Precious Bane, by Mary Webb

I loved this book. It took me forever to read because every time I picked it up, I went back and reread the previous chapters for the pure joy of the prose.

In Precious Bane Prue Sarn tells the story of what happened after the death of her father of apoplexy or stroke following an argument with her brother Gideon. Gideon takes over running the farm, determined to force it to yield the wealth that he believes he requires in order to marry the woman his loves and lead the life he is determined to lead. A good man and a hard worker, he is blind to everything but his goal and pushes Prue and their mother to take on additional work to help reach it. Prue is more than willing. Born with a harelip, which makes some of the villagers mutter that she is a witch, Prue holds fast to Gideon’s promise that he will pay for her disfigurement to be corrected. Only when she is as beautiful as a fairy, Prue believes, will she be able to attract a husband and have a family of her own, like other girls.

First published in 1926, this is a novel about life in a village in the Ellesmere district of Shropshire. It captures the sumptuous beauty of rural life in the pre-industrial past but also the superstition, brutality and terror, thus providing a realistic picture of what is often sentimentalised as Merrie England. Isolated on their farm next to Sarn Mere, Prue works in the fields alongside her brother and trades plowing for writing lessons from a neighbor, Beguildy, who calls himself a wizard and refuses to go to church—such a perfect name for a wizard! It is his daughter Jancis whom Gideon loves and plans to marry when he is rich enough to buy her a big house in town and take her to the Hunt Ball.

I love the strong descriptions that evoke the countryside’s splendour in summer and terrible emptiness in winter. Most of all, I love the way the author weaves them into the story. It is all too easy to drop chunks of description into the action, but Webb integrates action into the description and uses it to reinforce and illustrate the story. In the first chapter, Prue says, “When I look out of my window . . . I call to mind the thick, blotting woods of Sarn, and the crying of the mere when the ice was on it, and the way the water would come into the cupboard under the stairs when it rose at the time of the snow melting. There was but little sky to see there, saving that which was reflected in the mere; but the sky that is in the mere is not the proper heavens. You see it in a glass darkly, and the long shadows of rushes go thin and sharp across the sliding stars, and even the sun and moon might be put out down there, for, times, the moon would get lost in lily leaves, and, times, a heron might stand before the sun.”

I love that image of the heron standing before the sun. I want to quote the whole book. Every passage, whether full of action or ruminative, is so deeply felt. Now that I’ve finished, I can also marvel at the structure underpinning the story, something I barely registered while immersed in Prue’s world. I think I need to read the book a few more times to tease out the threads that tie the story together, the images and ideas that Webb presents with careful pacing that make the ending so satisfying. I love when an object or an image changes in the course of a story, echoing the protagonist’s journey. Paul Scott was a master at this. Here, for example, Webb gives us Sarn Mere in the troubling opening above and as the father’s funeral procession winds past: “. . . the only light there was came from the waning clouded moon and from the torches. But you could see, in the dark water, something stirring, and gleams and flashes, and when the moon came clear we had our shapes, like the shadows of fish gliding in the deep.” Later she talks joyously of the mere in summer, ringed about by oaks, larches and other trees, then a ring of rushes, and an inner ring of lilies “lying there as if Jesus, walking upon the water, had laid them down with His cool hands.” She speaks of the different types of dragonflies to be found at the mere and describes their struggle out of the old skin, staying still just at the end as if wondering if they could do it, before making one last heave and bursting free.

There is much about the fields, the way the corn seems to shine during August nights, and the woods and wildflowers. I’ve gotten distracted by the descriptions but there is plenty of action as well. The title is an oxymoron, of course, since a bane is something that causes ruination or death so one would rarely consider it precious. Hard not to think of Tolkein, writing at the same time. Prue only uses the term in reference to Gideon, and his bane may be precious in itself, such as the riches he works for, or it may be that gift that makes us reach ever higher and achieve more than we ever dreamed possible.

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