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.