|Followed by||The Favored Child|
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (January 2011)|
This novel takes place during the second part of the eighteenth century, during the time of the enclosure acts. Beatrice Lacey is the daughter of the Squire of Wideacre, an estate situated on the South Downs, centred around Wideacre Hall. She is five years-old when her father takes her around the estate for the first time, and she falls in love with the estate. For the rest of her life, Beatrice makes one attempt after another to claim it, directly or indirectly, for herself. She spends her childhood accompanying her father around the estate, becoming an excellent horsewoman. She is uninterested in her mother's attempts to make her more ladylike and is completely devoted to her father. But at the age of eleven, her dreams are shattered when her father tells her that Harry, her brother who is away, will inherit the estate and she will make a good marriage and leave. Beatrice is stunned by this pronouncement, as she believed she would live on Wideacre forever; she is also shocked that the estate will go to Harry, who has no idea how to run it and no interest for it.
Now rapidly blossoming into a young woman, Beatrice is attracted to Ralph, the gamekeeper's son, who lives with his mother, Meg, a village witch, in a cottage on the estate. They become lovers, but their private world is shattered by the return of Harry, who discovers them together. Harry tries to punish Ralph for 'spoiling' his sister but Ralph easily disarms him. Seeing the whip in his hand, Harry suddenly becomes craven and submissive, begging Ralph to beat him. Beatrice realises that the private school has somehow warped her brother's mind, turning him into a masochist. Beatrice and Ralph are estranged for a short time, until Beatrice sees that her father is taking Harry out on the estate, teaching him the ways of the land. Threatened by this, Beatrice starts scheming everyway she possibly can to keep 'her' land, so when Ralph reveals a scheme of his to take the estate for their own, with him taking the squire's place, Beatrice agrees without really thinking about it. The next day, Beatrice realises what she has agreed to and rushes to stop the plan from happening, but finds she is too late.
Ralph murders the Squire, Beatrice's father, and sets it up to look as if the man's horse reared and threw him, convincingly. Enraged by the sight of her father's corpse, filled with guilt and fear that if Ralph were ever caught he would tell others she was involved, Beatrice decides she cannot allow him to continue living on Wideacre. After planning her revenge, Beatrice meets up with Ralph one evening and then deliberately takes a path home that leads over a man trap. She then crouches in the undergrowth and screams for Ralph's help. Running after her, Ralph's legs are crushed by the man trap. Beatrice listens as his screams die away and then hurries back to the Hall. To her everlasting horror, she discovers that Ralph cheated death, escaping maimed with his mother's help, to slip away into the outer darkness, recover and someday return for revenge on Beatrice. She becomes more callous, manipulative and ruthless.
All is peaceful for a time on the estate, but as Beatrice teaches Harry how to run Wideacre, her position is threatened by Harry's attraction to their neighbour's stepdaugher, Lady Celia Havering. She then sets about seducing him to make her position more secure. It is not hard for her to overcome Harry's doubts about their sexual relationship, as she is well practised in the art of seduction and confident of her allure. Meanwhile, Beatrice befriends Celia, casting herself as the understanding sister-in-law who can protect her from the "brutish" Harry.
Celia, who is sweet and innocent, quickly warms to Beatrice and confides in her. Harry marries Celia with Beatrice's blessing and Beatrice accompanies them on their honeymoon to France, where Harry spends his days with Celia and his nights with Beatrice. Celia is so scared and ignorant that she is actually grateful for this arrangement. Then Beatrice discovers she is pregnant with Harry's child. She lies to Celia, saying the child is the product of a rape, and Celia decides that she will pass the child off as her own. She sends Harry back to England, then writes to him with the 'good news'. Beatrice gives birth to a girl. Celia names the baby Julia. She takes a very firm stand in everything concerning Julia, especially taking the baby out on the estate. Beatrice is slightly disconcerted by this new Celia, but does nothing until she discovers that Harry and Celia have started sleeping together and that Celia is moving into Harry's room and symbolically taking her place as the Lady of Wideacre. Desperate, Beatrice tricks Harry into meeting her alone and physically abuses him until he is completely under her thumb. They resume sexual relations, with Beatrice completely dominant and secure.
Now at the peak of her power, Beatrice's life is complicated by the new doctor, a young Scotsman called John MacAndrew, who has been prescribing her laudanum for her nightmares. He is intelligent and provocative, and wins a horse race against her. After this, Beatrice begins to respect and admire John, but she is not sure how to proceed, as this is the first time she has been properly courted by someone of her own class. Determined to stay on Wideacre, she refuses his marriage proposal. Then she discovers she is pregnant by Harry once more. Alone and afraid, knowing she cannot give this baby to Celia, she breaks down. John finds her crying in the library and comforts her, though she will not tell him why she is so upset. After they make love, Beatrice agrees to marry him, knowing she can pass the baby off as John's. The marriage satisfies everyone: Beatrice's mother is happy that her daughter is finally married to a respectable man; Harry and Celia are happy that Beatrice will know their 'happiness'; Beatrice is happy because John has no problem with living on Wideacre. Beatrice goes into labour while John is away, and gives birth to a healthy boy.
Beatrice names him Richard, and almost pulls off her deception, but John arrives back early from his journey. As a doctor, he can see immediately that the baby is not premature. Disillusioned, he asks Beatrice why she lied to him. Devastated by this turn of events, Beatrice lies again, telling him that she was raped but that her love for him is not a lie. John does not believe her. He begins to drink to forget her betrayal. However, one night, Harry persuades Beatrice to lie with him in the parlour, and their mother comes upon them. She faints from the shock and falls unconscious. In her catatonic state, she mutters over and over "I only came to get my book... Harry, Beatrice, no!" John McAndrew attends her despite his distress and prescribes laudanum, four drops, four hourly.
Beatrice knows her mother will tell people about the incestuous coupling between her children, which she has now witnessed. When Celia says that she will stay up to watch over the patient, Beatrice calculatingly tells Celia that John prescribed the whole bottle be taken at once. Her mother dies from the overdose without regaining consciousness or revealing what she saw, though John MacAndrew suspects the truth from what she kept repeating. He also knows he would not have prescribed the whole bottle to be taken at once and thus recognises the murderess in Beatrice. John confronts Beatrice, telling her that he could ruin her, but she pre-empts him, setting the scene to ruin his reputation and succeeds. He drowns his despair in drinking, unwittingly giving Beatrice the weapon with which she totally destroys his name. Within a very short time he is despised and nobody will believe anything he says. Beatrice finishes him off by committing him to a lunatic asylum which ends with John MacAndrew being taken away, screaming the truth about Beatrice – that she is an incestuous whore and a murderess. Not only does nobody believe him, but his screams only convince the witnesses he is indeed mad.
With her husband out of the way and his £200,000 fortune transferred under power of attorney, Beatrice decides to make her incestuous offspring, Julia and Richard joint heirs to the Wideacre estate and convinces Harry, through seduction and emotional manipulation, to agree to this outrageous crime. As a girl, Julia cannot inherit on her own but Richard is part Lacey and a marriage between cousins is a suitable way to keep the estate in the family. However, the estate is entailed, meaning that only male heirs can inherit, and the MacAndrew fortune is not quite enough to seal the deal, and to raise the rest of the necessary money, Beatrice and Harry mortgage the estate and begin to enclose the common land, so the villagers have nowhere to graze their pigs or raise their own vegetables. This creates a lot of anger and resentment on the estate but Beatrice no longer cares, so focused is she on her children inheriting Wideacre.
Celia realises what is happening and rescues John MacAndrew, freeing him from the lunatic asylum and telling him his fortune has been stolen by Beatrice to make her son and daughter the heirs to Wideacre. She brings him back to Wideacre, and manages to restore his medical reputation by calling on him when baby Richard chokes on a bell from his rattle. John performs an emergency tracheotomy, cutting Richard's throat open to allow air into his windpipe. The two of them do their best to help alleviate the villagers' poverty and depravation, in contrast to the increasingly corrupt and ruthless Beatrice and Harry. Beatrice is by this time completely annexed from any human feeling. The estate is suffering under her maximum profit mentality; every spare piece of land is devoted to crops to produce more money and both the people and the land are dying of starvation and lack of love.
Then they hear that The Culler, a shadowy outlaw who is against enclosure and the aristocracy, is heading for Wideacre. Beatrice knows the Culler is her first love, Ralph, and is both afraid and desirous of his vengeance. By this time, the villagers have turned against her. Celia and John discover that the estate itself is now mortgaged, and Harry discovers that Julia is Beatrice's daughter (though not that he is Julia's father, or Richard's). Finally recognising the enormity of Beatrice's crimes, Celia quite rightly calls her a "wrecker", telling her that she destroys everything she touches, including her beloved Wideacre. She then leaves, taking Harry with her, although he dies en route of a heart attack. John also leaves with them, as his only remaining desire is to save Celia and the children from the shadow and corruptive influence of Beatrice's wickedness.
Beatrice is left alone in the Hall, a scene exactly like the nightmare that haunted her throughout the book, hinting that she has some sort of sixth sense. (This is a nod to Gone with the Wind, where the protagonist's nightmare comes true at the end of the novel.) She dreams of Ralph, and when she wakes, she can sense that he has been in the room with her, as the window is open. She sees the torches of the villagers glowing outside. She knows they have to come to burn down the Hall and kill her, but she does not care, she only longs to see Ralph. She runs outside and sees him astride his horse, his legs severed at the knee. Overjoyed, Beatrice goes to him and holds up her arms. He bends down as if to embrace her. The last thing Beatrice sees is the knife in his hand. She welcomes her death at his hands, understanding that it is justice and her only hope of redemption.
Beatrice Lacey: Daughter of the Squire of Wideacre and sister to Harry Lacey. She is considered by the villagers as the true master of Wideacre after her father's death. Unable to retain Wideacre, Beatrice stops at nothing to achieve her goal of staying on the land forever, even going as far as to committing incest and murder. As a teenager, she falls in love with Ralph and remains in love with him, despite her affair with Harry and her marriage to John. With Harry, she gives birth to a daughter, Julia, and a son, Richard. Her affair with Harry is purely out of greed and passion for the land, and her marriage with John deteriorates when he learns about her secrets. Her attempts to gain the land cause it to go bankrupt and ruined. At the end of the novel, she is remorseful of her actions and dies at Ralph's hands, knowing only he can end her sinful legacy.
Harry Lacey: Beatrice's older brother who is the new Squire of Wideacre. He is easily seduced by Beatrice, even though he knows what they're doing is wrong. Unlike the headstrong and stubborn Beatrice, Harry is timid and weak. He is also very dense, even though he was sent away to a private school for lessons. He is sexually attracted to Beatrice and has a sexual relationship with her throughout the novel, resulting in the birth of two children, Julia and Richard. He marries Celia, whom he grows to love and respect, and raises Julia without knowing she (and Richard) are his imbred offspring with Beatrice. He has a weak heart, which he dies from at the end.
Ralph Megson: The gamekeeper's son who falls in love with Beatrice. Together they plot to seize Wideacre for themselves. Their plan does not come into fruition, however, because Beatrice turns on Ralph and attempts to murder him. He later returns as 'The Culler' who revolts against the Quality. He kills Beatrice at the end of Wideacre, but stays by the land to help watch over Julia and Richard in The Favored Child. He kills Richard at the end of The Favored Child.
Dr. John MacAndrew: A bright and quick witted doctor from Edinburgh, Scotland who falls in love with and marries Beatrice. They become estranged after he discovers the truth about Beatrice and Harry's incestuous relationship, as well as Beatrice's murderous attempts to give the land to her children. To get revenge against her and save the children, he later starts plotting their downfall. He eventually falls in love with Celia, though they do not have an affair. At the end of the novel, they leave the house together. He travels to India to earn more money for the family and comes back to raise the children with Celia in The Favored Child. He is murdered by Richard.
Celia Lacey: Harry's wife, who later becomes the moral force for good against Beatrice's manipulative schemes. Her marriage to Harry is arranged, but she grows to love him for his gentleness. She is thrilled to accept Julia as her own daughter, as it is later discovered that she is unable to have children. When she becomes estranged from Harry, she falls in love with John, with whom she leaves with and raises the children until they are murdered by Richard in The Favored Child.
Julia Lacey: Daughter of Beatrice and Harry. She is raised by John and Celia. She becomes the protagonist of The Favored Child and is often a victim of Richard's manipulation and bullying. While less timid and naive than Harry, her insecurity and upbringing cause her to accept Richard's abuse. Though she tries to escape by attempting to marry James Fortescue, the man she loves, Richard rapes her to prevent this. She later discovers that she is pregnant by the encounter and is forced to marry him to fulfill their mother's wish of them inheriting the land together. She gives birth to a girl, whom she names Sarah, and gives her away to Gypsies before dying of a fever caused by the childbirth.
Richard MacAndrew: Son of Beatrice and Harry. He is passed off as John's son by Beatrice. He becomes the antagonist of The Favored Child. Although he and Julia are close as children, he bullies her and eventually rapes her to punish her for betraying him. He forces her to marry him when he learns of her pregnancy so they can inherit the land together. He is killed by Ralph at the end to stop him from fulfilling his mother's goal. Unlike Beatrice, who did feel remorse over some of her actions, Richard feels no guilt about his crimes and willingly admits them to Julia. There are hints throughout the novel that Richard may be a sociopath.
Sarah Lacey (AKA Meridon): Daughter of Julia and Richard; thus the granddaughter of Beatrice and Harry. Raised by a gypsy family, she returns to Wideacre after the death of her adopted sister (when it has become a prototype commune). She tries to become a lady to leave behind her painful past, but cannot reconcile the two worlds in her head. At the end of Meridon, she leaves her husband and decides to give the Wideacre estate to the trust in perpetuity, abandoning her birth name and the (unknown) horrific legacy of her family. She never learns that her parents and grandparents were brothers and sisters.