Reviewed by Ian Lipke
A magnificent story that offers a perception of three geographically distinct, but imaginatively connected, localities in the late seventeenth century. Philippa Gregory describes 1670 London, a place that, as all serious historians know, was controlled by the profligate King Charles II. Roman Catholicism had replaced the dour age of Oliver Cromwell and moral rectitude was largely unenforced. Next, Gregory dwells on New England where those who could not abide the fecklessness of the Restoration Court had settled. Finally, for a reason that becomes clear almost immediately, she alludes to the magnificence and, in places, the poverty, of mediaeval Venice.
Although known for her books on Plantagenet and Tudor history, devotees of Philippa Gregory will recognize Dark Tides as the second volume in the Tidelands series in which many of the present characters make their initial appearance. Researching and writing about a single society, while complex enough, is less difficult than being conversant with the intricacies of three. Gregory is comfortable writing in this more difficult terrain. Like the tides of an ocean, the matters of man ebb and flow and, at times, threaten to overwhelm.
Gregory’s means of introducing her characters is very much hers alone. Each demonstrates aspects of humanity that cast a mantle upon the historical record. James, a well-to-do gentleman, visits ‘the ramshackle warehouse on the wrong side of the river’ expecting to be welcomed with gratitude and respect. He is, after all, a representative of wealth. Within the space of a few words, Alinor refutes his right to any part of her life. By the time we reach page nineteen we know the relationships between principal characters Alys, Alinor, missing son Robert, and James. Without delay a major character Livia, Robert’s wealthy widow, arrives from Venice. Ned, Alinor’s son who lives in faraway New England and has his own troubles with deteriorating white-Indian relations, casts a not insignificant influence over the gathering parties in London. Philippa Gregory’s compressed writing style transmits much information in minimal space.
Each character is a counterweight to another. We observe the exotic in the person of Livia and the staid in James, the steady balance of Alinor and Ned contrasted with the easy duplicity of Alys. Each supplies more than enough background on which to build an engrossing story. This reader takes note, too, of the unwritten, almost mandatory, requirement among women writers that their female characters should be strong and prominent. Such is the case with the women in this volume, a fact for which we readers give thanks. By taking such a stance the author opens the opportunity of exploring the complexities of the lives of women in the socially restrictive, male-dominated societies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Seventeenth century London is described with an almost Dickensian flavour,
The greatest ships, towed by eager barges, glided past the little wharves, as if the quays were nothing but flotsam, sticks and cobbles, rotting as they stood. Twice a day even the tide deserted them, leaving banks of stinking mud, and piers of weedy ramps rising like old bones from the water…this was never a place that people visited, it was a place that people left (5),
while New England is “a land without kings, but not without authorities” (21) where “Dissent in anything – from religious tradition to politics – was not welcome” (61). When youthful Sarah first views Venice, it looked to her as if it were a city that had risen from water and was still dripping (285), yet, despite its beauty, its success rests on espionage networks, on neighbour informing on neighbour in line with government expectation. All three locations reflect the shared interrelationships between their human inhabitants and provide a commentary on their uniqueness.
The book’s London component is a rich feast of brazen incidents as Livia di Ricci invests her schemes in the lives of others. Readers know that the considerable amounts she undertakes to spend is family money, raised against a fortune yet to be retrieved from Venice. She plans to import a huge collection of Italian marble carvings, reflecting Gregory’s quiet insight into the Restoration Court’s fascination with ancient Rome. The details are less important than the wider principle that Gregory is pursuing in this novel, the bigger question she is asking: how does mankind respond to challenges that threaten their individual well-being? Of particular interest to me was the issue of how liars respond when caught-out?
There is so much still to be said about this book, but further commentary could not do it justice. We could be reading three books, each based entirely in Gregory’s localities. Sarah’s journey to Venice is crying out for expansion. Unanswered questions, such as why Ned was ever included in this tale, could be answered. However, Philippa Gregory is the author – it’s her book and reflects her decisions. The book is great value as it stands and I recommend it highly.
By Philippa Gregory
Simon & Schuster
$32.99; 496 pp