Historical Novels Philippa Gregory Wideacre

ISBN 13: 9780140098228

Wideacre

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9780140098228: Wideacre

Wideacre Hall, set in the heart of the English countryside, is the ancestral home that Beatrice Lacey loves. But as a woman of the 18th century, she has no right of inheritance. Corrupted by a world that mistreats women, she sets out to corrupt others.

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About the Author:

Philippa Gregory has a history degree from the University of Sussex and a PhD in eighteenth-century literature from the University of Edinburgh.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Wideacre Hall faces due south and the sun shines all day on the yellow stone till it is warm and powdery to the touch. The sun travels from gable end to gable end so the front of the house is never in shadow. When I was a small child, collecting petals in the rose garden, or loitering at the back of the house in the stableyard, it seemed that Wideacre was the very centre of the world with the sun defining our boundaries in the east at dawn, till it sank over our hills in the west in the red and pink evening. The great arch it traced in the sky over Wideacre seemed to me a suitable boundary for our vertical influence. Behind the sun were God and the angels; beneath it, and far more significantly, ruled the Squire, my father.

I cannot remember a time before I loved him, the blond, red-faced, loud Englishman. I suppose there must have been a time when I was confined to a white-frilled cradle in the nursery; I suppose I must have taken my first steps clinging tight to my mother's hand. But I have no childish memories of my mother at all. Wideacre filled my consciousness, and the Squire of Wideacre dominated me as he ruled the rest of the world.

My first, my earliest childhood memory is of someone lifting me up to my father as he towered above me in the saddle of his chestnut hunter. My little legs dangled helplessly in space as I rose up the yawning void to the great chestnut shoulder -- a hot, red rock-face to my surprised eyes -- and up to the hard, greasy saddle. Then my father's arm was tight round my body and his hand tucked me securely before him. He let me grip the reins in one hand and the pommel in the other, and my gaze locked on the coarse russet mane and the shiny leather. Then the monster beneath me moved and I clutched in fright. His pace was erratic and rolling to me, and the long gap after each great stride caught me unawares. But my father's arm held tight and I gradually raised my eyes from the muscled, steamy shoulder of the mountainous horse, up his long neck to
his pointy signalling ears...and then the sweep of Wideacre burst upon me.

The horse was walking down the great avenue of beech and oak that leads to the house. The dappled shadows of the trees lay across the springing grass and the rutted mud tracks. In the banks glowed the pale yellow of spring primroses and the brighter sunshine-yellow of celandine. The smell, the dark, damp smell of rain-wet earth filled the arch of the trees like birdsong.

A drainage ditch runs alongside the drive, its yellow stones and white sand rinsed clean by the trickle of water. From my rolling vantage point I could at last see a clear view of its length, even where the black leaf mould at the banks carried the tiny, forked hoofprints of nighttime deer.

"All right, Beatrice?" My father's voice behind me was a rumble I could feel in my tense, skinny little body, as well as hear. I nodded. To see the trees of Wideacre, to smell the earth of it, to be out among the breath of wind of Wideacre, bonnetless, carriageless and Motherless, was beyond words.

"Like to try a trot?" he asked.

I nodded again, tightening my small hands on the saddle and reins. At once the giant strides altered and all around me the trees lurched and jigged as the horizon moved in great sickening leaps. I bobbed like a cork in a spring-flood river, sliding painfully to one side, and then, perilously, correcting. Then I heard my father click to the horse and the stride lengthened. Wonderfully, the horizon steadied, but the trees sped past. I regained my balance and, though the ground flashed by under the thudding hooves, I could breathe and look around again. Your first canter is the fastest you will ever go. I clung like a louse to the saddle and felt the spring wind in my face, and saw the shadows of the trees flash light and shade across me as the chestnut mane streamed, and I could feel a great burble of delighted laughter and scream of fear gather in my throat.

On our left the woods were thinning and the steep bank dropped away, so I could see through the trees to the fields beyond, already brightening with the spring growth. In one a hare, large as a hound puppy, stood on its hind legs to watch us go by, its black-tipped ears pointed to hear the thud of the hooves and the jingle of the bit. In the next field a line of women, drab against the deep black of the ploughed field, bent double over the furrows, picking, picking, picking like sparrows on the broad back of a black cow, clearing the earth of flints before sowing.

Then the sliding scenery slowed and slowed as the hunter dropped into a teeth-chattering trot again, and then pulled up at the closed gates. A woman erupted from the open back door of the lodge house and scuttled through a scatter of hens to swing open a tall iron gate.

"A fine young lady you have to ride with you today," she said, smiling. "Are you enjoying your ride, Miss Beatrice?"

My father's chuckle vibrated down my spine, but I was on my dignity, high on the hunter, and I merely bowed. A perfect copy, had I known it, of my mother's chill snobbery.

"Say good day to Mrs. Hodgett," my father said abruptly.

"Nay!" said Mrs. Hodgett, chuckling. "She's too grand for me today. I'll have a smile on baking day though, I know."

The deep chuckle shook me again and I relented and beamed down on Mrs. Hodgett. Then my father clicked to the hunter again, and the smooth walk bore me away.

We did not turn left down the lane which leads to Acre village as I had expected, but went straight ahead, up a bridle track where I had never been before. My excursions till now had been in the carriage with Mama or in the pony-cart with Nurse, but never on horseback along the narrow green ways where no wheels could go. This path led us past the open fields where each man of the village could farm his own strip in a ragged, pretty patchwork. My father tutted under his breath at the ill-dug ditch and the thriving thistles in one patch and the horse, eager for a signal to canter, broke forward again. His easy strides took us higher and higher up the winding path, past deep banks dotted with wild flowers and with exciting-looking small holes, crowned with hedges of budding hawthorn and dog roses.

Then the banks fell away, and the fields and hedges with them, and we were riding, silent on thick leaf mould, through the beech coppices that crowd the lower slopes of our Downs. Tall, straight, grey trunks rose high as a cathedral nave. The nutty, woody smell of beech tickled my nose and the sunlight at the end of the wood looked like the bright mouth of a cave, miles and miles away. The hunter, blowing now, rushed upon it, and in seconds we were out in the brilliant sunlight at the very tipmost-topmost point, the highest peak in the entire world, the pinnacle of the South Downs.

We turned to look back over the way we had come, and the shape and the setting of Wideacre opened up to me, like a magical page in a picture book, seen for the first time.

Closest to us, and extending far below us, were the green sweet slopes of the Downs, steep at the top, but easy as soft shoulders lower down. The gentle wind which always blows steady and strong along the top of the Downs brought the smell of new grass and of ploughing. It flattened the grass in patches like seaweed tossing under currents of water, first one way, then another.

Where the ground grew steep and broken, the beech coppices had taken hold and now I could look down on them, like a lark, and see the thick tops of the trees. The leaves were in their first emerald growth and chestnuts showed fat, mouth-watering buds. The silver birches shivered like streams of green light.

To our right lay the dozen cottages of Acre village, whitewashed and smug. The vicarage, the church, the village green and the broad spreading chestnut tree that dominates the heart of the village. Beyond them, in miniature size like crumpled boxes, were the shanties of the cottagers who claimed squatters' rights on the common land. Their little hovels, sometimes thatched with turf, sometimes only a roofed-in cart, were an eyesore even from here. But to the west of Acre, like a yellow pearl on green velvet, amid tall proud trees and moist soft parkland, was Wideacre Hall.

My father slipped the reins from my fingers and the great head of his horse dipped suddenly to crop the short turf.

"It's a fine place," he said to himself. "I shouldn't think there's a finer in the whole of Sussex."

"There isn't finer in the whole world," I said with the certainty of a four-year-old.

"Mmm," he said softly, smiling at me. "You may be right."

On the way home, he let me ride alone in glorious solitude on top of the swaying mountain. He walked at my side, a restraining hand gripping the frills and flounces of my petticoats. Past the lodge gates and up into the cool quietness of the drive, he loosened his grip and walked before me, looking back to bawl instructions.

"Sit up! Chin up! Hands down! Heels in! Elbows in! Gentle with his mouth! You want to trot? Well, sit down, tighten the rein, and dig your heels in! Yes! Good!" And his beaming face dissolved in the heaving blur as I clung with all my small might to the leaping saddle and bit back shrieks of fear.

I rode alone up the last stretch of the drive and triumphantly brought the gentle great animal to a standstill before the terrace. But no applause greeted me. My Mama watched me, unimpressed, from the window of her parlour, then came out slowly to the terrace.

"Get down at once, Beatrice," she said, waving Nurse forward. "You have been far too long. Nurse, take Miss Beatrice upstairs and change and bathe her at once. All her clothes will have to be washed. She smells like a groom."

They pulled me off my pinnacle and my father's eyes met mine in rueful regret. Then Nurse paused in her flight towards the house.

"Madam!" she said, her voice shocked.

She and my mother peeled back the layers of petticoats and found my lacy flounces stained with blood at the knees. Deftly Nurse stripped them off so she could see my legs. The stitching and the stirrup leather flaps had rubbed my knees and calves raw and they had bled.

"Harold!" said my mother. It was the only sign of reproach she ever permitted herself. Papa came forward and took me into his arms.

"Why didn't you tell me you were hurt?" he asked, his blue eyes narrow with concern. "I would have carried you home in my arms, little Beatrice. Why didn't you tell me?"

My knees burned as if stung by nettles but I managed a smile.

"I wanted to ride, Papa," I said. "And I want to go riding again."
His eyes sparkled and his deep, happy laugh shouted out.

"That's my girl!" he said in delight. "Want to go riding again, eh? Well, you shall. Tomorrow I shall go to Chichester and buy you a pony and you shall learn to ride at once. Riding till her knees bled at four years old, eh? That's my girl!"

Still laughing, he led his horse around to the stableyard at the rear of the house where we could hear him shouting for a stablelad. I was left alone with Mama.

"Miss Beatrice had better go straight to bed," she told Nurse, ignoring my wide-awake face. "She will be tired. She has done more than enough for one day. And she will not go riding again."

Of course I went riding again. My mother was bound by all sorts of beliefs in wifely obedience and deference to the head of the household, and she never stood against my father for more than one self-forgetful second. A few days after my ride on the hunter, and alas before the little scabs on the inside of my knees had healed, we heard a clatter of hooves on the gravel and an

"Holloa!" from outside the front door.

On the gravel sweep outside the house stood my father's hunter with Father astride. He was leaning down to lead the tiniest pony I had ever seen. One of the new Dartmoor breed, with a coat as dark and smooth as brown velvet and a sweep of black mane covering her small face. In a second my arms were round her neck and I was whispering into her ear.

Only one day later and Nurse had cobbled together a tiny version of a tailored riding habit for me to wear for my daily lesson with Papa in the paddock. Never having taught anyone to ride, he taught me as he had learned from his father, round and round the water-meadows so my falls were cushioned by the soft earth. Tumble after tumble I took into the wet grass -- and I did not always come up smiling. But Papa, my wonderful, godlike Papa, was patient, and Minnie, dear little Minnie, was sweet-natured and gentle. And I was a born fighter.
Only two weeks later, and I rode out daily with Papa. Minnie was on a leading rein and beside the hunter she looked like a plump minnow on the end of a very long line.

A few weeks after those first expeditions and Papa released me from the apprenticeship of the leading rein and let me ride alone. "I'd trust her anywhere," he said briefly to Mama's murmured expostulations. "She can learn embroidery any time. She'd better learn to have a seat on a horse while she's young."

So Papa's great hunter strode ahead and Minnie bobbed behind in a rapid trot to keep up. In the lanes and fields of Wideacre, the Squire and the little Mistress became a familiar sight as our rides lengthened from the original half an hour to the whole of the afternoon. Then it became part of the routine of the day that I should go out morning and afternoon with Papa. In the summer of 1760 -- an especially dry hot summer -- I was out every day with the Squire, and I was all of five.

These were the golden years of my childhood and even at that age I knew it. My brother Harry's baby illnesses lingered on; they feared he had inherited Mama's weak heart. But I was as fit as a flea and never missed a day out with Papa. Harry stayed indoors almost all winter with colds and rheums and fevers, while Mama and Nurse fussed over him. Then when spring was coming and the warm winds brought the evocative smells of warming land, he was convalescent. At haymaking, when I would be out with Papa to watch them scything down the tall rippling grass in great green sweeps, Harry would be indoors with his sneezing malady which started every year at haytime. His miserable 'atchoo, 'atchoo would go on all through the hot days of summer, so he missed harvesting, too. At the turn of the year, when Papa promised I could go fox-cubbing, Harry would be back in the nursery or, at best, sitting by the parlour fire with his winter ailments again.

A year older than I, he was taller and plumper, but no match for me. If I succeeded in teasing him into a fight, I could easily trip him up and wrestle with him till he called for Mama or Nurse. But there was much good nature in Harry's sweet placidity and he would never blame me for his bumps and bruises. He never earned me a beating.

But he would not romp with me, or wrestle with me, or even play a gentle game of hide-and-seek with me in the bedrooms and galleries of the Hall. He only really enjoyed himself when he was sitting with Mama in the parlour and reading with her. He liked to play little tunes on the pianoforte there, or read mournful poetry aloud to her. A few hours of Harry's life made me unaccountably ill and tired all over. One day in the quiet company of Harry and Mama made me feel as weary as a long day in the saddle riding over the Downs with Papa.
When the weather was too bad for me to be allowed out, I would beg Harry to play, but we had no games in common. As I moped round the dark library room, cheered only by finding the breeding record of Papa's hunters, Harry would pile all the cushions he could find into the wind...

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