Wideacre - Plot Summary

Plot Summary

The novel is set in 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. Most of the novel is narrated in her voice. 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. Wideacre is Beatrice's first and most enduring love. 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, learning the land and becoming a favourite of the villagers who live in Acre, the estate village. She is uninterested in her mother's attempts to make her more ladylike and is completely devoted to her father. Her brother, Harry, is away at a private school and Beatrice rarely sees him. But at the age of eleven, her dreams are shattered when her father tells her that Harry will inherit the estate and she will make a good marriage and leave, and this is just the way of the world. 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 in rural pursuits. She immediately decides "if that was the way of the world, the world would have to change; I would never change".

Now rapidly blossoming into a beautiful young woman, Beatrice is attracted to Ralph, the gamekeeper's lad, 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 realizes 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 enough that everyone on Wideacre regards it as a horrible accident. 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. She had never intended to marry him or let him take her father's place, secretly thinking Ralph too lowly to take her beloved father's position, and indulged his dreams of being the master of Wideacre because she never thought they'd come true. After planning her revenge, Beatrice meets up with Ralph one evening, lays with him one last time, 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. With the loss of first her beloved Papa, and then her lover, Ralph, something inside Beatrice dies. 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. Beatrice quickly convinces Harry that she and Ralph did not have sex, that Harry saved her from rape. 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 practiced 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, and the two women return to Wideacre as proud mother and aunt. Beatrice suppresses her maternal instincts with ease while Celia develops a mental strength and determination that she did not formerly possess. 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 (which usually involve Ralph coming to kill her in revenge). He is intelligent and provocative, challenging Beatrice to a horse race around the estate, which he wins. After this, Beatrice begins to seriously 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. She tries to induce a miscarriage but fails. 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 in order to forget her betrayal. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Harry grow more and more careless. One night, Harry persuades Beatrice to lie with him in the parlour, despite her initial reservations, 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 recognizes the murderess in Beatrice. Unwisely, 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 with a coup de grace of horrifying ruthlessness: she has him committed to a lunatic asylum in a violent scene which ends with John MacAndrew being taken away in a strait-jacket, 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 changing the entail requires a lot of money. The MacAndrew fortune is not quite enough to seal the deal, and in order to raise the rest of the necessary monies, 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 realizes what is happening and rescues John MacAndrew, freeing him from the lunatic asylum and telling him his fortune has been stolen by Beatrice in order to make her son and daughter the heirs to Wideacre. She brings him back to Wideacre a pauper but a free man, 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 in order 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. She has destroyed herself in her determination to win at all costs. She has lost her soul and is no longer in harmony with Wideacre. The estate is suffering under her "maximum profit" mentality; every spare piece of land is devoted to crops in order to produce more money and both the people and the land are dying of starvation, of 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 and Wideacre is vulnerable to attack. In a dramatic scene, 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 recognizing 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 a blubbering 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 of an end to the horror of her life. 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.

In the epilogue, which is the only part written in the third person, Wideacre Hall is a burnt out shell. The estate is ruined and bankrupt; Beatrice has become a demonic figure for the children of the village, an evil but beautiful witch who destroys those she loves. Julia Lacey and Richard MacAndrew play as children in the overgrown garden. Despite this image of innocence in paradise, the novel ends on an ambiguous note, stating that sometimes Julia looks at the ruined Hall and smiles "as if it were very lovely to her".

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