Born in rural Shropshire around the time of Waterloo, Prue Sarn is a strong, independent soul, cursed by her hare lip never to be accepted nor loved. But this curse is her ‘precious bane’. The townspeople, steeped in superstition and folk religion, flit between mockery and scorn but Prue takes comfort in her love for the land she was born into, and her (seemingly hopeless) love for Kester Woodseaves, the travelling weaver. The ambition of her elder brother grows and animosity in the village increases, and the world changes around them in ways that none of them can understand. Precious Bane is a poignant and tragic coming-of-age story.
THE BOOK BY ITS COVER
In truth, I thought the book was ugly when my dad first lent it to me. I don’t recall why on earth he thought I’d be interested in a romance of all things but I took it and gave it a chance.
Later I purchased my own copy, a much nicer, blue paperback by Virago Press. Precious Bane is not a book to be judged by its cover. If Penguin or one of the other publishers decided to re-typeset it and bring out a nice cloth bound copy, I would be one of the first to buy it.
THE BOOK ON THE INSIDE
Once resigned to the ugly cover, I settled myself to read. From the beginning, I was taken with Prue. Her narrative voice was timid at times, but there was an underlying steel there too, something the character needed if she were to survive her ambitious older brother’s rule.
The book begins with the first time Prue meets Kester. All the women are admiring him and talking about him but she can’t bring herself to do anything but hide. As the story progresses, she becomes more confident, but because of her deformity (something her brother reminds her means no man will love her) she can’t bring herself to show her face.
Told in first person from Prue’s point of view, there are lots of interesting insights into how the villagers’ view of her affects Prue’s view of herself. At one point, when she thinks that Kester is in trouble, but he doesn’t know it yet, she runs for a carving knife but before she does, he catches her eye through the crowd and smiles at her. She thinks how loving his look was but then berates herself, ‘Nay, Prue Sarn, you be nought but his angel, and a poor daggly sort of angel, too.’
Later, she writes to the young woman her brother is courting on his behalf (as she’s the only literate one) and it happens to be Kester who is doing the writing back for the girl. So ensues correspondence in which each is talking to the other under the excuse of writing for someone else.
But Kester eventually leaves for a time and tragedies strike the Sarn family, one after another until there is nothing left of the life Prue had except the land, the farmhouse and a village that’s riled up to drown her for witchcraft. But Prue is no longer the timid young waif she was and Kester or no Kester, she’s determined to make a life for herself.
This book is a romance so it contains romance, funnily enough. There are allusions to the fact that the girl Prue’s older brother is courting stays over a lot and she turns up pregnant at one point. He ends up with another girl later but I can’t quite remember whether anything happens or not. It’s a Victorian novel so it tends to be suggestive, not explicit. There is a kiss but it’s brief and sweet.
Early on in the book, the old man who teaches Prue to write tries to make his daughter appear naked to a group of men (he claims to know magic and says that he can summon Venus but it’s all a con) and she persuades Prue to take her place. She tells Prue it’s because no one will love her anyway so her reputation doesn’t matter. There’s no detail but she does take her clothes off and stand for a few minutes before disappearing.
On that note, there is a lot of superstition in the book, and the man who claims to be able to do magic does play an important part in the story. There is no real witchcraft but there is superstition and fraud in keeping with the time and setting.
In terms of violence, the book is not too bad. There is one scene where Kester is trying to prevent a bull-baiting and allows the men to set the dogs on him instead, thinking he already knows all the dogs and can handle them. But one of the animals turns on him and Prue takes a knife and rescues him. There’s some blood and drama.
When it comes to death, there is question about whether Prue’s mother died prematurely but she dies peacefully so it’s not a problem. The only other deaths are a suicide by drowning, which causes Prue’s brother to lose his mind, followed by another suicide.
Precious Bane is not a children’s book and it is not a light, formulaic historical romance. There are heavy themes and it doesn’t shy away from the reality of the harshness of rural life at the time. Neither does it shy away from exploring human nature and the destruction we can bring on ourselves and those around us when we allow our pride to consume us.
These content warnings may turn you away from reading the book, but it’s the best love story I’ve ever read and an excellent exploration of human nature and love.
Despite the weighty themes and somewhat purple prose, Precious Bane remains one of my favourite romances of all time. It is, admittedly, an obscure novel but one that should be more widely read. It is deeper and more profound than many of the romances on our shelves today.
The character development is fantastic and each person in the story has their own unique voice, struggles, hopes, and fears. Though they all take different paths, Mary Webb does a great job of exploring the consequences these choices have on the characters and those around them. The themes are deep and rich and the plot and characters are engaging the whole way through.
Even as tragedy after tragedy strikes, Prue overcomes it all, despite being disregarded and undervalued by almost everyone around her. The romance, sweet and hopeful as it is, is set against the backdrop of real life and real struggles and that’s what makes Precious Bane stand out from all the other girl-meets-boy, coming-of-age stories you will find on the shelves of your local bookshop.
Favourite Character: Prue. When I first read it, I identified with her awkwardness and desire to find her place in the world while still remaining invisible and staying out of trouble. Even now I’m not a teenager any longer, I find her struggle to find her place in a rapidly changing world compelling.
Favourite Part: When Kester writes (on behalf of Prue’s brother’s girl about the person who saved his life in the dog fight),
‘For Mister Woodseaves hears tell it was a woman did it, a tall slim woman with beautiful dark eyes, so they do say. . .Weaver says if ever he had acquaintance he’d lief she was that sort.’
And Prue still doesn’t realise he likes her — you thought Austen’s books were frustrating!
Favourite Quote: ‘That vivid present of theirs, how faint it grows! The past is only the present become invisible and mute, and because it is invisible and mute, its memoried glances and its murmurs are infinitely precious. We are to-morrow’s past.’
Rating: Six out of five newly hatched dragonflies.
If You Liked This, You Might Like: I, Coriander by Sally Gardner (for less than light and fluffy romance), Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (a satire of books like Precious Bane), or Persuasion by Jane Austen (for romance with substance).
And so we come to the end of February and our theme of romance. I hope you enjoyed this month and found some of the posts helpful in your writing journey.