack of surprise is easily forgiven. The pace is slow and deep and thoughtful, and the characters complex and not entirely sympathetic. The landscape is exceptionally vivid, so that you can taste the brine on the air and hear the lap and suck of the tides. The book ends on a cliffhanger, which always runs the risk of leaving the reader unsatisfied. I must admit I’d have liked a more satisfying resolution, and a faster pace, but all in all, a great historical read.