Our book today is Mary Webb’s 1924 novel Precious Bane, one of the most beautifully-written books of the 20th century. It was highly praised after its first publication (including, most famously and a bit pathetically, by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin), it’s been reprinted many times, and it’s been adapted for stage and screen many times as well – and yet it doesn’t often appear on lists of great novels, and no major publisher currently as it in print (as far as I can tell, the only in-print edition is a hideous self-published version that couldn’t possibly entice a single uncommitted reader to give it a chance). I fear it’s being forgotten, perhaps reduced in academic courses to a ‘regional’ novel of correspondingly limited appeal.
I’d hate to think that. I might accept that fate for the rest of Mary Webb’s life’s work, but this, her last completed novel (she died in 1927, and I think one book came out posthumously), is a masterpiece that should live forever.
The story is told by its main character, Prudence Sarn, who’s intelligent and quite attractive – except for her harelip, a troubling sign and distinction in her rural north Shropshire setting. The simple crofters and farmers of the Ellesmere district mistrust and fear Prue Sarn’s twisted lip, and she’s been hearing their superstitious comments her entire life, whispered behind her when she all she’s trying to do is warm herself at the village pub. The loneliness of it hasn’t curdled her loving spirit, but it does make her dream of a different life:
The folk inside looked each at other, and I wished I could die. For all the bitter cold and my thin gown and us being far from the fire, I was all in a swelter. For indeed I loved my kind and would lief they had loved me, and I felt a friendliness for the drovers and for the gentry, and the host and his missus. For they were part of my outing and part of Lullingford and of the world, that ever seized my heart in its hands, as a child will hold a small bird, which is both affrighted and comforted to be so held. I would lief have ridden forth and seen new folk, new roads, new hamlets, children playing on strange village greens, unknown to me as if they were fairies, come there I knew not whence nor how, singing their songs and running away into the dusk; old folk wending their way along paths in the meadow of which I knew not so much as the name of the owner, to churches deep in trees, with all the bells a-ringing, pulled by men I never saw afore.
The key to that different life is the strapping young village weaver Kester Woodseaves. Prue loves him desperately and – she believes – hopelessly, until the day he beholds her shapely young body (but not her face) and is obviously interested. Webb revels in her characters’ raw, trumpeted emotions (her portrayal of Prue’s corrosively self-destructive brother is painful to read or even to re-read), and the most emotional of those characters is Prue herself, who transports with ecstasy when Kester first regards her with favor:
I wondered if aught would have happened me in my outward life by the time the water-lilies came again, lying along the edges of the mere like great gouts of pale wax. There was but a mockery of them now, for amid the frozen leaves lay lilies of ice. Yet as I thought of Kester Woodseaves and what he had come to mean, I seemed to hear and see, on this side and on that, in the dark woods, a sound and a gleam of the gathering spring. There was a piping call in the oak wood, a bursting of purple in the tree-tops, a soft yellowing of celandine in the rookery. When I was come into the attic, spring was there afore me, though it was so cold that my hands could scarce write. None the less, I put down in my book the words, ‘The first day of spring.’ And I wrote it in the best tall script, flourished. So I should ever call to mind the second time of seeing him I loved, and the first time of his seeing me. Not only had he looked at me, but he had looked with favour and longing, and though I knew it was only because the truth was hidden from him, yet I was glad of what I had, as a winter bird is, that will come to your hand for a little crumb, though in plenteous times she would but mock you from the topmost boughs.
I took my crumb, and behold! it was the Lord’s Supper.
The character of Kester is something of a masterpiece as well – he’s proud and fierce like a Gothic hero, but he’s also open and kind … we never doubt that he’ll look past Prue’s disfigurement if given half a chance, and when he finally does (and saves her life in the bargain), readers will be strongly tempted to weep and cheer. Webb’s prose style soars and dips according to the mood of each scene, but readers who have followed poor valiant Prue’s trials from the beginning will shiver at the significance of the book’s magnificent, plainly-worded final line, as Prue and Kester ride off to their life together:
“No more sad talk! I’ve chosen my bit of Paradise. ‘Tis on your breast, my dear acquaintance!”
And when he’d said those words, he bent his comely head and kissed me full upon the mouth.
A very nice new Penguin Classics edition of the book would begin to address the problem of its comparative neglect (hint, hint). And in the meantime, you’re all strongly urged to go out and find a copy and soak up its lyricism to the last line. I strongly suspect that all novels are ‘regional’ novels, but even if I’m wrong, there’s no denying brilliance, regardless of its home address.