Everyone loves anti-heroes. Complex, flawed, and tormented characters just trying to do right by their family or their friends make for an excellent read. And if these morally grey characters have to lie to their loved ones, break a few laws and a few bones, and kill a meddling detective every now and then, all the better. They’re just out there, living their lives, you can’t really blame them.
Beatrice Lacey from Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre, on the other hand, is not an anti-hero. She’s a villain, straight up. She might have all the traits of an anti-hero and I certainly rooted for her, despite her faults, at the beginning of the book. But as the story progressed, it became abundantly clear that Beatrice – beautiful, ambitious, ruthless Beatrice Lacey of Wideacre – wasn’t an anti-hero. Not after the trail of corpses she left behind.
Although I was repulsed, shocked, and disturbed by Beatrice’s character, I couldn’t help but admire her power and effectiveness as a villain. Gregory knew how to build a spellbinding and sinister character. Readers might not like her but, just as you can’t look away from a car crash, morbid curiosity compels you to keep reading about her.
In order to understand what I will ramble on about for the next three thousand words, I first have to briefly summarize what happens in the book. If you don’t want to be SPOILED because you’re curious about Wideacre and want to experience the insanity and chaos in such a deceptively unassuming historical novel, I suggest leaving now. Fair warning though, I am not exaggerating when I say that the book is weird and creepy and you will want to scrub your brain with bleach after certain chapters. It is messed up to the highest order.
For those who don’t plan on ever picking up this book, read on.
Set in Georgian England, Wideacre is the story of Beatrice Lacey, the second child and only daughter of the Squire of Wideacre estate. Growing up, her father encouraged her to appreciate their estate and Beatrice ends up absolutely enamored with Wideacre, much to her mother’s disapproval. Of course, because she’s a woman, she learns early on that she will never inherit the land and, worst of all, will be shipped off to marry a gentleman when she comes of age. Beatrice adamantly refuses this fate. She conspires with the ambitious gamekeeper and her lover Ralph to kill her own father so they could dupe the estate from her feckless brother Harry. She immediately changes her mind though but the deed is done. Her father is dead. Beatrice tries to kill Ralph out of revenge, only for Ralph’s body to never be found where she left him.
Eventually, Beatrice falls in love with Harry, now the Squire of Wideacre. The two siblings engage in a sexual relationship and Beatrice gains absolute control over Wideacre through Harry. Things take a turn when Beatrice gets pregnant with Harry’s baby. Luckily, she manages to manipulate Celia, Harry’s young wife, to take her daughter and pass it off as Celia’s firstborn. The ploy works and Beatrice gets away scot free. As time passes, Beatrice is threatened by Harry and Celia’s growing relationship so she seeks control over her brother yet again using her sexual prowess. Harry, the weak idiot that he is, falls for it and Beatrice assumes all is right once more. Things are great for a while and the only stain in Beatrice’s perfect life (aside from her incestuous relationship and a few other of her successful crimes) is the rumor of a band of rogues led by a man who sounds suspiciously like Ralph, making trouble for nobles across the country.
But Beatrice has no time to worry about the rogues. She finds herself pregnant yet again and circumstances make it impossible for her to ask Celia to take her child this time. Luckily, the young doctor and rich foreign gentleman John is madly in love with her and is eager to marry her. She seals the deal with the good doctor one passionate night and passes off her pregnancy as his. However, John isn’t as easily deceived as everyone else and when Beatrice gives birth a month early, he sees that the baby was carried full term, making it impossible for the baby to be his. This ruins John and he sinks to alcoholism. In that same night, Harry persuades Beatrice to sleep with him, citing that they won’t have any time by themselves anymore in the coming days, and Beatrice relents. Unfortunately, their mother catches them in the act and suffers a heart attack. John is called and although he’s drunk as hell, he prescribes laudanum (opium) for Beatrice to give to her mother throughout the night. But Beatrice sees this as an opportunity to free herself of John and of her own mother and she tricks Celia to take her place and to give her mother a fatal overdose. Beatrice’s mother dies in the morning and the entire household blames John.
John sees right through Beatrice’s deceptions but can’t do anything about it. Especially since Beatrice keeps giving him alcohol to keep him addicted. However, Beatrice’s downfall truly begins when she convinces Harry to change the inheritors to Wideacre. Celia is obviously barren at that point and with no son to inherit the estate, it would have gone to their cousin. Harry agrees to Beatrice’s suggestion that his daughter and her son should have Wideacre as joint heirs but changing the inheritance requires a huge sum of money. So the siblings change how Wideacre is run to make bigger profits, though their tenants lose jobs or are severely underpaid in the process. Beatrice also schemes to steal John’s fortune by sending him off to an asylum to be “treated” of his alcoholism.
Beatrice eventually raises enough money to pay off her cousin. Her land is ruined and her people are starved and enraged but she doesn’t care, justifying to herself that it will all be worth it in the end. Celia however is told of the plan and she is appalled. She is completely against the idea of her daughter inheriting Wideacre and breaks John out of the asylum to help her put a stop to the plan. However, even with John back and Celia voicing her disapproval of the two siblings’ immoral treatment of their tenants, Beatrice refuses to stop. She feels bad for her people – the ones that loved and worshiped her before – but ultimately chooses their ire over losing her grip on Wideacre.
Finally, Beatrice’s tyranny is stopped when Ralph, now infamously known as The Culler, comes back to Wideacre. Celia, John, and the children manage to escape on time but the Lacey siblings die. Beatrice surrenders her life to Ralph while her villagers stand by and watch. Harry dies as pathetically as he lived: his heart fails him as he runs for his life. Wideacre is burned to the ground and the Lacey siblings’ children live on.
There are two more books in the series but no way in hell am I going to subject myself to more unnecessary torment. (also I heard that the children of incest get into some incest of their own and it’s just… Gregory, stop.)
Dissecting Beatrice Lacey
From the summary I wrote above, I think I’ve sufficiently illustrated Beatrice’s character. Her defining characteristic and her fatal flaw is Wideacre. Every decision she makes, every lie she tells, every crime she commits, it’s all to possess the estate.
This doesn’t mean that Beatrice is devoid of any positive traits. Ambition and determination aren’t inherently negative traits. If anything, Beatrice’s strength ought to be admirable considering how little agency women were afforded during that era. However, to call Beatrice a feminist would be erroneous and to admire the lengths she took to posses Wideacre… well, that would involve a lot of intricate moral gymnastics.
Beatrice came so close to being an exemplary and sympathetic hero. She had charm, intellect, and generosity. It was easy to empathize with her at the beginning because you could see how much she loved Wideacre; you could feel the injustice when she learns that no matter what she does, she’ll never inherit simply because she was born a woman. Gregory’s prose also painted a breathtaking picture of Wideacre so you got a sense as to why Beatrice loved it so much. But, of course, because she had to work and suffer to own the estate, her love gradually warped into possessiveness, obsession, twisting her perception of reality, costing her everything she ever held dear.
Interestingly, Beatrice’s love for Wideacre would have come across as noble if only she showed self-restraint. If only her love wasn’t so selfish and conditional. It’s worth pointing out that although she cared for her tenants it was only because they toiled Wideacre land and worshiped her as a goddess (at the start, at least). Anyone else, any outsider, she cared not a whit. Her sexual interest in her brother was only piqued because Harry was the squire, therefore the owner and embodiment of Wideacre. When she owned the estate in all but paperwork, Beatrice no longer felt attracted to her brother, sexually or otherwise. And she only agreed to marry John because she needed someone to claim her baby. John intrigued and entertained her but she still wouldn’t have married him if she wasn’t so desperate.
Beatrice’s love and her understanding of it is misguided at best and problematic at worst. Her love is fueled by a grossly inflated sense of entitlement. People don’t really matter to her unless they can serve their purpose of giving her Wideacre, which she considered her right. Even when her own son was on the brink of death, her first concern was that she was going to lose Wideacre’s heir (and her only chance to inherit the estate).
Beatrice’s Journey into Villainy
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment Beatrice warped into a full fledged villain. She wasn’t always the story’s bad guy. She was everyone’s Miss Beatrice, looking out for the villagers, doing what’s best for the land. There was a reason why her people loved her so much. But when did she stop being a morally grey character with impossible ambitions and become the scheming villain resolved to do whatever it takes to get what she wants?
No, it wasn’t when she was momentarily complicit in her own father’s murder plot. Not even when she tried to get rid of Ralph. In those two instances, Beatrice showed remorse and grew from the experiences… though not necessarily for the better.
Personally, I believe the change happened when she gave birth to her first child, her daughter. While she and Celia were in hiding, Beatrice actually entertained thoughts of birthing a son and fantasized him being the rightful heir of Wideacre. She even considered one day telling Harry, if only to strengthen her hold on Wideacre. When she gave birth to a baby girl, she was livid. Even as the baby cried for her mother’s milk and Celia visibly exhausted every day from caring for Beatrice’s daughter, Beatrice herself couldn’t be bothered. She hated the baby, despised her for being born a girl. You’d think Beatrice would feel a sliver of empathy for the child since Beatrice knew firsthand how difficult it was going to be for girls in their society. Nope. She hated the “brat” (her word, not mine) and blamed the newborn for ruining her plans.
Detesting a baby the moment she is born simply because she didn’t meet your standards is pretty messed up. So is pointedly ignoring your own newborn daughter’s cries of hunger and sneering at the woman staying up all night to take care of said baby. This is why you can’t call Beatrice a feminist because while she despises the patriarchal system and fights for her rights, for other women? Screw ’em.
Beatrice’s descent to villainy is more noticeable after she gives birth and returns to Wideacre. Her paranoia over losing her hold on her brother was the impetus for her true downfall. It’s what got her pregnant a second time and what ruined her reign in Wideacre. Even when she is acutely aware of the declining health and welfare of her tenants, she feels some semblance of guilt and shame… but not to the point where she really considered changing her ways. She’d just shrug and lie to herself that there’s nothing she could really do.
Honestly, her justifications of her corrupt management of the estate left a bad taste in my mouth because of how outright delusional and willfully ignorant Beatrice forces herself to be. She knows that her people are dying while she and her family live in luxury but she refuses to let it get to her. She tells herself that the villagers will be fine and that they’ll get over it after the hard winter. They might even thank her when she seats her own son as Squire in the future. It’s so entitled and disgusting. People are starving en masse yet she still believed she was on the right.
Discarding her empathy and fully embracing her ambitious nature was what elevated her from a misguided, flawed heroine to a straight up vicious villain.
Writing a Compelling Villain
Beatrice’s story presents the perfect case study for writing a compelling villain. Even though I know of the general rules of designing the “bad guy,” seeing Beatrice in action reinforced the importance of fleshing out a villain and illustrated how effective such a multi-dimensional character can be.
But before I continue on this path, I’d first like to talk about the difference between an anti-hero and a villain. While the two share similar traits, ultimately, what sets a villain apart from an anti-hero is the former’s adamant refusal to admit that they’re wrong. Anti-heroes eventually learn from their mistakes and grow as people. Villains just believe that they’re right and will go to great lengths to force everyone else to agree.
For this behemoth of a blog post, I read up on a couple of how-to guides in designing villains and I was not surprised at how perfectly Beatrice fit the standard. Here are just a few crucial attributes a compelling villain should have.
Solid Backstory: what made her that way?
Wideacre chronicled the life of Beatrice starting from when she was four so, naturally, the reader is privy to her detailed personal history. The way Beatrice was raised in the countryside, the clashing personalities and beliefs of her parents, her pathetic older brother and her mother’s blatant favoritism of him – you can understand why she grew up so headstrong, ruthless, and stubborn. You could see the seeds of her childhood in her actions as an adult.
A fleshed out character history is vital, especially in a villain. While Beatrice’s desolate childhood didn’t justify her crimes and corrupt actions as an adult, it did give us an insight as to how she was able to justify her hypocrisy and cold-bloodedness to herself. It didn’t make her any less of a villain but it did allow us to understand things from her perspective.
A Festering Wound: why is she still that way?
Beatrice wasn’t just a lonely child, she was a neglected daughter. She never truly felt loved or appreciated by either of her parents. In her mind, her parents’ love (or attention) came with strict conditions: her father loved her when she acted like him while her mother would have loved her if she acted like a proper lady.
What’s more was that her father only brought her along around the estate because his first born son had no interest in the land. Her mother, on the other hand, couldn’t understand her and never really tried to. Beatrice was always acutely aware that being born a woman meant that she would never be as loved or adored as her brother who never had to lift a finger.
That is Beatrice’s festering wound. Isolated, neglected, starved of love, Beatrice coped by seeing Wideacre as an entity that was with her always, that paid attention to her especially, that loved her unconditionally. Beatrice belonged to Wideacre as much as Wideacre belonged to her. At least that’s how she saw it.
So when Beatrice learned that she would never have the right to own Wideacre and that she would be exiled from her beloved land when she got older, she panicked. Deep down, Beatrice knew that if she lost Wideacre, she would have nothing. She would truly be alone and unloved. It wouldn’t matter if she had all the money in the world or if she had a bigger and more beautiful property in her possession. Nothing could ever give her the happiness and security Wideacre had given her.
No wonder Beatrice didn’t stop when she was at her highest point. She couldn’t.
This idea isn’t limited to villains, though they are more likely to ignore their wounds longer and refuse to take the steps to heal them. Beatrice, in this instance, couldn’t acknowledge just how much the land controls her life and her happiness. And why would she when being in Wideacre is the only time she ever feels in control? The fact that Wideacre was the source as well as the cure to her pain meant that Beatrice never had a chance of breaking free. Wideacre was her paradise; she would never see it as the prison that it was.
In designing a villain (or any other character), giving them a wound of some kind – be it a physical one, emotional, or psychological – is an effective way of drawing sympathy from the reader and giving the character added depth. A wound could be the character’s main drive for doing what they do, an internal obstacle they have to overcome, or, like with Beatrice, the cause of their downfall.
Likable, human qualities
Most villains, the more memorable ones at least, don’t always start off tyrannical. No one is born to be the bad guy. Beatrice herself could have been such a striking heroine if not for her hamartia.
Beatrice genuinely cared about her tenants and proved to be very adept at running the estate on her own. Her deep understanding of how people thought and acted would have made her a force to be reckon with in any society. Her quick wits and cunning could have been focused on dismantling the system that wouldn’t let women inherit anything and saw women as second-class citizens. Her good looks, charm, and upbringing could have taken her to higher places, perhaps even to the very heart of her country. She could have had it all!
If only she didn’t grow up to be the villain of her own story.
Typical villain traits
Even when Beatrice was outwardly “good,” she secretly harbored some villainous traits. She was a prodigious liar, often blindly proud of her ancestry, easily jealous, and had a tendency to put innocent people in harm’s way if it meant getting what she wanted. Beatrice successfully masked these traits though and was only found out when she took things too far.
The fact that Beatrice always had these qualities made it quite clear that she was a villain. Sure, her manipulations and deceits were subtle at first, sometimes even a little justified. But as she grew older, the lies stack up, the people that she tried to ruin comes back to haunt her, and her pawns gain awareness of her manipulative ways.
She isn’t the villain
Lastly, and here’s the most important quality of a villain, Beatrice never saw herself as the bad guy. In her mind, she was in the right, she was good. While she recognized that she had done bad things and made mistakes, she always saw herself as forced to make the decisions so she could hardly be blamed for her actions.
Beatrice didn’t set out to cause havoc in Wideacre. On the contrary, she wanted Wideacre to flourish, she wanted her people to keep adoring her, she wanted what was best for Wideacre. The thing was, she wanted to own Wideacre more.
Read any how-to article or book about creating compelling villains and you’ll most likely be advised to make the villain believe that they’re the hero. Obviously. The villain can be evil for evil’s sake but you have to give that character a reason why they think that way.
It’s been weeks since I finished Wideacre and still Beatrice Lacey haunts me. Her character is just too fascinating, too riveting, too disturbing to ever forget. It would be easy to hate Beatrice just like a lot of readers of the novel but I feel like to hate her would dismiss how complex of a villain she was and waste this opportunity to learn exactly how a villain thinks.
I can never truly understand Beatrice’s passion for Wideacre – a stretch of land no different from any other stretch of land in the English countryside – but I could see how and why a person like Beatrice could exist.