It’s hard to believe Sunday is here again; this week just flew by. I finished Iris Murdoch’s The Bell (read my review), and wrote a post inspired by cover descriptions for its various editions. I then moved on to read a Virago Modern Classic, Precious Bane by Mary Webb. Webb was a romantic novelist from Shropshire, England, who wrote in the early 20th century. Her work was not well-known until shortly after her death, when the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, publicly praised her work. In the introduction to my edition, Baldwin wrote, “The strength of the book … lies in the fusion of the elements of nature and man, as observed in this remote countryside by a woman even more alive to the changing moods of nature than of man.” Read on for my review …
In the early 1800s, not long after the Battle of Waterloo, a young woman named Prue Sarn lived with her mother and brother Gideon on a farm in the Shropshire countryside. Born with a cleft lip, Prue’s prospects are limited: her mother believes she is cursed, most of the townspeople think she has evil powers, and she will almost certainly never marry. Everyone she meets remarks on her condition, unable to see the beautiful person inside.
After her father’s death, Gideon gets Prue to agree to long-term indentured service on the farm. Gideon is ambitious, and believes that just a few years’ hard work will vault them into a new level of society, including a fine house in town. He promises Prue money to treat her lip, and riches for Jancis, a young woman he hopes to marry. Gideon works tirelessly and the farm prospers, but he always wants more. He puts off his marriage, afraid that a wife and children will get in the way of his pursuit of wealth. His singular focus often alienates him from others:
He was ever a strong man, which is almost the same, times, as to say a man with little time for kindness. For if you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path. So when folk tell me of this great man and that great man, I think to myself, Who was stinted of joy for his glory? How many old folk and children did his coach wheels go over? (p. 84)
Meanwhile Prue soldiers on, with interminably long hours of hard labor. In her time off she learns to write, keeping a journal which forms the basis of this novel. In describing day-to-day events, she offers keen observations on members of her community:
Sexton’s missus was just the opposite. She always made me think of a new-painted coach, big and wide, with an open road, and the horn blowing loud and cheerful, and full speed ahead. She was gay in her dress as a seven-coloured linnet, and if she could wear another shawl or flounce or brooch, she would. … I used to think myself, seeing her and Sexton together, that she was like a big hank of dyed wool, and he was the thin black distaff it was to be wound off on to. (p. 97)
But Prue, being a normal healthy young woman, longs for long-term companionship. She falls in love with Kester Woodseaves, an itinerant weaver. She worships him from afar, afraid her appearance will scare him off, but one day she saves his life and their relationship begins to change. The rest of the story shows both Gideon and Prue evolving on paths that are true to their characters, with both expected and unexpected consequences.
I liked Prue’s character a lot; she was able to summon strength in times of great adversity, and show compassion even to those who had wronged her. Gideon was a greedy jerk, and Kester his complete antithesis. In some ways the story was too predictable, but was improved by some very dramatic segments in which the characters’ lives were permanently changed.
Read more from The Sunday Salon here.