This reading group guide for Dawnlands includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Philippa Gregory
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. 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
It is 1685, England is on the brink of a renewed civil war against the Stuart kings, and many families are bitterly divided. Ned Ferryman cannot persuade his sister, Alinor, that he is right to return from America with his Pokanoket servant, Rowan, to join the rebel army. Instead, Alinor has been coaxed by the manipulative Livia to save the queen from the coming siege. The rewards are life-changing: the family could return to their beloved Tidelands, and Alinor could rule where she was once lower than a servant.
Alinor’s grandson, Johnnie, is determined to stay clear of the war, but he is dragged into danger when he sets out to free Ned from execution for treason and Rowan from a convict deportation to Barbados. Meanwhile, Alinor’s son, Rob, finds himself trapped into producing a surrogate baby for the queen—the most dangerous of all impostures: a fake Prince of Wales. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel begins with Livia’s being summoned to court. How does this event—and centering the beginning on her perspective—set up the rest of the novel?
2. Early on, James tells Livia, “‘I do admire how your devotion increases with the fashion.’” What does this say about her character?
3. While discussing how Foulmire might have changed, Alinor tells Alys, “‘Someone will have made up stories about us . . . as if we were never real at all.’” What does this novel say about the power of stories?
4. Alinor tells Matthew that Livia and James Avery are “poor in heart.” How do Alinor’s and Alys’s relationships with James and Livia, respectively, affect the novel? Do you find redemption for these characters by the end?
5. Rowan tells Ned, “You saved my life—it is yours.” At various points in the story, they each feel an enormous debt to the other. How does this drive the story? Do you think that Ned and Rowan are obligated to repay this debt? Why do you think Rowan uses Ned’s name in Barbados?
6. What does the discovery of the garden in Barbados mean to Rowan? How does she take back her own agency and build community in this novel?
7. Alinor tells James, “‘You can’t bring back time by wishing.’” What do you think these characters might change about their lives if given the opportunity to go back?
8. What do you make of the story the charcoal burner tells Gabrielle and Mia about the mermaid and the priest? Does this fairy tale tell a truth about the real events? What does it mean that both Alinor and James die on Midsummer Eve?
9. As Queen Mary Beatrice promises to shower Livia with a post, pension, and jewels, Livia says, “I’ll try to be happy.” Consider the relationship between Livia and Mary Beatrice, especially given Livia’s relationship with Alys in the previous book. Do you think that Livia is purely mercenary, or does she have some true affection for the queen?
10. When Ned finds Rowan, she says of Johnnie (and Ned, too, by association), “But I don’t need his help. I’m free.” How does this theme of freedom run through the novel? What does freedom look like for each of these characters?
11. Alys says, “There is no profit in equality.” How does the book prove or disprove this theory? Do you agree with her?
12. What role does succession—both royal and nonroyal—play in this novel? What kind of inheritances, both monetary and spiritual, do the characters receive?
13. At the end of the novel, Livia returns, announcing that their home is called Fairmile. What does this renaming of the Priory signal?
14. Why do you think the author chose to title the book Dawnlands
? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read the previous two books in the Fairmile series, Tidelands
and Dark Tides
, and discuss how these books differ from Dawnlands
2. Get a map and plot out the locations and journeys of the various characters of this novel, many of whom travel long distances from Reekie Wharf.
3. Visit the author’s website, PhilippaGregory.com
, to learn more about the author and her works. A Conversation with Philippa Gregory This is the third book in the Fairmile series. How did the writing of this novel differ from the writing of the first two books of the series? Did you encounter any obstacles you hadn’t anticipated?
A practical difficulty was not being able to travel during the pandemic. I would usually have gone to all the places that I described—this novel I had to draw on my memory of Hadley, Connecticut, and Amsterdam. I was able to go to Barbados, and the scenery and history were very inspiring. A writerly difficulty that I hadn’t anticipated was the immense attraction that I felt toward some of the characters. It was very hard to let Alinor go—I loved her so much when I first described her in Tidelands.
And Livia too is a character who just takes over the story. This novel is rich with detail of the natural world, particularly in Rowan’s sections, both in New England and in Barbados. What drew you to the story of her and her people? What kind of research did you conduct about early colonial history?
I have been honored with the trust and friendship of the Pokanoket elders whom I met when researching Dark Tides
, which is partly set in their ancestral homeland, the Dawnlands, in New England. They talked to me about their history and showed me around their land, and I also read extensively about precolonial America and consulted many historians. The idea of a cooperative egalitarian society that lives aligned with nature is very inspiring—especially at this time when we are suffering from inequality and destruction of climate balance. As this series has gone on, the viewpoints have become more and more kaleidoscopic, and you balance a huge number of characters flung across the world. Was this large scope something you always intended? How do you balance each of the characters’ stories?
This was the plan of the book from the very beginning! Many English families have dispersed around the world as invaders, colonizers, explorers, merchants, and pilgrims, and I always thought that the family founded by Alinor would be one that would be part of global trade and travel. It’s a huge ambition! In practice, I balance the characters’ stories as they develop—so as long as they are interesting (hopefully fascinating) I move from one to another as they change through time. Some things have to happen at a given time, since they are linked to real events, and they give me the timetable of the book around which other stories can be narrated. Sometimes, as in the Monmouth rebellion, almost all the characters are directly involved, and you will see how I move from one scene to another so the timings fit together. My hope is that the reader moves to another character and story with pleasure and interest. When I find as a writer that I don’t want to leave one thread—I usually stay with it, letting my storyteller’s instinct guide me. You’ve written three books about these characters. Is there anything about them that still surprises you?
Oh yes! That’s part of the pleasure of writing the book. The events and how they respond to them surprise me. I know they’re going to happen, but the actual writing is always a discovery. I hadn’t planned how the real-life allegation of the baby in the warming pan would play out in the story, and I was surprised and delighted (as ever!) by the manipulative skills of Livia. I was amazed at the development of the deep tenderness in Ned, and by Johnnie’s mercenary nature. And I really didn’t know—till I was writing it—how the great love between James and Alinor would end. Her understanding of what went wrong between them seemed very surprising and important when it just came to me as I was writing. Tidelands takes place in the midst of the English Civil War, and this book also is centered during a time of great political turmoil and unrest. What draws you to this time period—and in particular the republican leanings of characters like Ned, who want to build a country centered on liberty?
By instinct and education I am a democrat and someone who believes in a free and equal society, so the history of England during the seventeenth century, when people were thinking through ideas about equality and freedom, speaks very profoundly to me. It’s a time of great hope for those who went abroad to found new communities that they thought would be equal and free. Ironically, the colonialists became slavers and their new countries became oppressive in their turn. This is such a picture of a dream turned sour that of course it’s very interesting to both a historian and a novelist. How do we build a better world—when we take in our bags the old temptations of greed and snobbery? Who is your favorite character to write in this series and why?
I genuinely can’t pick a top favorite. I love Ned for his principles and his compassion, and Rowan for her courage and humor. I have loved the character of Alinor through three books; I am sorry for James and the mistakes he makes. I can’t help but adore Livia, who is such a wicked woman but has self-knowledge and no hypocrisy. I feel that I understand Johnnie, whose desire for wealth comes from such a poor childhood, and I love the honest straightforward affection between Alys and her husband, Captain Shore. I’m very interested in Mia, Gabriella, and Hester—we’re going to see more of them with their friend and kinsman Matthew. A major spoiler for anyone reading ahead! This novel contains the death of Alinor, the matriarch of the Reekie family, and the main character of Tidelands. What was it like for you to bring her story to a close?
It was certainly time! She nearly drowned at the end of book one. I felt very satisfied in bringing her back to the Tidelands in the house where she had been a servant. I felt that her story was complete, and at the final meeting with James she understood how he had failed her, and why. I liked that they were finally together, dying at the same time and—as his flowers for her funeral showed—that he knew they would be together in death. You’re best known for your series of Plantagenet and Tudor novels, which draw back the historical curtain on court life. Why did you want to return to that (in this case the Stuart court) in this novel?
I am interested in the courts when they are places of historical events and change—also there are good records kept of courts, whereas for working people there are often no records at all. For these reasons, it’s interesting to base fiction at a court. In this case it’s a wonderful court—Mary of Modena is England’s Marie Antoinette! Struggling for her own personal happiness in a monarchy that is fighting for its own life. The details of her visit to Bath, the disastrous weakness of her husband, his overly confident mistress, and the queen’s escape at night over the river with her baby in a rowing boat are all on the historical record. It’s a quite extraordinary story and very little known—only the addition of Livia is fiction. What are you working on next? Can you give us any hints?
I am currently working on a huge project: a history of the working women of England from 1066 to 1994. It’s nonfiction and tells of the ordinary lives of women from the Norman Invasion till the ordination of women in the Church of England recognized that women had souls and could be ministers of the church. It’s given me huge insights into times of change, which will help me in my writing when I return to historical fiction.