Precious Bane by Mary Webb, the 1926 novel
By Hannah Wright | On February 5, 2024 | Updated February 10, 2024 | Comments (0)
Precious Bane, the 1926 novel by English author Mary Webb, is a coming–of–age novel set in the English countryside. Our heroine, Prue Sarn, is a sharply observant young woman of Shropshire during the Napoleonic Era who has been born with a disfigured lip.
Her harelip leads the others in her superstitious village to treat her as an outsider due to the association it shares with witchcraft. Despite the hardships of rural life, her disfiguration and its resulting perceptions Prue endearingly finds beauty and compassion for all around her.
The colorful cast of Precious Bane includes Prue’s brother Gideon, whose temperament is the of polar opposite of hers. Gideon, the inheritor of the family farm, cannot see anything in his environment outside of its potential to be exploited for personal monetary gain.
In contrast Prue’s romantic interest Kester Woodseaves, a skilled weaver, shares a profound empathy for his world and sees this same beauty in.
English traditions and folklore fill out the world around Prue as her disfigurement encourages the suspicion of her community and ultimately the false accusation of murder and witchcraft to which Prue must defend. Ultimately Mary gifts her audience with a happy ending deserved by such a kind hearted and empathetic protagonist.
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A 1929 review of Precious Bane by Mary Webb
From an original review in The Hartford Courant, April 7, 1929. Mary Webb’s Precious Bane is a Charming Novel with Shropshire Background
Perhaps the first dominant thought of any sensitive reader as he lays down these two books after perusal, is that of rebellion and protest against the baffling cruelty of a fate which sends such a writer as Mary Webb to her untimely death and permits the continued existence of the myriad literary pigmies who supply their futile grist to the vast mill of contemporary fiction.
A portrait of Mrs. Webb faces the title page of Armour Wherein He Trusted. Like the fabled Lady of Shalott, who worked her spells so close to the scenes of Precious Bane Mary Webb had a lovely face – intellectual, thoughtful, and sweet. Not bearing any actual likeness to the face of Anne Douglas Sedgwick, but of the same type-sensitive, delicate, and fine.
Of mixed Welsh and Scottish ancestry, Mrs. Webb (Mary Meredith) spend the greater part of her life in her native Shropshire, at one time working with her husband as a market gardener, and with him selling their produce at their own stall in Shrewsbury market. In 1921, however, the Webbs came to London, making their home at Hamstead.
As all the reading worlds knows now, the grand vogue for Mrs. Webb’s novels was started when Mr. Stanley Baldwin, himself of Shropshire descent, became so impressed with Precious Bane that he wrote a warmly appreciative letter to its author. Precious Bane had, however, already won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for 1924-5, this prize being given annually, for “the best work of imagination in prose or verse descriptive of English life by and author who had not attained sufficient recognition.”
A Sweet Character
Like Mrs. Webb’s other novels, Gone to Earth, Seven for a Secret, and the rest, Precious Bane is a tale of remote country life, and it is a story so beautiful in spirit, so exquisitely told, so instinct with a sort of spiritual exaltation, that the sense aches at it. There is a quality of high nobility in all of Mrs. Webb’s novels, uneven as they are in point of literary excellence, but her whole splendid gift crystalizes in Precious Bane which stands like a tall tower among its fellows.
Precious Bane is the story, related in the first person of a farmer’s daughter, Prudence Sarn, who was born with a disfigured lip, the result, so the neighbors believe, of a crossing of her mother’s path by a hare; the child is always looked at askance in the little community, and is even suspected of witchcraft.
Very skillfully and beautifully does Mrs. Webb contrive to convey, through Prudence’s own narrative, the impression of the girl’s lovely nature; of her innate loving kindness toward all creation, her loyalty, her sweet, sound, trustworthiness.
And, interwoven inextricably with the tale of Prue’s personal experience, are the threads of strange superstitions, folk lore, weather wisdom, homely philosophy, ingrained custom, stark brutalities, and the sounds, sights and scents of the farmstead and the woods and fields at all seasons of the revolving year.
Mr. Baldwin has written a deeply sympathetic and a really penetrating introduction to Precious Bane, in which he truly notes that the strength of the book lies “in the fusion of the elements of a nature and man, observed in this remote countryside by a woman even more alive to the changing moods of nature than of man.”
And again, Mr. Baldwin writes – “Her sensibility is so acute and her power of words so sure and swift that one who reads some passages in Whitehall has almost the physical sense of being in Shropshire cornfields.”
There is something in Prue Sarn’s telling of her own story which will remind certain readers of Geoffrey Dennis’s splendid and unappreciated novel, of a poignant childhood. Mary Lee, a book which one hopes may someday come into its rightful heritage of fame; and there are country folk in Precious Bane who will inevitably suggest their Wessex prototypes – the uncanny figure of the local wizard, Beguildy, for example and many of the farm people.
The strange burial customs, the games, such as “The Game of the Costly Colors,” in playing which the village women indulge their love for gambling, the “Love Spinning,” reminiscent of the old-time New England quilting-bee, the hiring fair, with those waiting to be hired each carrying a sign of his trade.
The bull-baiting, the romance of the traveling weaver – all of these combine in a rich tapestry of sound and color, which sets us in the very core and center of remote rural Shropshire in the first quarter of the n ineteenth century.
The book fairly demands quotation, for every page is spangled with shrewd pithy sayings, descriptions of a breath-taking beauty, and quaint expressions which come to the reader with a sense of curious sub-conscious familiarity, seeming to link him with the past in which he shared.
There is the expressive work – “tuthree,” – “there’s a tuthree people know you, Prue,” says Kester Woodseaves the gallant weaver; and again, Prue writing of Beguildy’s house, notes that –“all was dimmery in the room.”
Precious Bane comes naturally and simply to a “happy ending,” for which one is glad; it is a book which arouses a sense of reverence, a book brimming with beauty, plain-spoken tender, a book for which to be devoutly grateful.
More about Precious Bane by Mary Webb