I decided to take a break from my pile of new books and re-read something I had previously enjoyed, written by Philippa Gregory.
I have to confess that most of her historical fiction featuring the Tudors has bored me silly for some reason—I have tried two different ones, and they just didn’t spark to life for me, despite being obsessed with this period of history and these characters back in my teen years. But the series I had in mind predated all of her “hits” and in fact was the first thing she ever wrote: The Wideacre trilogy, consisting of Wideacre, The Favored Child, and Meridon.
Together, they are the story of one small but perfect estate in Sussex—Wideacre—and the family who had title to and hold over it—the Laceys—in the time period of Georgian England. The trilogy spans three generations and marks massive changes in England, in the land, and in the family, which was steered badly astray by the obsession of one woman—Beatrice Lacey—for the land on which she grew up and which she is determined to have for her own, laws and rights of primogeniture notwithstanding. Her longing for the possession and control of Wideacre makes Scarlet O’Hara’s passion for Tara look like a tepid fancy.
I have actually read the third book, Meridon, several times, because it has elements I like: Travelers, a circus, horses, and a stubborn, suspicious, untrusting lost girl protagonist who immediately captured my imagination. But I decided to return to the first book instead, to refresh my memory of why I liked the entire trilogy so much.
After having finished Wideacre for a second time, I don’t think I will read through the subsequent books. Although I enjoyed it, it also made me a little weary, on two counts, the first being that it is 556 pages long, and the second that the protagonist got to me this time in a particular way that I think I didn’t entirely take in the first time through.
The thing I connected with most powerfully with the first read was the scene-setting. Wideacre is a palpable and powerful character in this book, as much as any of the humans depicted, and the descriptions and varieties of its beauty made me long to have the experiences Beatrice Lacey had, of riding the path up to the Downs to see the greater vista of the estate from their hilltops, of smelling the sweet scents of hay and wild poppies in the fields, of lying in a hollow in the shady woods or dangling my feet in the Fenny river. In that first read,
I could almost understand Beatrice’s obsession for her surroundings—we have all of us had some moment in our lives when our passions were invoked by a particular setting and we longed to be a part of it forever. But with my second read, I saw the sickness the single-minded pursuit of this one thing above all others brought with it to her life and the lives of all around her, despoiling the beauty she could have enjoyed freely, had she let go the need to possess it. This story is not for the squeamish—there are truly dark passages depicting the twisted relationships Beatrice creates to try to manipulate her way into the Squire’s role.
What struck me, however, with this re-read was a relevant passage that I reached almost at the end of the book. Beatrice has mortgaged the estate up to its eyebrows in order to break the entail and gift it to her heirs, and in doing so has bankrupted it, with the result that the people who live on her land, who were once important to her because they were part of her world, are now out in the cold while she rakes in every penny for herself. She is having a conversation with her tender-hearted and clear-eyed sister-in-law, who sees how she has wrecked the relationship with the cottagers and has challenged her on it. Beatrice tries to excuse her actions by saying that this is the new way of farming in England, that the investors must needs make a profit from the money they have provided. Celia’s response hit me right between the eyes.
“All of the people who write about the need for a man to have a profit are rich people. All they wish to prove is that their profits are justified. They will not accept the answer which is there before their eyes: that there is no justification.
“Why should the man who invests his money have his profit guaranteed, while the man who invests his labour, even his life, has no guaranteed wage?” she said. “And why should the man who has money to invest earn so very much more with his capital than a man could earn working at the very top of his strength, all day? If they were both to be rewarded equally, then after the debts had been paid and the new equipment bought, miners would live in houses and eat the food of the mine owners. And they clearly do not. They live like animals in dirt and squalor and they starve, while the mine owners live like princes in houses far away from the ugly mines.
“It is as bad here,” she said baldly. “The labourers work all day and earn less than a shilling. I do not work at all and yet I have an allowance of two hundred pounds a quarter. I have taken no risks with capital. I replace no machinery. I am paid simply because I am a member of the Quality and we are all wealthy. There is no justice in that, Beatrice. There is no logic. It is not even a very efficient way
“Celia,” [Beatrice] said again, “you simply do not understand. The less we pay the labourers the more profit we make. Every landowner wants to make as much profit as possible. Every landowner, every merchant, every businessman, tries to pay as little as possible to his workers.”
[And then Beatrice taunts Celia about her allowance and her dowry lands, and Celia reveals that she has been spending all her allowance on food and clothes for the village.]
“When the landlords are against the tenants as you are, Beatrice,” Celia said dully, “and when the employers have decided to pay the least they can, charity has no chance. All we are doing is prolonging the pain of people who are dying of want.”
“It is an ugly world you and your political economists defend, Beatrice. We all know it should be different and yet you will not do it. You and all the rich people. It is an ugly world you are building.”
Reading this in a time when the United States government is handing out windfalls right and left to big business—banks, airlines—while refusing to supplement all those out of work due to the pandemic whose severity has been exacerbated by its negligence; reading this when, in the face of massive unemployment across our nation, the CEOs of the biggest companies are adding millions or billions a day to their personal fortunes, on which they pay no taxes and for which they apparently suffer not a moment’s guilt, showed me the depth and breadth of the evil that has overwhelmed our land. Yes, I am calling it evil, for I can think of no other word to describe the potential effect of the Republicans finally, after all these years of aspiring, to actually have the cancellation of Social Security and Medicare within their grasp, to surrender our national parks to oil drillers, to decimate our school systems, to pack our courts with toadies, to perpetuate lies, calumny and outright treason to keep a man in office who will facilitate their soulless predations, and then make up reasons why we should see it as a good thing.
I think my impulse to read this book at this time brought me to a place I needed to go, and this is also why I don’t intend to re-read the other two books, although they are gripping stories and worth your consideration. I’m afraid they will just make me too sad. I don’t bring politics to this blog, normally, but these are not normal times. If you have any empathy in your heart for the less fortunate who are falling through the widening cracks in this version of our America, please use your voice and your vote to change things to a world where we can all do better, together.