This reader’s guide for Dark Tides includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Philippa Gregory. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
Get a FREE ebook by joining our mailing list today!
Plus, receive recommendations for your next Book Club read.
In Dark Tides
, two unexpected visitors arrive at a shabby warehouse on the south side of the River Thames on Midsummer Eve, 1670. The first is a wealthy nobleman seeking the lover he deserted twenty-one years earlier. Now James Avery has everything to offer: a fortune, a title, and the favor of the newly restored King Charles II. He believes that the warehouse’s poor owner, Alinor, has the one thing he cannot buy—his son and heir.
The second visitor is a beautiful young widow from Venice in deepest mourning. She claims Alinor as her mother-in-law and has come to tell Alinor that her son, Rob, has drowned in the dark tides of the Venice lagoon.
Alinor’s brother, Ned, in faraway New England is making a life for himself in the narrowing space between the worlds of the English newcomers and the American Indians as they move towards inevitable war. Alinor writes that she knows—without doubt—that her son is alive and the widow is an imposter. But how can she prove it?Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel begins with a letter from Alinor, the protagonist of Tidelands
, to her brother Ned, with news that her son, Rob, has reportedly drowned in Venice. She does not believe this can be true. How does this letter set up what is to come? What role do letters and communications play throughout the novel?
2. Ned tells a selectman that he didn’t come to the New World “‘to be a king looking down on subjects, forcing my ways on them in blood. I came here to live at peace, with my neighbors. All my neighbors: English and Indian.’” How does Ned abide by this intention, especially as tensions mount between the settlers and Native Americans in New England? How does his previous support for Cromwell and the republicans affect his life during this period?
3. When Alinor is presented with Matteo as a replacement for Rob, she tells Livia, “‘I don’t think that one child can take the place of another. Nor would I wish it.’” Consider this in terms of all the characters and children in the novel. Can any of these characters or children stand in for one another? How does this affect Matteo’s fate at the end of the novel?
4. Alinor, Alys, and Livia form an unusual trio of women, all women living without the protection of a man, all operating in a man’s world. How does each woman respond to the challenges of the patriarchal society in which she lives?
5. Alys explains to Livia that the Reekie family was “always on the edge, between poverty and surviving, between friends and enemies, in the tidelands between water and fields. We were on the edge of everything. At least here we are in a world with a firm footing. At least Uncle Ned is making a new life in a new land as he wants.” How do the characters exist in the space between land and sea? By the end of the novel, how do you think the family’s position has changed?
6. When James asks if Livia is willing to give up her ideals in order to get ahead, she replies, “‘If it was exiled: let it return. If it burns down: rebuild it. If it was robbed: restore it. If it is free—let us take it.’” How does this reflect Livia’s point of view? Has she lived by this edict?
7. Alinor believes that Sarah shares her gift of sight. She explains that “‘For some people, this world is not quite . . . watertight. The other world comes in . . . sometimes we can reach out to it. It’s like Foulmire—sometimes it’s land and sometimes it’s water. Sometimes I know this world, sometimes I glimpse the other. Don’t you?’” How does Alinor’s sight affect her perception of the world around her? Do you believe that Sarah has her gift?
8. Livia tells Alys, “‘I am a beautiful liar, if you like. I am all twists and turns and misdirection. You cannot trust me. I recommend that you do not trust me. I am not actually evil; but I am not straightforward. I am not simple.’” Livia tells Alys exactly who she is. Why does Alys refuse to believe her? How do the other characters react to Livia’s treatment of Alys?
9. Mrs. Rose feels trapped by her circumstances, having come to the New World for the “‘same reason as everyone. . . . I came in the first place as I had hopes of a better life. God called me and my master ordered me. I didn’t know it would be like this. I hoped for better, I still hope. And I don’t have the money for my passage back home anyway.’” Do others in this novel feel hemmed in by their lack of opportunity as they search for better lives?
10. Alys rebukes her mother, stating, “You were a fool once for love! Are you going to be a fool for spite?” How do characters act as fools for love in this novel? Does anyone become a fool for spite?
11. When Sarah arrives in Venice, Signor Russo tells her that “‘Everyone here is either a spy or a villain. Or both.’” Does Sarah find this to be true in Venice? Do you believe that Signor Russo is a villain? Do you believe that the Reekies are heroes, as Sarah later suggests? Or does the complexity of these characters exist outside of the concept of heroes and villains?
12. Wussausmon, Ned’s friend and advisor to the Massasoit Po Metacom, says, “‘I pass like a spirit from one world into another, I tell of what I have seen. But then I go back and speak of where I have been. . . . And every day I fear that I am not translating one to another; but just making the misunderstanding worse. I am trying to bring these two worlds together but all they do is grind against each other. They don’t trust each other, nobody wants to hear what I say, and they both believe I am a liar and a spy.’” How do all of these characters live between worlds? Between the lives they have and the lives they aspire to? Between who they are and who they could be?
13. Signor Russo instructs Sarah that “‘Every profit comes at someone’s cost.’” What are the costs in this novel? Who do you think pays the greatest cost? Why?
14. The ending of Dark Tides
mirrors that of Tidelands
. Then, Alinor and Alys were driven from their home and setting out on a journey to a new life; now, Ned leaves his home in search of “unclaimed unused lands, where he could live without choosing sides, where he could be himself: neither master nor man.” Why do you think the author chooses to end the story in this way?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Get out a map and identify the places where this story takes place. Does anything strike you about the physical distance between these locations, especially given the time period during which the story takes place?
2. Visit a museum with Greek and Roman art galleries or the Metropolitan Museum of Art website at https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art
to view the kinds of antiquities Livia and Felipe might have exported. Which are you most drawn to?
3. Has anyone in your book group read other novels by Philippa Gregory, either Tidelands
or her previous books? How does this book compare?
4. Visit the author’s website at PhilippaGregory.com to learn more about her work and the Fairmile series.A Conversation with Philippa GregoryDark Tides is the second book in a planned series about the fictional Reekie family, spanning generations and continents. What drew you to writing an ambitious family saga at this point in your career?
It’s been a long career and deeply enjoyable! And I have learned the confidence to embark on a long project like this, certain that there will be extraordinary, little-known stories that will turn up in research that I can incorporate into the story of the family’s rise to prosperity and the greater story of the changes in England and in the world. I know a little of my family history, and many other individual and small histories, and I want to go from the personal to the global with an international long-term story. I’ve always disliked the snobbery of much of traditional historical fiction when it focuses on the well-known and grand people, so this is a challenge to that style. And in addition to all of that, I was rereading The Forsyte Saga
and was inspired by the journey Soames—a wealthy Victorian Londoner—makes to what he regards are his roots: some muddy fields. Go back far enough, and all our families come from muddy fields; I wanted to celebrate that.Although you’re best known for your work in royal historical fiction, you’ve spoken about working on a history of what we consider “ordinary” women, who have been overlooked and invisible throughout much of history. How does this nonfiction work influence and inform your fiction and vice versa?
My interest has always been in women in history; it was the obscure women and not the famous men that have always interested me. So it was a logical development that I should want to write a history of women who rarely make any mark in the records. I have been working for some years now on a history of women of England and this is my major work, but it is inspiring and supporting my fictional writing. As always, what really happened is so much more dramatic, extreme, and unlikely than anything I would dare to invent.The first book in this series, Tidelands, was set in the marshlands of Sussex, where you lived for a time. This novel takes place between London, Venice, and the land that became Connecticut. What drew you to these settings?
Pagham Harbour, the setting of Tidelands
, was the destination of many childhood visits, and I lived beside it for five years, sharing a house with the warden and sometimes helping him with his conservation work, so it was a powerful place for me to invoke in my first novel of this series. London is the center of the development of global western trade at this time, a natural destination for disgraced women who might hope to make a living obscured by the crowds, and a wonderful starting point for a story about a trading family. Venice was a famous trading city, especially in luxury goods and the objects that drove the Renaissance: classical artifacts. I’ve visited the city many times and I love the urban architecture and history, but for this novel I also went to the Isola del Lazzaretto Nuovo. I was honored to have a tour by the curator and was able to walk around the waterside path outside the boundary walls of the old quarantine castle. It was so striking to see the wildness of the Venice lagoon, the mud banks, the reed banks, and the bird life. At once I realized that Rob would see the similarity to his home, and would be as sure-footed here as on the Saxon shore. It was the landscape which inspired the escape, a part of the story I particularly like, as it came to me so vividly. I visited New England also, meeting historians and people of the Pokanoket and Pequot nations. Here too the landscape was hugely inspiring, and I could trace the settlement of Hadley on the bend in the river, and try to imagine the people who lived there, for so many centuries before the coming of the settlers.You write beautifully about the natural world. The space particularly between land and sea holds such significance for your characters. How does your experience of nature and landscape influence your writing?
I think the truth is more that nature and landscape influence me very deeply as a person, and comes out in everything I do. I even have very vivid and detailed dream landscapes! I have lived for most of my adult life in the country, and one of my greatest pleasures is being out in the countryside. I have a sense of peace and belonging in a rural landscape, and I feel at home in woods and fields in a way that I never do in towns. I like to be connected to the animal world—I care for two ancient ponies that were my children’s ponies, and I have a dog and sometimes raise abandoned ducklings. I feed and house a rescued barn owl who flies freely out of my barn, and has lived as my neighbor (by his own free choice) for twelve years, bringing a female back every year and raising chicks. Earlier generations who lived off the land were far closer to the natural world than we are now, and I try to reflect this in my characters’ love of their home landscape, and their knowledge about the natural world. I am in awe of the historic American Indians’ integration with their world: they felt a kinship with the animal and natural world which was incorporated into every aspect of their lives.A tremendous amount of research went into this novel—there’s such authority and ease to your voice when explaining both the process of art forgery and the relationship between settlers and American Indian nations in the New World. How did you go about researching this novel? Did anything surprise you during the research process?
As always, my research was a great deal of reading and some visits. My biggest early surprise was the extent of art and historic artifacts forgery, even today. The Lustrous Trade
and the other books about art forgery listed in the bibliography were real eye-openers! I had no idea of the extent of grave looting and forgery which continues even today. Other fascinating snippets were the early international trading companies of London—Johnnie did not long to be a member of the Company any more than I longed for him to join them! I learned about the value of herbs and semiprecious stones in Restoration London, and the use of sassafras. The strangest and most inspiring material was the research into American Indians, where everything is different from English history—from religion to diet, women’s rights to transport. Studying, visiting, and talking was like entering another world.Were there any scenes—either due to their content or the research involved—that were particularly difficult to write? How did you work through them?
I was especially aware that in the American Indian history, I was writing about people who are not my ancestors, and whose descendants have already suffered from land and cultural theft. Indeed, they have suffered at the hands of people who are
my ancestors. That gives me every reason to approach with sensitivity, caution, and awareness. That was one of the reasons that I made Ned a man between the worlds, so that he too was cautiously approaching a world he did not know. It also meant I was not attempting to tell the story of the American Indians directly—of course, they have their own storytellers. Instead, I was telling the story of a man who wanted to live in a New World without the cruelties of the old, and there were some like Ned but not, tragically, enough to change the course of that cruel history. I read extensively from histories that were sensitive to these issues, and I am indebted to the readers from the Pokanoket nation for their advice and support.You started your writing career writing about a fictional family, then transitioned to detailing the lives of Tudor and Plantagenet women. What do you feel is the greatest difference in writing wholly fictional rather than historical women?
In my first novel, Wideacre
, there were no historical characters, the family lived in a historically accurate landscape of agricultural and political change, but they did not meet any recognizable historical characters. The Wise Woman
also was wholly fictional against a historical landscape. But since then, I think all my historical fictions have had characters who were real people, and have been subjected to my increasing desire for history. I find the research much more interesting when it takes in whatever might have come up at the time—it is really rich and thought-provoking. And it leads me to characters that otherwise I would never have heard of! I’d never have researched Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford—a woman almost forgotten by history—if I had not written a novel about her daughter Elizabeth Woodville.
I really thought this series would be more fictional, but quite unconsciously I started the novel at a time when Charles I was in captivity, and I located the opening scene a mere twenty miles across the sea from him. As you may know, Charles I is featured in the novel and his failed rescue attempts are key to the action of the story. I don’t seem to be able to get away from historical events—nor do I want to. We are all determined by the times we live in, and to write of characters as if they were independent of their culture is not only unrealistic, but it is to miss one of the most interesting aspects of a life: how it is shaped by the times.
The technical difference is that writing about characters who have been recorded by history is about ten times more demanding than writing about wholly fictional ones! There are constant problems of location and action. Very few characters are fully recorded and many accounts are contradictory, which poses lots of problems as to which account should be trusted. There are the problems of historically recorded characters who just vanish from the records for years at a time. A historian can cheerfully leave a gap—but in a fiction all characters have to be plausibly accounted for. There are problems of controversial characters when I have to decide, as the author, whether I go with the traditionally accepted view of a historical character, or think for myself how they might appear to my fictional observer. But all these problems are worth the benefit of writing a fiction which is perfectly aligned with the known history and with the biographies—while keeping the liveliness and the authorial voice of fiction.Your work now spans more than twenty-five novels, both historical and contemporary. What is your process for beginning a new novel?
It’s such an enjoyable process now, for I can trust it. I do a lot of general reading around the wider period and stay alert for anything that I think will be interesting—however unlikely it seems. For this series I am now reading Japanese, Chinese, and Indian history, as I think my story will take me to the East. I start to think about the characters—some will be carried forward from previous novels, but some will be new, and I think about what they will bring. I have an idea of what will be the events of the novel and I think about certain scenes in a quite detailed way. Then I start my specific research into historical characters who will occur and events that will happen, I create a strict historically accurate timeline—this goes on a massive chart, sometimes with overlays!—and I start the detailed plotting of the individual stories and scenes into the historical event. At the back of my mind is the broader question of what is happening in the history: Is there a notable historical trend during this time? And the question of my intent: What do I want to say in this novel? What do I want to learn in the course of writing? And now that I am in the midst of a series: How shall this novel end and what can I take forward to the next? One of the greatest guides is when I can’t bring myself to either read or write anything else but the new novel—that’s when I know I am ready to start. And then I simply do start, at the beginning. It’s important to get a lot of work done in the first few weeks so as not to lose momentum or confidence, but once I am about thirty thousand words in, I generally feel that I know where I am going. Then I read and write in tandem till I can write The End
—which I always ritualistically do (though it’s not published like that), and then I can start thinking about how far I have achieved what I set out to do—and then rewrite.Can you give us any hint of what comes next in the Fairmile series?
Oh! I’m very excited about it. It’s partly the story of Matteo, who is going to be his mother’s son, ambitious like her, and attach himself to the court of James II. Ned is going to come back to England with his son and try for one last push at a rebellion. Sarah and Felipe have established a legitimate business in Venice and London, and Johnnie is going to be an entrepreneur with the East India Company and make a fortune. The family is going to continue expanding the business with the ethics of Ned and Alinor in contrast to the increasingly ambitious and greedy world of the eighteenth century. That’s the plan now—it will be quite different in the writing, I know!