Phillipa Gregory’s Wideacre is the worst book I’ve read in some time – and that includes Salem Falls. Jodi Picoult fell back on atrocious stereotypes – Gregory’s brand of crap requires some imagination.
Wideacre follows the story of Beatrice Lacey, of Wideacre, a large English farm dating back to Norman times. Beatrice has a talent for the land – she knows what works, what doesn’t, and the peasants employed to farm Wideacre look to her as if she were the reason the wheat grows. Which is a lot more than can be said for her brother, Harry, who is far more interested in his books then learning about farming. So Beatrice is the obvious heir to Wideacre, right? But this is England in the 1700’s, and as such, Wideacre goes to the nearest male relative – Harry – and if Harry dies, the nearest male relative after him, their cousin Charles. Apparently the inheritance can’t even go via Beatrice to her son – it has to follow a direct line of men.
So it’s understandable that Beatrice is a little annoyed about that. After all, she’s the more suitable sibling, but it doesn’t matter what quality of human being Harry is, Wideacre goes to him. So she schemes with her lover Ralph to kill her father and control Harry between them. Except Ralph was far more serious about it then Beatrice was, and by the time she realises it, Ralph has killed the dad. Beatrice retaliates by setting a trap for Ralph and leaving him for dead. Clearly, pop fiction didn’t exist then, because the #1 rule of Bad Writing is that if you leave someone for dead, rather than sticking around to make sure that their cold, rotting corpse is indeed a cold, rotting corpse, they will inevitably live and seek revenge. But more of that later.
Beatrice then gets involved in a sexual relationship with Harry – yes, I said a sexual relationship with Harry, her brother – in order to control him. When he marries, she seeks to control his wife, Celia, then foists her child with Harry onto Celia. She continues the relationship as a means of controlling Harry and, by extension, Wideacre.
Then she falls pregnant again, and engineers for a man courting her, John, to seduce and marry her, thinking she’s pregnant with his child. John soon realises that Beatrice’s son, Richard, is not his. There’s a chain of events and Beatrice drives him first to drink, then to institutionalisation so she can gain power of attorney over him. After which, Beatrice sells off his estates in Scotland to buy out Cousin Charles and have Wideacre for her and Harry to do with as they see fit – namely, leave it to their children (both respective and mutual), Julia and Richard.
In the meantime, Beatrice has gone from being the generous, understanding farm owner to exploiting the peasants who work the land as far as eighteenth century English law will allow – which was considerable – so Wideacre will make more money for Richard. She fires her contract and seasonal employees and hires labour from the poorhouse (slave labour, essentially). She sends her corn and wheat to London for a better price rather then sell it cheaper to her neighbours so that they can eat. She sees that the peasants are so close to starving to death that they are resorting to crime for it, but she doesn’t care.
Remember what I said about not leaving people for dead? Well, Ralph comes back, crippled, but something of a revolutionary, seeking a fair go for all and all that, and kills her. I guess Gregory meant it as a ‘served you right’ kind of deal, but I was more incensed about something else.
The Evening Standard compared Beatrice to Scarlett O’Hara. I know this was meant to be a compliment to Gregory, but instead I took it as an insult to Margaret Mitchell. (Yeah, I admit to a bias. Really, could you tell from my name?) The only thing Scarlett O’Hara and Beatrice Lacey have in common is an obsession with one bit of land; even when both women marry wealthy landowners, they cling to that particular farm. They both did some nasty things, true, but Scarlett’s were borne firstly from immaturity and then from knowing the starvation and cold that comes from poverty. Beatrice was never under immediate threat of going hungry or homeless. Scarlett pinches her sister’s fiance to save the plantation, not only for herself, but for said sister and half a dozen others whom she’s taken responsibility for; Beatrice undermine’s Harry and Celia’s marriage at every turn out of a twisted sense of entitlement. When Scarlett is confronted with the fact that her determination to make money means ill-treated prisoners, she recognises that she is responsible and makes an effort to ease the situation; when Beatrice is met with starving peasants she convinces herself that they just aren’t working hard enough and it’s their own fault that they’re hungry.
If Gregory was aiming to create a nuanced, Scarlett-esque character here, then she has failed miserably. Beatrice is an irredeemable villianess who borders on a caricature. Which is a shame, because Beatrice, like Scarlett, could have been the heroine in an interesting look at a woman whose talents are both practical and profitable in a culture where such talents in women are looked upon as unseemly; a story where a person can do bad things for sympathetic reasons. Instead, we have a two-dimensionally evil woman whose only interest she could muster from me was when and how she would get her comeuppance. And even that was overrated.