Rural Reading: Mary Webb’s Precious Bane

“It was at a love-spinning that I saw Kester first. And if, in these new-fangled days, when strange inventions crowd upon us, when I hear tell there is even a machine coming into use in some parts of the country for reaping and mowing, if those that may happen will read this don’t know what a love-spinning was, they shall hear in good time.”
—Mary Webb’s Precious Bane

mary-webb-precious-bane-60de0240bc0947471016e4a87852a4aeThere are a handful of dazzling books about rural English life I read again and again: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Flora Thompson’s autobiographical Lark Rise, and Mary Webb’s classic, Precious Bane.  Hardy’s novel is in no danger of neglect:  a recent movie of Far from the Madding Crowd starred Kerry Mulligan; and the BBC dramatized Lark Rise to Candleford.

Would I have read Mary Webb’s Precious Bane had I not seen a BBC dramatization on Masterpiece Theater?  Probably not. (The series is not on DVD.)  The book is now out-of-print in the U.S.:  I acquired a 1926 Modern Library edition at a used bookstore.  It won the Prix Femina as the best English novel in 1925, but it has taken some severe hits since then. Stella Gibbons satirized “loam and love-child” novels in Cold Comfort Farm.  Her favorite targets were Webb, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Sheila Kaye-Smith.  Since I love all four, the satire must be a compliment. Well, I also enjoy the entertaining Gibbons.

Webb’s masterpiece, Precious Bane,  should be set apart from her early books, which I call rural Gothic. But I can happily read Precious Bane in a day and then reread lyrical bits about nature the next day.  Oh, and I always cry, because I know what will happen.  Life in Shropshire is tragic.  The Sarn men are unlucky.

This lyrical,  beautifully-written novel, set in the northern country of Shropshire, tells the story of a  highly competent, intelligent  woman with a harelip, Prue Sarn. As an old woman, she looks back and describes the beauty of a vanished way of life during her childhood, her work on the farm as a young woman, love-spinnings  (spinning parties rather like quilting bees, only the women spin thread for cloth instead) and played cards, her anxiety for her ambitious brother Gideon, and her quiet love for Kester, a weaver. Shunned as a witch by some villagers because of her harelip,   she  has a lovely figure but is afraid to show Kester her face.  Kester himself is different:  he stops a bull-baiting by offering to fight the dogs one by one.  Dogs love him:  he makes friends with most of them.  But Prue runs to the pharmacist for help when she sees a mean guard dog growling.  The dog attacks and she saves his life.

The novel is tragic: the arrogant Gideon not only neglects his fiancée, Jancis, but he has blood on his hands:  near the beginning of the novel, his  father, Old Sarn, threatens to beat him and Gideon stands up and knocks him down..  Old Sarn has a fit and dies.  Gideon is not blamed, but at the funeral he will not pay for a sin eater.

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying–I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the by-ways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.”

Gideon says he will be the Sin Eater if his mother will give him the farm.  She is upset, but is even more frightened of her violent husband’s dying with all those sins on his soul.  Gideon thinks it is a superstition.  But, as things turn out, you can’t be sure. Owning the farm is very bad for this greedy man as he works himself almost to death trying to get rich.

Some things work, out some don’t.  The tragic story of Gideon unfolds.  He is a monster, with no morals, and eventually is half mad.   Prue survives and lives to a happy old age, but she remembers the stories, the harvests, the celebrations, and Gideon’s monomania and hubris.  She mourns the dead.

Gorgeous, lyrical language!  You will love it.

I think I’ll reread it tomorrow.

Not Much of a Crier

Mom, age 30, and I.

Mom, age 30, with me.

I’m not much of a crier.

I sat in the back yard listening to R.E.M. after my mother died.

Crying has never done me any good.

Better to rock.

Jumping around to rock helps, too.

I learned not to cry.

I was sitting at a coffeehouse today when my eyes filled with tears.  I went out on the patio and wept. I had a sudden memory of the day before my mother’s death, when she rocked herself back and forth in pain, muttering: “I’m sorry” (after a certain age your parents WILL vaguely apologize to you), “I might die,” (“You might but you might not!”), and  “Help me.”

I helped her.

I asked the nurse if Ativan or Ambien might help her sleep.

She explained the morphine, instead of tranquilizing my mother, had made her hyper.  That happens sometimes with old people.

So they took her off the morphine, which had kept her awake and in pain.

And then the next day she slept.

“I love you, Mom!” Crying as I went out the door.

Two hours later she was dead.

She is the only person close to me who has died.

But the crying thing…

Perhaps if I’d cried more at the time…

I wouldn’t have become temporarily cyberaddicted…

If you cry when it’s appropriate…

The not-crying thing started at the funeral when I had an epiphany that there is no life after death. Perhaps the epiphany was because of the bad behavior at the funeral, relatives not speaking to relatives, etc.  I had another epiphany today:  there’s a 50/50 chance.

I couldn’t cry at the funeral because I hadn’t saved her. I arrived at the nursing home too late (I had been sick) to insist they send her to the hospital across the street.  Two years ago I saved her at an assisted living facility from someone who had ignored, or not been informed of, a doctor’s recommendation of hospitalization.

Strange how you can NOT know someone and miss her so much. Mom, the mother of me, the adult, and I had little in common.  She belonged in a Dickens novel (Miss Flyte, only with knickknacks and no canaries) and I am a contemporary novel by…  well, Frederick Exley plus Muriel Spark plus War and Peace = ?

But Mommy–when did she become Mom?– was ALWAYS in my corner, to the extent that, all evidence to the contrary, I believe I AM the best at everything (except sports!).  Yes, the best!

Thanks, Mom!

AND NOW ON TO MARY WEBB’S GONE TO EARTHA couple of bloggers (is it a male thing?) mocked Mary Webb last year.

But Precious Bane, her masterpiece, which won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Prize,is powerful and lyrical: her heroine, Prue Sarn, has a harelip but a very good figure, and when she is accused of murder, she prevails through her intelligence and friendships.  Webb’s style is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s, though three notches down in style.  Precious Bane is a romance.

GonetoEarth mary webbI read Gone to Earth a few weeks ago and have meant  to write about it, but what to say?  It’s a pageturner, not a good book, but an entertaining book, and it’s really just for women.

You see, Hazel Woodus loves her fox, Foxy.  She “had found Foxy half dead outside her deserted earth…. Hounds symbolized everything she hated, everything that was not young, wild, and happy.  She identified herself with Foxy, and so with all things hunted and snared and destroyed.”

I love Foxy!  I want a pet fox, too.

Anyway, men are hunting Hazel, one good man, Edward, a minister, who marries her but does not have sex with her (a mistake), and Jack Reddin, the squire, a guy who crudely rapes her in the woods, but she goes to live with him because she needs sex.

Instinctively she felt that she belonged to Reddin now, though spiritually she was still Edward’s.”

And then it is back and forth between the men.

Hazel is like Tess in Tess of the D’urbervilles, only blatantly sexy and much less conventional  Edward is Angel and Reddin is Alec.  Threesomes never work.

And Hazel is also a bit like Marty in  Hardy’s The Woodlanders, the poorly educated minor character who is far more interesting than the well-educated heroine, Grace. Both Hazel and Marty are working girls:  they do”bark-stripping”:

What is bark-stripping?  Hazel explains,

“It’s fetching the bark off’n the felled trees ready for lugging.”

This is Hardy for girls.

Actually, I could write a long defense of this novel, but I am not in the mood tonight.

Webb is obsessed with nature, sex, and symbolism.

The structure of Gone to Earth is perfect, though the style is a bit clumsy.

Trust me.  It’s not good, but it’s entertaining.  FOR WOMEN ONLY.