IT IS HARD, now, to imagine a Prime Minister writing a foreword to a novel and celebrating its account of “a soul’s loveliness”. Stanley Baldwin read Mary Webb’s Precious Bane at Christmas 1926, less than a year before her death. It was, he wrote, “the fresh and crushing answer” to the “stupid urban view of the countryside as dull. . . One who reads some passage in Whitehall almost has the physical sense of being in Shropshire cornfields.”
Six years after the novel’s publication, Webb’s writing was the subject of another tribute, of sorts, when Stella Gibbons’s novel Cold Comfort Farm appeared. Gibbons parachuted the brisk, expensively educated Flora Poste into rural Sussex, to take in hand a cast of brooding farmers, burdened by premonitions of doom and a not entirely authentic vernacular.
I discovered Precious Bane years after Cold Comfort Farm, and writing this feels like a sort of penance, having chosen a reading from the latter at my wedding. I think it is possible to love both. Like Baldwin, I was transported by Webb’s novel, a love story about a young woman with a “hare-shotten lip” who learns to tell the time by watching the reflections in Sarn Mere, a lake so old that she wonders whether it belongs to someone’s dream. “Maybe you never slept in a cot of rushes,” she observes. “But all of us did at Sarn.”
While the story is as dramatic, and tragic, as any of Thomas Hardy’s, our narrator, Prue Sarn, is also our enthusiastic guide to what she imagines must be an alien world. She’s a translator of ancient words and customs for readers living in “new-fangled days”, unfamiliar with love-spinning, sin-eating (Real Life, 29 January 2010), or the importance of informing bees of a change of master. Today, an even more expansive glossary might be necessary, after the disappearance of catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, and clover from The Oxford Junior Dictionary.
The strength of this novel is its narrator: Prue is brave and tender, naïve and yet astute, full of sympathy for her fellow man, and a brilliant poet of the natural, enchanted world around her, in which “the cowslip gold seemed to get into your heart”. In places, there are echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, as when, waiting to see a dragonfly emerge from its chrysalis, Prue anticipates “the showing forth of God’s power”. Where Hardy’s narrator is distant, omniscient, Prue’s observations combine artlessness, humility, and wisdom: “It seemed to me. . .” she will often begin, before voicing a prescient or pretty insight.
A strict churchman might find Prue much at fault (although, in Sarn, even the parson has a book of “curious ancient prayers”). She’s as likely to look in a wizard’s book for a solution as the Bible; she is well-versed in superstitious folk-lore, and lax in her churchgoing. Yet she is also full of scripture, the created world frequently evoking, for her, biblical scenes. The lilies on the mere are “like the raiment of those men who stood with Christ upon the mountain top”, floating as if Jesus, “walking upon the water, had laid them down with His cool hands”.
Her theology has a Calvinistic edge. If those around her believe in curses, she believes in a God who makes us his “mommets”, predestined to play out assigned parts. A profound experience of sweetness is avowedly “not religious, like the goodness of a text heard at a preaching”, but bound up in the natural world, part and parcel of “such things as bird-song and daffodowndillies rustling”. Yet later, literate, she connects this visitation with the Song of Solomon and the banner of love.
The experience, which takes place in an attic, occurs before the arrival of romantic love. For all its profundity and mysticism, this is a novel that will satisfy lovers of unabashed romance, with scenes that, updated, would not be out of place in a modern romantic comedy (fans of the lakeside firefly scene in Disney’s Robin Hood may be particularly gratified). There are echoes of Cyrano de Bergerac’s letter-writing, and Shakespeare’s mistaken identities, and some excellent flirtation in the vernacular (“Not so daggly, neither!”).
It’s all particularly touching because Prue, with her harelip, “the barn-door savage of Sarn”, is advised, and believes at first, that “an ’usband and a cot of rushes” are not for her. There may have been an element of wish fulfilment for Webb who, after contracting Graves’ disease, became very self-conscious about her own appearance.
In its evocation of a world bewitched by folklore, there are shades of Alice Hoffman’s magical, romantic stories — but much darkness, too. This is a county where, even in the 19th century, rumours still fly of women dancing with Satan, and where a ducking stool is still stored in the church. It is also as sad as any song that Cecil Sharp might have collected, replete with loss, disaster, and a maiden’s betrayal.
Priests officiating at weddings might point to Webb as another author guilty of idolising romantic love. “For what is there in earth, or in heaven, if it comes to that, like the knowledge that you’ve found favour in the eyes of him that is your dear acquaintance, and the Maister?” our narrator asks. But Precious Bane points, too, to a world suffused with the love of a God who created daffodowndillies, gillyflowers, and the miracle of a dragonfly emerging from its shroud, and who, at the last, will ensure that we are “brought into His safe rickyard, and thatched over, warm with His everlasting loving-kindness”.
Madeleine Davies is the features editor of the Church Times.
Precious Bane by Mary Webb is published by Virago Modern Classics at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-86068-063-5.
PRECIOUS BANE — SOME QUESTIONS
- Is Prue’s cleft lip a curse or a blessing? Why?
- Prue, considered disfigured, nevertheless at one point adopts the image of a naked Venus. What kinds of questions does the novel ask about the notion of “beauty”?
- What is the effect of local superstitions and folklore on the villagers’ trust in, and relationships with, one another?
- Stanley Baldwin suggested that the strength of Precious Bane lies in “the fusion of elements of nature and man”. Do you agree? What was the effect, for you, of Mary Webb’s representation of the natural world?
- “I thought maybe love was like that — a lot of gold threads, and one maister-thread of pure gold.” What different kinds of love are explored in the novel?
- What effect did the narrator’s use of Shropshire dialect have on your reading of the novel?
- “What be she, after all, but a woman?” In what ways are women’s lives limited in the society of Precious Bane? In what ways does Prue break the mould?
- Gideon Sarn argues that “We canna make the world, for it’s made already.” Is Precious Bane a fatalistic novel?
- Prue sees the landscape as “like a book” waiting to be read; “a riddle with no answer”. To what extent does the glory of landscape depend on its mystery? Are we less enchanted by the landscape now that we know more about it?
- “I knew that if I’d got any wisdom it was never book-learning as gave it me, but just the quietness of the attic”. Where do you think Webb suggests that wisdom comes from?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 October, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. It is published by Canongate at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-1-78211-408-6.
In The Book of Strange New Things, a Christian minister, Peter, is employed by a mysterious corporation to travel to a distant planet. Here, he is to preach the gospel to the native alien inhabitants. His wife, Beatrice, remains at home in an increasingly difficult world. Separated by distance, but more significantly by the difficulties of the written communication to which they are limited, the two struggle to maintain their intimacy. The novel was written while Faber was caring for his own wife, Eva, during her final months; he has described it as “like a goodbye to her”.
Michel Faber is a novelist, short-story writer, poet, and journalist. Born in Holland in 1960, he moved to Australia with his family at the age of seven. As an adult, he emigrated to Scotland, where he has lived in the Highlands since 1992. Faber spent several years working as a nurse before his first book, a collection of short stories, was published in 1998, to wide critical acclaim. He has since written several further collections, and six novels, including The Crimson Petal and the White. He has stated that The Book of Strange New Things will be his final novel.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
NOVEMBER: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting
DECEMBER: My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok