Lately I've noticed that the novels of Philippa Gregory have been recieving a lot of press. More recently, it has been her series of novels set in the Tudor era of English history, and now the publishers have decided to rerelease her first series of novels, set in and around an estate called Wideacre that has consumed the passions of several generations of a family.
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The story is told through the eyes of Beatrice Lacey, the only daughter of a wealthy, landowning family in Sussex in the south of England. For Beatrice, Wideacre isn't just a place to live, but everything in her life. Her father is the Squire, hard-riding, attentive to the land, and the sun in Beatrice's world. Her mother, however, is bored stiff being the Squire's wife, writing endless letters to her relations, longing for a life in more glittering society, and haplessly trying to turn her hoyden of a daughter into a more proper lady. Beatrice would much rather be riding and learning every nook and cranny of the Wideacre estate.
Among all of that is Ralph, the son of the local white witch and gamekeeper in training. Tall, dark and handsome, he's Beatrice's partner in all forms of childhood mischief, but when both of them are adolescents, that innocence soon turns into mutual lust. At this point we get to see Beatrice's true nature appear, especially when her brother Harry returns from school, and she's shoved aside as Harry takes a center role in everyone's lives.
And it's certainly not pretty.
Beatrice, we discover, will do anything to keep her status as the darling of Wideacre. Whether that means conniving with Ralph, lying to her parents, going around behind Harry's back and even to the unthinkable steps of murder and incest, she'll do it. All with scarcly a qualm in her head that what she is doing will have consequences. What Beatrice wants, Beatrice gets.
Including betraying Ralph into a man-trap and severing his legs when her father suddenly dies. Or seducing Harry, and arranging that her own bastard child by her brother is claimed by Harry's shy and sweet new bride, Celia, as legitimate. Even the prospect of a healthy, normal marriage between Beatrice and a Scottish doctor, John MacAndrew, is corrupted into a monster. Eventually, Beatrice gets her just rewards, but it takes nearly seven hundred pages to get there, and most of it is pretty tiresome, nasty and repetitious.
In fact, none of the characters are at all likeable, except for Celia -- who truly views Beatrice as a friend, and in love with Harry -- and John, who truly loves Beatrice, until her continual lies and treachery destroy any sort of happiness that they could have had together. Beatrice's obsesssion verges on the pathological here, and rarely shifts into anything close to normalcy.
It was while reading this novel that I discovered what it is that makes me dislike Gregory's work so much. Namely, that her female lead characters are so detestable in their morals and actions, that I can feel little empathy or sympathy for their actions, no matter how convincing they are in what is motivating them. A little wickedness is fun to read about, but a character that casts all sense of decent behavior aside, well, that makes me a bit squeamish. If there had been some maturity appearing in Beatrice's character, that would have helped, but she's still as selfish and annoying in the final pages as she was in the begining.
Too, while Gregory takes great pains with describing country life and work, there is very little sense of the outside world. Nearly all of the action takes place in or around the estate, and no one really discusses anything that happens -- from what I could gather, the setting is the eighteenth century in England, perhaps at the end of the century. No one, it seems, is aware of the changes in politics or literature or the sciences.
Finally, Gregory overlays the theme of modern witchcraft and paganism over the novel, which was another sore point with me. It's fine if you want to stick it in there, but the constant repitition of the theme, and the fact that Beatrice seems to use it as an excuse to commit incest, it's going too far. Gregory continued the Wideacre saga with two sequels, Meridon and The Favored Child. To be honest, I'm not sure if I want to continue with the series, unless I run out of everything else I have, and there's nothing available.
1987; Penguin Books, Ltd.
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