Rating 5 stars
For my third summer read, I headed to Shropshire with Mary Webb’s novel Precious Bane. There’s an excellent preface in the Virago Modern Classic edition that I bought from Well-Read Books in Wigtown. Written by Michelene Wandor, it gives a feminist context for the book, describing a little of Webb’s life alongside the history that surrounds her character Prue Sarn’s 19th century existence. Although set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Wandor tells us that “national events appear to be outside the concern of the isolated, rural and largely illiterate community” and “the backdrop to Prue’s story is the three centuries of intense and virulent witch-hunting all over Europe.”
I vaguely remember there being a feature length adaptation of Webb’s novel on the BBC when I was 18 or so, but I don’t recall watching it. I’m sure we would have. It’s just the sort of thing my mum and I would watch together, with dad harrumphing in the background.
But that’s by the bye. I was interested to learn that the novel’s setting is in the north of Shropshire, around Ellesmere. I don’t know Shropshire very well, beyond a few day trips to Shrewsbury from university in Aberystwyth and an A-level biology field trip to the meres and mosses near Ellesmere. I loved that field trip. We checked for caddisfly larvae in the local river, learnt about the transition from mere to moss to heath to woodland, and I saw my first sundew. I equally loved the depiction of the landscape in Webb’s novel.
Precious Bane is a tale of rural life, full of the folklore and superstitions that the coming man Gideon Sarn is keen to turn his back on. Gideon is Prue’s older brother. From childhood, they are close, but when their father dies and Gideon, aged only 17, takes over the family farm, their relationship changes. The novel’s title refers to Gideon’s love of money and the harm his pursuit of riches does to those who love him, as much as it does to Prue’s own personal curse.
Gideon decrees that Prue will never be courted by a man, because of her cleft lip. Local folklore attributed this birth defect to a hare crossing the path of the mother while pregnant, hence the alternative name for the condition of ‘hare lip’. Since he believes that she will never marry, he strikes a bargain with her; Prue is to work the farm alongside him and is to learn to read and write as well as maths so that she can manage the business of the farm. In return, he says, he will use some of the profit they make to pay a doctor to cure her lip.
The novel takes the form of Prue’s memoir, and it put me in mind of Angharad Price’s fictional memoir The Life of Rebecca Jones. Although depicting different eras, both these books concern themselves with the interior world of farming women and the way they can be overlooked as individuals in the service of the farm.
Gideon is an unpleasant man in many ways. He disdains his mother, always leaving her out of his plans, only for Prue to remind him that she exists and can’t be abandoned. He takes a fancy for Jancis Beguildy, the daughter of the local healer, but can’t work out whether it’s love or lust; Prue sets him straight on that one. He is challenged by the superiority of the squire’s daughter, Dorabella, thinking he might marry her instead of Jancis, but then after she humiliates him in public (it is actually Prue that she insults, but Gideon sees the injury as his), he decides he will ruin her reputation instead. And on top of all this, he effectively enslaves his sister in their pact which sees her working for nothing but the distant promise of freedom from her facial disfigurement.
Prue has the measure of him, though. Indeed, she has the measure of most people. Her thoughts on kindness and the lack of it, framed in relation to her brother, struck a chord with me.
He was ever a strong man, which is almost the same, times, as to say a man with little time for kindness. 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?
There’s a lot to be said for kindness, but it seems not to be a quality valued personally by those ambitious for power and status, and is more often taken advantage of by them when they encounter it in others.
Prue also forgives her brother his callousness, though, in that ‘he’s not all bad’ way we have with our close relatives, whose inadequacies we must balance with evidence of their better selves in order to get along.
He was a good-hearted lad, in spite of all, and if he missed to do a kindness it was only because he didna think of it, or because his mind was so set on one thing. And times if he’d been callous and it was brought home to him, he’d take it very hard, though often it was a long while after.
Webb gives Prue her own space, the attic under the thatch of the cottage, where apples and pears are stored, and where Prue carves out physical and mental space to knit, to practice her writing, to gaze through the window on the orchard, and to reflect on things said and done about and to her. Here she can clear her head in freeing solitude. The scents, sounds and colours transport her from the drudgery of her existence as her brother’s bondservant. Although I have yet to read Virginia Woolf’s seminal feminist essay collection, Prue’s attic made me think of that essay’s title and what Woolf meant by it. Woolf wrote the essays that form the basis of A Room of One’s Own four years after Precious Bane was published, and I wonder whether Woolf had read Webb’s novel. I’ve added the book to my reading list.
I relished Webb’s skill in using Prue’s status as a slight outsider to deliver observations such as those about her brother, and about the other people in her community. Prue isn’t completely shunned, she is accepted as belonging, but her cleft lip sets her apart and permits her family, friends and neighbours to think of her as different, not like them. The unspoken belief that bewitchment is at the back of her disfigurement, and that she herself must be a witch, is the background to Prue’s understanding of how others in the community are treated. Felena, the shepherd’s wife, who attends Jancis’s ‘love spinning’ is a sensuous woman, unfettered in her expression of that sensuality, and gossipped about as a result. It is claimed among the local residents that her husband allowed the owner of the land where he grazed his sheep to sleep with Felena in lieu of rent, and that she danced naked by moonlight in a ring of cattle and sheep, accompanied by the Devil. To Prue, though, “she seemed a pleasant, harmless creature, and very handy in all she did.”
Prue is impressed by Felena’s forthrightness when the new weaver arrives at the ‘love spinning’ and all the women and girls present are taken with his looks. Felena is bold and flirtatious, perhaps the two things that prompt the gossip about her, and Prue notes to herself that Felena says everything that she, Prue, would like to say. She also notes that Felena, who teases Prue for her physically obvious attraction to the new weaver, “as white as a shroud one minute, and as red as a peony the next”, doesn’t hold the same belief as the others – that Prue will never be involved in the game of love. And here we learn Prue’s thoughts on what it is like to be seen in a particular way.
I suppose, being under suspicion of dancing with the devil, she had a fellow-feeling with me for being mixed up with tales of witchcraft. For they’d even begun to say of me that I took shape as a hare on dark moonless nights, and went loping across the hills, and had a muse running under the churchyard. Such things were first said in idleness or mischief or to scare children, and then, in the loneliness of old farms, full of creakings and moanings on windy nights, they grew. And none can tell what such things will grow into at long last, nor what harm they may do.
Webb was writing almost 100 years ago about life more than 100 years in her past, about something that has stretched back even further than that, through the 17th century witch-hunts and beyond, and that has stretched forward from Webb’s era, to the extent that it still has echoes today in the language we use to ‘other’ women who step outside what wider society considers to be acceptable behaviour.
I remember, when I worked in Oxford, watching tv with a friend who liked to provoke reaction through things like randomly removing his trousers to reveal a pair of tiny leather shorts. He tried to slut shame a young woman on the programme we were watching who was probably a size 14 instead of a size 10 and whose top revealed an amount of cleavage he found inappropriate for one so ‘fat’. For once I didn’t laugh along, perhaps because I have most often been ‘the big girl’ in my group of friends. The best I could come up with in response was, “Says the man who wears tiny leather shorts.” He got my meaning and apologised, but I’ve never forgotten that even people who are mostly kind and intelligent can judge others and gossip about them. Myself included; I have a streak of meanness that I don’t like about myself, nor do I like the way I use it for laughs, to avoid being the butt of the joke myself; but that’s where gossip stems from – a desire to not be the one who negatively stands out and a means of punishing those who do. A sophisticated form of animal instinct. In our private conversations with friends, we might think it’s okay, that no real harm is done to the person who isn’t there, but it’s the thin edge of a much more insidious wedge and, as Prue says, we don’t know what such things might grow into or what harm might come of them.
Prue returns home from the ‘love spinning’ all in a pother about Kester Woodseaves, the new weaver. She is smitten and at the same time knows it is pointless being so, since everyone around her says so. The next day, she is drawn into saving Jancis from the compromising situation her father Beguildy has got her into. It’s a situation that turns out to involve Kester Woodseaves, and it awakens a realisation in Prue that, but for her cleft lip, she is desirable to men. Another consequence of it is a turn in Jancis’s fortunes. The situation also involves the squire’s nephew, Camperdine, and leads to Jancis having to make a difficult choice as a woman with few options. Only marriage to Gideon can free her from that choice, but this doesn’t fit with Gideon’s priorities.
The situation triggers a plotline that owes something to Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac. Given that Gideon won’t marry her until his pursuit of money is successfully completed, Jancis chooses apprenticeship as a dairymaid over being sold to Camperdine by her father. This opens up the chance for Prue to write her brother’s love letters, knowing that Kester Woodseaves will be the person who reads them to Jancis and writes her replies. For Prue, this is her chance to let her love object know her feelings without him realising and, she believes, her chance to find out something of Kester’s character through his replies.
Before this begins, though, there’s an incident at the May Fair, where Jancis is hired, that lays groundwork for Prue’s strategy, bringing her unexpectedly into close contact with Kester. This incident also struck me as an analogy for all that is worst about the way the English love to hold with tradition. A bull baiting is to take place, involving dogs baiting a bull until it gores them and the bull then being slaughtered. Kester attempts to stop it and elicits a response from the main organiser that made me think about the current culture war being waged by the right wing government over the right to continue celebrating slave traders, the right to continue in Empire- and war-inflected jingoism, and the right to keep people in the place these Tories think they should be. The organiser’s response is Little England in a microcosm, “I tell ye there’s bin bull-baiting in England ever since it was England! Take away the good old sport and it wouldna be England!” The bystanders’ response is a mob response. Little Englanders have always loved the freedom to do harm to others, and to take away the freedom of those who stand in opposition to them.
The incident changes the tone of the book, bringing a vigour and a tension to the story, where previously there had been a drift. It isn’t just Kester who suffers the consequences of standing up for what he thinks is right in the face of opposition. Gideon continues along his own road, bringing down on himself the wrath of Jancis’s father, causing Beguildy to take revenge in the way that hurts Gideon the most, and in turn causes Gideon to choose a path that ends in tragedy for Beguildy’s family and ultimately his own.
It isn’t all doom, though. Webb also tells us the love story of Prue and Kester. Each is, in their own way, an outsider, someone who views the world in their own way. Kester is no glowering romantic hero, burning with passion, but he is a man who knows what he likes, and he sees Prue for the person she is, beyond her cleft lip. Prue is equally certain about how she feels about him, but hesitant to believe that he could feel the same about her. This allows Webb to play with the story, making Prue miss Kester’s meaning in some of the things he says and writes to her, keeping her oblivious to how her words and deeds have worked on his heart. It’s beautiful, gentle and satisfying to read.
Mob mentality returns at the end of the book, with the unspoken belief that Prue is a witch finally brought out into the open. Felena comes good for Prue and Kester appears in the nick of time. The novel ends well, but left me wishing there was more. I wanted to know what happened next with Prue and Kester, I liked them so much.
This is a brilliant novel. It only took me so long to read it because I’ve been in a proper reading slump and been so tired that reading in the evening often resulted in nodding off.
I’ve got just over a month to go on the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge. The 10 books I chose earlier in the summer is looking increasingly ambitious!