Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory
This is an historical novel infused with tales and images of beliefs and traditions, while being absolutely full of the actual historical and economic realities of the time. A family has been fighting to survive the pressures of poverty, a man returns to London after a traumatic time in America, and most significantly for the fate of a country only recently riven by civil war, a queen is frightened for her faith and fate.
Set in 1685, this book reveals the role of women in the political history of the country, in particular how the scheming of one woman can influence a queen, Mary of Modena, as she comes to terms with her challenging marriage to James II. It continues the story of Alinor, whose past is full of difficult memories, but who has a sort of contentment in a family who have found relative financial security in the merchant society of London. Into this country scarred by civil war which resulted in the death of a king and the rule of Protector Cromwell, where religion and politics motivated so many, a man returns with a notion of righteous rebellion. Ned Ferryman does not return alone however; he brings with him a companion whose family and community have been forcibly removed. That companion’s status and identity provide a vivid illustration of the line between slave and servant, condemned and free, and will show a unique version of loyalty. As the ambitious Duke of Monmouth plans to threaten the insecure king and royal court, many are drawn into a battle for political and religious power and freedom. The political is made personal, the threat of insecurity affects large parts of the land, and families seek the security and peace once known in other places and times.
This book, in common with so many of Gregory’s books which have featured the excesses of the Tudor court, the confusion of the Cousins’ or Wars of the Roses, the realities of life in various historical periods and times are seen through the eyes of women. In this novel Livia has a past, a marriage to a wealthy and influential man, and now an ambition to influence a nervous and uncertain queen. The second wife of a openly Catholic monarch, many people can remember the devastation that was caused to much of the country in earlier times, and Mary trembles that the throne is threatened once more. She fears for her safely as rebellious forces approach the capital as her husband seems so uncertain of what to do. Her role is to provide a healthy male heir, but all has been disappointment. Seeking reassurance and the promise of safety, she becomes attached to Livia who wishes to encourage this dependence for her own ends. Livia has a special link with Alinor’s family; she knows what Alinor wants above all things, a return to her beloved Fowlmire and Tidelands. She also knows that a young man, and those who have become his family, is also a connection that can be used to her advantage in a worse case.
This is a complex novel that has various themes and stories contained within it. It is the third book in series featuring a family shaped by war, inequality and the fear of poverty and vulnerability, yet works as a stand alone novel in a period which brings its own challenges. As always with Gregory’s books, I enjoyed the insight she builds into the narrative of what being a woman was like in this time, in the huge questions of political and economic uncertainty, and the small questions of daily life in terms of family, love and loyalty. The women in this book emerge as vibrant, lively individuals, motivated by the past, concerned for the present, and uneasy about the future. The research behind the novel is immense as Gregory looks at the differences in dress, and the constrictions of expectations against a background of political uncertainty and religious motivations. I recommend this book as a big, satisfying read which shows a keen insight into the actual lives of women in a disturbed historical period beautifully expressed.