Philippa Gregory’s début novel, Wideacre, is a difficult book to describe without spoiling the plot, but I’ll give it a try. I’ve read reviews which damned it and reviews which praised it, and I’ve agreed with both.
Beatrice Lacey wants her family estate, Wideacre. Nothing more, nothing less. She loves the salmon creeks, the birch trees on the high hills, the flocks of sheep, the corn swaying beneath the sickles, and she can run it all with her bred-in-the-bone understanding of the land and the love of her people behind her.
But there’s one thing which isn’t behind her, the single greatest obstacle she spends her life trying to overcome. She’s the elder of her parents’ two children, but she’s a girl in the eighteenth century. Not only will her easygoing, inept brother inherit everything, but the estate is entailed, so if he dies without producing a son, it all goes to some distant cousin. Either way, Beatrice loses Wideacre. This book is the story of how she gradually destroys everything – from her people to her family to her love of the land – in order to keep it.
One of the book`s strengths is its plot, so I won`t go into many details about that. It’s horrifying, tense and realistic with a single exception—when Beatrice’s lover comes up with a plan to gain Wideacre for them both. He’s realized by then it`s the key to her heart, or at least some other part of her anatomy, but his scheme is truly half-baked and she should have realized this. However, both of them are sixteen or so at this point, so it`s understandable.
And the rest of the story holds together very well. Beatrice works constantly to keep a foothold on the land – to prevent herself being married off and sent away, to make herself indispensable to her brother, to find enough money to break the entail, and finally to cover up the increasingly dark and unhinged things she does. Be warned: this book contains manipulation, incest, incestuous BDSM, descriptions of suicide, attempted murder and murder. Don’t read it in the hopes of a completely happy ending for anyone (even the far more sympathetic characters don’t escape unscathed), but do read it for an anti-heroine who combines Scarlett O’Hara’s passion for her land with Cersei Lannister’s utter ruthlessness.
Finally, there’s the style. The descriptions are lush, atmospheric and incredibly vivid. When I read this book, I could smell the roses in the garden and hear the great heart of Wideacre beating beneath the earth. It wasn’t just a fascinating read; it was an experience for the senses.
The only thing that really disappointed me was that this is the first in the Wideacre trilogy, and I was eager to find out what happened after the Ragnarok-esque ending. Unfortunately neither of the heroines of the next two novels worked for me: they didn’t have Beatrice’s crazed, compelling ambition that spurs the plot into a gallop, and they seemed far too much in thrall to the men in their lives. But Wideacre is an unusual, bittersweet treat.