Author: Philippa Gregory, 1987.
Genre: Historical Fiction. 18th Century England. Mature Themes.
Other Details: ISIS Audio 2006, Unabridged 27 hours, 10 minutes. Read by Jilly Bond.
Set during the second half of the 18th Century, the story is mainly narrated by Beatrice Lacey, the only daughter of the Squire of Wideacre. Wideacre Hall and its large estate is the ancestral home of the Lacey family, located in the rich West Sussex countryside. At a young age Beatrice forms a strong bond with Wideacre, accompanying her father daily as he oversees the running of the estate. She is devastated to learn that due to the laws of inheritance the estate will pass to her brother Harry and, if he dies without a male heir, is 'entailed' to pass to the next male heir however distant. She is expected to make a good marriage and leave Wideacre behind. Her father tells her that this is the way of the world. Beatrice vows that "if it was the way of the world that girls left home, then the world would have to change. I would never change". Thus, as she grows into a beautiful young woman she begins to use her wits and sexuality to manipulate and corrupt those around her in order to attain her ends. The themes here are quite strong including incest, sadomasochism, murder and revenge.
This was Gregory's first novel and was based on the research she had done for her PhD thesis on 18th century popular literature. She states on her website that its themes were very prevalent in popular literature of the time (see link below). During the course of the novel she considers the changes in farming methods that took place during this period as traditional practices gave way to more commercial considerations. I'd certainly read rather dry non-fiction texts about the practice of enclosure that marked this period of change and broke for many local people their relationship to the land. Yet Gregory writes about it in a very immediate passionate way, conveying powerfully the sense of how devastating this was for ordinary folk bringing impoverishment and disenfranchisement from their former way of life.
In the character of Beatrice Lacey I was reminded of Scarlett O'Hara's love for Tara and her manipulative ways; though Beatrice's obsession over Wideacre and the things she is prepared to do to get hold of the estate makes Miss Scarlett seem almost a timid mouse.While there is little to admire in Beatrice's character, there is also the sense that the deeds she has committed to attain her goals do take their toll and corrupt her soul. This is quite movingly conveyed in a late chapter and it is hard not to feel sympathy for her. The underlying sense of tragedy is that Beatrice's behaviour links to her lack of rights as a woman despite the fact that in everything but name she was running the estate.
I'd remarked to a member of our book group that I had enjoyed the aspects of natural magic and paganism that Gregory had incorporated into her latest work and they had said that this had been a theme in this early novel. This proved so, and the magic is that linked to the land and is reflected in the relationship that Beatrice enjoys in the early part of the novel. Again the point is made that changes to the way the land was worked also brought changes in this respect.
Overall, the adventures of the racy Miss Lacey proved to be addictive fare and though I thought this would take a long time to listen to given its length it proved almost impossible to press the stop button. Gregory went on to write two further novels about Wideacre and later generations of the Lacey family.
Philippa Gregory on the historical background to the Wideacre trilogy.