In short: these books trace 3 generations of the Lacey family, a group of squires living in Sussex, England. Wideacre is the name of their family estate. The novels deal specifically with the female members of the families and what they go through to maintain their identity and land ownership in 18th century, patriarchal England.
At times, I had to grit my teeth to get through the novel--perhaps I just have developed some ill-conceived, English-major snobbery for literature quality. But, occasionally, the scenarios and dialogue in the novels fell a little on the melodramatic side. A description that all put begged an orchestra's dun dun DUN. Or a snippet of dialogue that only needed a gasp and a swoon. Yet be that as it may... I found I couldn't put these novels down.
Why? Why did the English-major snob plow straight through these books? Because the main characters are fantastic. Who doesn't love a heroine who is also a villain every now and then? And a villain because she struggles with her own human nature and against society--- a struggle of power, greed, desire, and wit.
These novels really weren't about thwarted romance, passion, or money (although there was a good bit of all of these flashing about). Really, these novels are about female identity. How the protagonists are seen, how they wish to be seen, and most importantly how they see themselves. They battle against their social status, against societal convention, and even against themselves to figure out their own identity and place in the world. Gregory challenges the idea of what it meant to be a successful woman in the 18th century--is it the kind housewife, the virgin, the landlord, the heiress who its successful? And really... thinking about it now... I feel like these demands on identity are still in place.
What woman doesn't feel that she is sacrificing her home when she decides to pursue a challenging degree or successful career? How often do people use disparaging terminology for housewives? "Oh she just stays at home." "She's just a stay-at-home-mom." (As if that life were easy and just one thing or another.) And for those women who can juggle both home and work--like my own mom or my sister--how often do they make sacrifices, not only in one plane or another but also sacrifices to themselves, to maintain that identity? How often is female sexuality challenged--we're expected to remain virgins, we're humiliated for being virgins, we're labeled as "whores" for choosing to not remain virgins. How often are people judged by others? And how often do we judge ourselves because of the judgment of others?
I feel like Gregory, a female historian, does a great job of crafting a world from the past she has so lengthily studied. Although the prose can get a wee bit repetitive and dense sometimes, the novel's character development really is laudable and believable. And the core themes and struggles are applicable even today. I think these novels would resonate with many different readers--and they fall into the category of a gripping winter read. A little bit of love, a good bit of Gothic chill, and a greatly portion of the sweeping English countryside--something worthy of snuggling up with a blanket and a cup of tea. Trust me--whether from your own winter chill or from the novel--you'll be glad for the warmth now and then.
My personal rating on the Abi-Book-Scale:
7.5 (maaaybe 8) out of 10