Wideacre – Phillipa Gregory

Warning, possible incest and rape triggers.

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.

Comments

  1. Lya says

    I’m embarrassed to admit it but when I was fourteen or thereabouts I read (and enjoyed) both Salem Falls and Wideacre. Maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the right word. Reading Wideacre was like not being able to tear your eyes away from a train wreck. I read the sequels, too. And the Other Boleyn Girl, and most of the stuff Philippa Gregory has published over the years. And I LIKED Salem Falls, too. I thought it was a gripping read, right up there with such literary gems as My Sister’s Keeper. I’ve had no cause to revisit either of these books for ages but reading your review just now makes me cringe. Oh, self.

    I have to wonder if most people who pick up Wideacre ever think about the implications though, or conclude that Scarlett kicks Beatrice’s butt seven ways to Sunday. Fourteen-year-old me certainly didn’t. I don’t consider myself a very discerning reader or viewer of books or film – I’m mostly just along for the ride. And after reading your Firefly-related posts from way back in the day, I’m kind of disappointed in myself. Not because I agree with you guys on every point, but because it never occurred to me to look at the show beyond “Simon is hot and Jayne is hilarious and I want Inara’s wardrobe.” I mean, it’s like I’m living in the internet stone age. I should really get out more. Thanks for your incisive commentary on a variety of interesting topics. I’m going to climb out of my bomb shelter now.

  2. Patrick says

    Lya – I know very much what you mean. It has been really astonishing to come back to things I enjoyed in my youth and see them in a very different light.

    Sometimes its a case of being troubled by things that I didn’t notice at all, e.g. Warhammer 40,000: “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war. And white people.”

    Other times I realize how very important and influential something was, e.g. ExoSquad where the presence of female front-line combatants was a complete non-issue to the narrative.

    Other times it’s just distracting, e.g. “Holy crap, Mary Poppins is smokin’ hot.”

  3. Scarlett says

    Lya, if it makes you feel better, I’ve ben writing for this site about four years, picked up The Other Bolyen Girl about two years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. TOBG isn’t nearly as problematic as Wideacre but having read stuff from other English historical writers (I highly recommend Jean Plaidy – she really fleshes out women who have been maligned by history, like Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette) I can see how much she relies on bad stereotypes. Like, Gregory still relies quite heavily on the ‘bitch’ stereotype that AB has been saddled with. (Have you read The Boleyn Inheritance? Problematic too, but I do love the way she fleshed out Anne of Cleves.)

    So what I’m trying to say is that I’ve become a lot more disconcering in my taste even just in my time writing for this site. I think the important thing is just being willing to open your eyes at the type of discrimination and bad portrayals that are out there, and natural inquisitiveness will take you a long way from there.

    I actually liked both the Wideacre series and Picoults work that I finished the series/read other stuff of hers. Neither woman is without talent (they still kick Stephenie Meyer’s ass) and even within with Wideacre series there’s a lot of interesting stuff about the treatment of women at the time. I mean, Beatrice got a lot of sympathy from me at the start, it was just that Gregory took her off in a direction where she became this irredeemable caricature. Hell, if she could get us to sympathise with Henry 8th at times, how hard could it have been to create a sympathetic portrayal of the women he bullied, stalked and victimised?

  4. Lya says

    You know it was a long time ago and I appear to have found The Boleyn Inheritance so forgettable that I don’t recall any plot points. I did find the earlier books in the series (The Other Boleyn Girl,The Queen’s Fool, The Virgin’s Lover) more interesting than the later ones. Or it’s possible that I was younger and more impressionable when they came out. In all the stuff I’ve read about Tudor England, I think my favorites are still Alison Weir’s histories. I never noticed before but now that I think about it she does tend to focus on pivotal women – her Eleanor of Acquitaine was particularly good. I think she came out with a novel about Jane Grey?

    I feel like it’s tempting to fall back on the bitch stereotype because it’s such a stock trope that you have to do very little work in terms of character development – the reader immediately grasps what you’re trying to do. And most of them don’t question it. Heaven knows I didn’t. The protagonist of the sequel, The Favored Child, is Beatrice and Harry’s daughter, and she’s as much a victim as her mother is a villainess. I’m going by memory here but she doesn’t appear capable of doing anything for herself. She’s raped by her borderline psychotic brother, has the baby and gives it away to gypsies (the next book is about the girl who’s raised by gypsies).

    But Wideacre is Gregory’s first published novel, and I hope she’s improved over the years. I’ve tried Jean Plaidy but it didn’t take. Sort of like how I know Sharon Kay Penman is supposed to be an amazing historical novelist and still have trouble making it through her books.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond. Having to write reviews probably makes you a more careful reader. It’s good to know that everybody starts out a little naive about the problematic aspects of women in fiction.

  5. Scarlett says

    I’ve heard Wier is good; I’ve just taken her ‘Innocent Traitor’ from the library, which is about Jane Grey. I find her really interesting ‘cos she basically just wanted to be left alone with her books but there were all these people determined to make her queen and Mary just as determined that she NOT be queen.

    The first JP book I picked up was Shadow of the Pomegranete, the third in her Tudor series which basically follows the bit most people find the most interesting, about Anne’s ascent, Katherine’s downfall and the Reformation. If I had picked up something else, I probably wouldn’t have stuck with her – I find many of her books, especially the ones which aren’t in a series, quite slow (Beyond the Blue Mountains, Daughter of Satan etc). Like, Flaunting, Extravant Queen about Marie Antoinette is quite good and its part of a trilogy about the end of the French Royal family, but Milady Charlotte and Queen of Diamonds, which cover much of the same territory a stand-alone books, plod along. Gregory is definitely the more engaging of the two as a writer, although I think Plaidy has a better grasp on the history, especially given she covers huge chunks of European history over about 400 years.

    I’m not sure which of the Wideacre stories made me feel most uncomfortable. Beatrice was an awful character, but Richard’s behaviour was sickening. Julia actually tries to get help – telling her ‘mum’ (Celia), sending for her ex-fiancee, but Richard blocks her at every turn. He’s despicable and controlling in a way that makes Beatrice look like a siant. If Meridon’s treatment/marriage was realistic in the time, then all I can say is ‘good god’, though I liked how she basically empowered herself by giving up her power.

    TOBG and TBI are the only of Gregory’s Tudor novels that I really liked – her ones about KofA and Elizabeth I found dull. (Though I’m picking up a trend amoung female historical writers that Elizabeth REALLY isn’t held in very high esteem.) I liked that Anne of Cleves was fleshed out into this intelligent, attractive woman who blossomed once out of the immediate range of Henry’s temper. I’m looking for a book that gives a decent portrayal of Jane Boleyn – so far everything I’ve found is basically ‘insane bitch ratted out her husband and SIL and got hers’. (BTW, don’t go anywhere NEAR Brandy Purdy’s The Boleyn Wife.)

    And heh, you should have seen some of the stuff I’ve posted over the years. ‘Naive’ doesn’t cover it. (Try uninformed, opinionated straight white girl from a wealthy background.)

  6. Liz Miller says

    Scarlett,

    I on the other hanbd really liked Wideacre and so did my fiance. I found her book to be very interesting. While it definately disturbed me, I enjoyed it immensely. I think there are a few similarities between Beatrice and Scarlett, but I do agree that Scarlett is a better character. I thought the book was pretty decent. Beatrice was not likable but she was interesting to me and The Favored Child was great as well. However Meridon fell short.

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