Recently I read a beautifully written book that is unfortunately underrated possibly because it is not well known. Published in 1924, but set over a hundred years before, at the time of the Napoleonic wars, Precious Bane by Mary Webb is the story of the trials and tribulations of rural folk in Shropshire, England, near the Welsh border. Usually when I read a book, I am at least subliminally aware that I am reading a made up story, however moved I might be by the characters and their issues. I was so immersed in this story that I almost forgot it was fiction. I was shaken to the core by a tragedy that befalls on the family and my husband was surprised to see me affected this deeply and had to remind me that it was just a story. If this is not the mark of a truly gifted writer, I don’t know what is.
I think one of the reasons the novel is not that popular is that the language is hard to get into as it is old fashioned with archaic words and employs dialect distinctive to the area. ‘Mon’ is the word used for man, ‘tuthree’ is a word to refer to two or three, ‘clemmed’ is a term for hungry, ‘bostin’ means wonderful and ‘ow bist’ is the expression for how are you and ‘durst’ for do you? But soon you will get the hang of it and you will know that ‘inna’ means isn’t, ‘canna’ can’t and ‘dunna’ don’t. I had to read with a dictionary next to me which annoyed me in the beginning but eventually I started savoring the language. My advice would be to persevere as it is worth it. The language adds authenticity. It is needed to evoke the rural atmosphere of the place and to transport us to another world where you can see the fields of sweet barley rustling in the wind and hear the thin notes of the willow wrens across the mere. Before you know it you will swept in the enchantment and will soak in the local color.
Precious Bane is the story of of a young girl, Prue, who is ‘hare shotten’- born with a hare lip disfigurement and for that reason she is believed to be a witch by her rural community. She has a desire for knowledge and learns to read and write from her neighbor Beguildy who dabbles in potions and is considered to be a wizard. When her father passes away, her brother Gideon takes over the farm. He is ambitious with his only purpose in life to become rich and acquire a house in town. He is in love with Jancis, the wizard’s daughter but money is his first motivation. He prevails upon Prue to pledge herself into a life of servitude on the farm with the promise that one day he will pay for an operation to mend her lip. They work very hard, depriving themselves of little pleasures. Then one day love walks into Prue’s life in the form of Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. But is she resigned to the life of a ‘spinster’ because of her deformity? Or will Gideon meet with success and liberate them from a life of poverty and hardship?
The oxymoronic title of the story is taken from lines in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book I, lines 690-692):
Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soyle may best
Deserve the precious bane.
It refers to the love of money which is disastrous. Gideon’s story is tragic. He puts money above everything – above his dependent mother, his devoted sister and his loyal fiancée- which not only leads him to ruin their lives but also descend on a path to self-destruction. The title can also refer to Prue’s deformity which is a source of great strength and makes her the person she is. In the portrayal of the two siblings, we witness human nature at its best and worst. What Gideon believes to be precious becomes his bane and Prue’s bane ends up being precious!
Prue is an unconventional protagonist because of her disability, but has become one of my favorite literary characters. She is such a breath of fresh air. The first person narrative makes it easy to relate with her. Not only was I rooting for this gentle and beautiful soul who deserved happiness, I found her personality to be very inspiring. She is kind, hardworking, cheerful and loving. She has reserves of strength and resilience in the face of misfortunes. She helps everyone around her even those who are mean and cold-hearted. She is surrounded by evil but she views the world around her with a child like innocence. She is a strong but kind female character who enjoys a spiritual communion with nature and often feels a mystical presence when alone in the attic, where she writes in her journal:
“I cannot tell whence, a most powerful sweetness that had never come to me afore. It was not religious, like the goodness of a text heard at preaching. It was beyond that. It was as if some creature made all of light had come on a sudden from a great way off, and nestled in my bosom…I cared not to ask what it was.”
Mary Webb evokes the countryside poetically whether she is describing dragonflies breaking out of their larval bodies and drying out their iridescent wings, or the changing reflections on the mere with its outer ring of bulrushes and inner ring of waterlilies. There are Biblical allusions throughout the book yet pagan symbols abound. Nature and the elements- the earth, water and fire play a pivotal role in the unraveling of the plot. There are whispers of witchcraft and wizardry among the local folk. Felena, the shepherdess dances naked by moonlight in a ring of cattle and sheep. Webb magically recreates a world of superstitions and small town gossip. I enjoyed learning about rural customs like ‘love spinning’ which is a gathering at which local women spin the wool that will be woven into the wedding fabric of the couple, the concept of ‘sin eating’ when a person takes over the sins of a deceased person for a fee, and the tradition of ‘telling the bees ‘when bees would be told of important events like birth and death in their keeper’s lives.
The book is filled with pearls of wisdom from the pen of Prue who is true to her name ( Prudence). Here are two quotes among many that struck my fancy:
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? What bridal lacked his song, and what mourner his tears, that he found time to climb so high?”
I got together all the pails and buckets, and thought it seemed a pitiful thing that with all that great mere (lake) full of water we could only slake our fire with as much as we could get into our little buckets. And I’ve thought since that when folk grumble about this and that and be not happy, it is not the fault of creation, that is like a vast mere full of good, but it is the fault of their bucket’s smallness.
I enjoyed reading about a now lost way of life, a time when rural communities were isolated and on the cusp of change. Mary Webb’s writing is reminiscent of the works of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot though sadly she did not achieve their fame. The story is dark and heartbreaking for the most part but there is also a ray of hope in the form of a love story with a Cinderella touch. I was so moved by this sweet romance. If only Mary Webb had devoted more of the plot to it!
Precious Bane is a book that deserves a place in my own personal library. It is one of the finest books I have read. I’d lief read it again a tuthree times!