We here at Classic Trash love Philippa Gregory, dearly. We love The Wise Woman, which involved a lot of zombie candle-wax creatures who stabbed fetuses; we love her attempt to get into the mind-grapes of each and every one of Henry VIII’s wives and female relations (okay, not all of them, but the interesting ones); but most of all, we love Wideacre. (We’re sticking here to the first book of the trilogy, so hold your thoughts on The Favored Child and Meridon for the time being.)
This book is totally disgusting—and it was absolutely the highlight, for me, of being nine years old and trying to find something to read at my grandparents’ house. This is also how I first encountered Forever Amber and Gone With the Wind; for some reason, my mother didn’t want me to read Forever Amber, and as a result I wound up trying to become Scarlett O’Hara, which has done terrible, irreparable harm to my personality to this very day (tosses hair, behaves in a self-destructive fashion). No, after a long day of paging through interminable biographies of dead popes and histories of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pierre Berton books about railroads, I hit pay dirt. Because this book is disgusting.
On delightful re-read, I realized this book, in addition to being just as disgusting as it ever was, is set in more olden times than I had remembered. The references to powdered wigs having miraculously escaped me as a feverish, horny child, I think I had done a bit of a GWTW-association and imagined a mid-19th century setting. The GWTW association is easy enough to make, although, to be entirely accurate, I think that the book Wideacre more closely resembles is Scarlett, the unfortunate fan-fiction sequel, which was written about four years after Wideacre, and involved angry villagers and torches and legends and weird changeling children and familial estates engendering CRAZY EMOTIONS. But if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best, right?
For those unlucky souls who are learning about Wideacre for the first time, let’s break out some plot explication. We’ve got our (anti-)heroine, Beatrice. Beatrice is the daughter of the Squire of Wideacre, who is your generic Gerald O’Hara-y, clueless horsey red-faced patriarch who is jovial about things and loves the land. Beatrice idolizes her father, loves the land, etc. Which is such a thing, right, in sweeping generational sagas, that I wonder if it has a real future as a device or not. We’re all renters, now, right? Or at least we don’t really expect to ever live as adults in the same house that we were born in. I mean, I get nostalgic when I walk by my old fifth-floor walk-up on Thompson St., but I’m not going to set an iron man-trap to sever anyone’s legs over it (spoiler!).
Back to plot explication. Beatrice has a brother, Harry, who is a complete non-entity of a person. He’s having some kind of weird problems at pervy-English-boarding-school, and when he eventually gets booted out, Beatrice finally pulls her head out of her horse’s ass and realizes that, duh, she’s a girl, and her father is going to be grooming Harry and not her to be the next Squire of Wideacre. We all have to act out some way, and Beatrice goes for the time-honored option of getting ferociously and graphically nailed by Ralph, the dusky “gypsy” young peasant-type whose family has also been living on Wideacre for the last billion years. It’s working pretty well for them. And then Harry walks in, because this book is like the Downton Abbey of walking in on things, and Ralph winds up beating the crap out of Harry, who reveals that he is super, super into it.
This continues for a while, and then Ralph is all, hey, I have a really messed-up plan. How about I kill your dad, tomorrow, and then you and I run Wideacre between us, scamming your idiot brother, until he goes under, and then I’ll buy up the property and you and I can get married and have mad, sexy sex on the nice Irish linen sheets on the daily. Beatrice, being a Bad Person, is all “oh, you know, I do love my dad, but I feel like his preference for Harry is bringing me down, let’s do that.”
So Ralph, thinking she’s got his back, caves the Squire’s head in with a rock. Suddenly, right, Beatrice gets all butt-hurt about it, pretends not to be, and then lures him into his own horrible iron man-trap, which crushes his legs. It’s bad. Being an idiot, she doesn’t make sure he’s dead, so of course he and his no-legs manage to escape and plot horrible vengeance against her. Anyway, it becomes obvious that the best solution to her problem is to begin a really weird incestuous relationship with her non-entity brother, which will culminate in various weird illegitimate children that Harry’s wife will pass off as her own, or Beatrice’s eventual sad-sack husband will pass off as his own, and then, of course, Ralph is lying in wait, and her mother will walk in on them having sex and go all catatonic, and… well, I’ll leave the rest for you, of course, but let’s just make it clear: it’s fucking gripping, and also disgusting.
• I canNOT hear the name “Beatrice” now without hearing Steve Holt saying it. “Arrested Development” ruins Classic Trash’s dignity, guys. Hey, come to think of it, maybe the tagline for the eventual Wideacre movie (not likely to happen) could be: “Theirs was a love between two siblings that the world thought was wrong. And the world was right.” Thoughts?
• No, seriously, does anyone find incest hot? Obviously people do, I shouldn’t even say that, and I think your inner fantasy life is completely amoral and you should never feel bad about it, but I honestly do not think enough people find it hot to justify the incredible number of books that use it as a vaguely-sexy plot point. And good books, too! The Mists of Avalon, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Cement Garden, The Hotel New Hampshire. Not always as a sexy-thing, of course, but as a way of creating a taboo sexuality, perhaps, that we’re still genuinely discomfited by, instead of the decades of novels in which that whiff of DARK DANGER was instead provided by implying people might be just a teensy bit gay. I digress.
• We’re doing Gone With the Wind next time. I am extremely excited. Is there anything in particular you want to discuss? THERE’S A LOT I DO.
• Okay, on the topic of the movie they won’t make. Who are we casting? Cersei and Jaime Lannister as Beatrice and Harry? Who’s Ralph? Who’s dark and “gypsy-esque” and scary and sexy? Your thoughts, please.
• Why didn’t Beatrice just go along with Ralph’s plan, exactly? I mean, once her dad’s dead, you might as well.
• Why isn’t Jon Corzine in jail yet? That money was in CLIENT-SEGREGATED ACCOUNTS. No one does that! It has literally never happened! Heads on pikes!
Nicole Cliffe is the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.