Fiction: “The Favored Child” by Philippa Gregory

Favored ChildFor my long-time readers (all — two of you, probably? Hey, raise your hands if you’ve been here since the New Moon rant, give me a headcount up in here!), you may remember when I read Wideacre. My review of Wideacre was actually the second time I read the book – or attempted to read it; my review here was merely the first time I read it after the blog’s inception.

For my newish readers, a brief synopsis of Wideacre – BUT ALSO, and possibly more importantly:

Both of these books, Wideacre and The Favored Child alike, have some very sensitive issues that could pose as triggers. I will be discussing some of these events, and those events include incest, rape, and overall violence.

And now, an impartial synopsis of Wideacre:

The setting: Georgian England; specifically, the feudal town of Acre and the landowner’s home, Wideacre. The Laceys have lived on Wideacre for forever, and the siblings Beatrice and Harry are brought up to take their separate tracks: Harry to run the land, and Beatrice to be married off to someone who will take her away from the land. Well, Beatrice has a strange obsession with Wideacre, and the idea of being away from it drives her to terrible lengths, including quasi-contracting with the farmboy, Ralph, to kill her father so she can take over the land. When she realizes that even when she shows her potential in farming the land to amazing success she will still be married off, she finagles herself into getting herself pregnant. Twice.

by her brother.

Yup. That’s a thing that happened. Twice.

SO ANYWAY, she lies to her family about her daughter’s parentage and Harry and his wife, Celia, raise the daughter as their own. Then Beatrice gets knocked up again and this time while she’s married to Dr. John MacAndrew, and the son they have they name Richard. Except John, being a doctor, knows that when babies that are born earlier than anticipated are actually full-term, somethin’ ain’t right. That leads to Beatrice discrediting John and sending him to England’s First Rehab Centre to get him out of the way, and also, all her lies have made the land stop growing stuff and Ralph comes back and kills her for being awful.

Well, I tried to keep that succinct and impartial, but clearly, Wideacre ruined impartiality for me. When I first read Wideacre, while I didn’t like Beatrice – mainly because she’s also the narrator, so we hear all of her horrible decisions and horrible thoughts – the suspense of what the fuck is she doing WHAT the FUCK IS going on  wait don’t y’all know back then that you didn’t FUCK YOUR BROTHER kept me reading to the end. I was curious to see if Beatrice would get her comeuppance. When she did, I was satisfied.

Because I am a crazy person when it comes to reading series, however, I realized that there was a piece of me that wanted to continue to read the series – because like all historical romance fictions, this one is a trilogy. I attempted to reread Wideacre back in 2009, and the result of that was the review I’ve linked above. I actually couldn’t get through the book a second time, because at that point, the curiosity had gone. I knew how it ended, I knew what would happen; there was nothing left for me to discover in it.

That did not however, stop me from purchasing the next two books in the series, The Favored Child and Meridon.

So earlier this fall, I was on a big historical fiction kick. And one night, I was scanning the shelves of my bookcases and I don’t even remember making the conscious decision to start reading The Favored Child – I think it was my brain making the decision for me, because six years should be long enough to overcome that particular trauma.

The Favored Child concerns itself with Beatrice’s children, Julia and Richard. Julia is our narrator this time around, and Celia and John MacAndrew have sheltered both children from their horrible history. Richard and Julia are raised as cousins, not siblings. Richard will inherit Wideacre with Julia (per Beatrice’s will), and both will run the land together.

It quickly becomes clear to a reader that’s familiar with Wideacre and Beatrice that the children became split particles of Beatrice’s personality. Julia is kind, and has an affinity for the land, and a generosity towards the town of Acre; when Beatrice was running the land and everything grew and was prosperous, she exhibited those traits as well. Richard, however, is manipulative, violent, and driven with a thirst for absolute power: Beatrice at her worst.

When they were truly children, believing themselves to be cousins and nothing else, Julia and Richard would play at being married. They had it in their head as a secret plan to fight inflation that they would marry and run the land together. As Julia grows up and starts to see some of Richard’s more vile tendencies, she moves away from that dream.

A winter in Bath helps as well – during her time there, she meets and falls in love with James Fortescue, who falls right in love back. They become engaged, and when Richard hears the happy news, he immediately becomes dark. The sowing of the fields goes swimmingly, and Julia is imbued with Beatrice’s magic (I should note: the townsfolk believed that Beatrice’s affinity with the land was actually magic, and that Julia’s inheritance of that affinity makes her the favored child) and embraces Richard upon his return from school a tad more amorously than maybe she should have. But remember, they thought they were cousins, and while that’s frowned upon by most normal, common sense people in this epoch, back then, it was kind of okay.

Except Richard took Julia’s kiss as a silent acknowledgement of Julia’s love for himself, not her fiance, and the next morning, Richard rapes Julia in the summerhouse.

Julia then becomes pregnant, because in this world, one good poke is all it takes, apparently.

Julia writes a letter to James that she wants to meet and explain, but Richard intercepts that letter and tells James that their engagement was all a farce, that Julia was actually in love with Richard, and that they were to be married.

Julia and Richard are then married by a captain on a boat to make the pregnancy legitimate. When they tell John MacAndrew and Celia of their plans, their parental figures are horrified, because they’ve known all along – just as the readers who are familiar with Wideacre have known all along, and have I mentioned yet again that dramatic irony is my favorite irony? – that Julia and Richard are SIBLINGS, AND NOT COUSINS.

And instead of accepting the annulment and dissolution offered by John MacAndrew and Celia, Richard decides to … pretend to go along with it and then murder them in what appears to be a stagecoach robbing.

This leaves Julia under his thumb without an avenue of escape. But Ralph has come back, and he remains loyal to Beatrice and Beatrice’s magic.

So look, spoiler alert, Ralph kills Richard, Julia has her baby, but then leaves her with the band of gypsies because Wideacre is poison. Julia’s last narration is a letter she writes to James, informing him of what happened to her and to search out her child, Sarah.

The Favored Child controlled me in the same way that Wideacre did when I read it the first time: my curiosity kept me reading. I had no intention of putting the book down, and I think it helped that Julia was a much more sympathetic character than Beatrice was.

And look, this is probably going to stir up some controversy, so let me see if I can rationalize some things out. Beatrice is a great example of an actual Strong Female Character, in the way that “Strong Female Character” should be used. She was passionate about many things, she refused to give up on her dreams, she would achieve her goals by any means necessary. She was intelligent, she was brutal, she was maternal, she was lustful, she was wicked, she was brilliant. She experienced doubts as to whether the path she was choosing was correct or not, but she overcame them and made a decision, and all those decisions were towards her end goal.

I did not “not like” Beatrice because she was essentially a villain of her own making; nor did I think she was too aggressive in going after what she wanted. I didn’t like Beatrice because I found I couldn’t empathize with her. Maybe, if I had come from the perspective of someone who truly had to fight for what they wanted in spite of being told “no, you can’t have that” over and over again, simply because of who I was – a woman – I may have had more empathy. But I’ve also never had such powerful goals as Beatrice did. The strongest I’ve ever wanted anything was a job outside of retail, and it wasn’t my gender keeping me out of that – it was the economy and the fact that “managing over twenty people in a multi-million dollar department” didn’t apparently translate to “yes, I really just want to answer phones and make spreadsheets, and yes, I can do that, please let me try.”

Beatrice’s goals were constantly challenged, by Society, by the Patriarchy; by common sense. But she knew what she wanted and by gory, she was going to get it. I just couldn’t empathize with her because I could never, not in a million years, even consider doing some of the things she ended up doing.

Whereas Julia was more of an innocent, and unfortunately, more of a victim; instead of taking life by the horns and controlling it through her sheer force of will, Julia found that a lot of her life happened to her rather than because of her. Julia also had less … drastic thoughts than Beatrice did. Julia also operated with less knowledge than Beatrice – Beatrice knew exactly what she was doing when she seduced her brother multiple times in order to become pregnant with the squire’s heir. Julia had no idea Richard was anything other than her cousin. Her innocence aided my empathy towards her. Also, Richard was an incredible asshole the entire time, and that may win the Award for Biggest Understatement of the Year.

I don’t want anyone to walk away from this review thinking that I find it easier to empathize with female characters when they’re victimized, because that’s not true – I find it difficult to empathize with female characters when they feel that incest and murder are the right paths to take, time-period be-damned.

Holy shit, I wrote a lot about this book, and I feel I could do more, but I may end up talking in circles and also, it’s almost midnight. So I leave you with this:

I liked The Favored Child more than Wideacre. I will probably read Meridon at some point. I feel that both of these books are worthy of more discussion, but I also don’t want to belabor any points. There’s a lot to pull apart in both of these novels about feminism, feudal society, right and wrong versus shades of gray … but I don’t really want to spend my Dissertation Energy on these.

I’m saving that for something else.

Grade for The Favored Child: 2 stars

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