I was drawn to this novel because of my mum’s interest in Mary Webb’s novel Gone to Earth and the film adaptation starring Jennifer Jones. At the time I was writing my dissertation for my undergraduate degree in English Literature. I was writing about disability in 20th Century literature, but also developed an interest in disfigurement of female characters in literature such as Rosa Dartle in Dickens’s David Copperfield. I was interested in the way authors use it as an indicator of evil and/or sexual immorality. My mum suggested a more positive representation of disfigurement might be found in Precious Bane. Prudence is one of those characters it’s so easy to fall in love with. She’s so inextricably linked to the book’s setting, the wild country of Shropshire at the time of Waterloo. Prudence Sarn is a wild, passionate girl, cursed with a hare lip — her ‘precious bane’. Cursed for it, too, by the superstitious people amongst whom she lives. Prue loves two things: the remote countryside of her birth and, hopelessly, Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. The tale of how Woodseaves gradually discerns Prue’s true beauty is set against the tragic drama of Prue’s brother, Gideon, a driven man who is out of harmony with the natural world.
Prudence helps her mother and father on their farm, but is also deeply in tune with the wild countryside in which they live and grow crops. When her father dies suddenly, Prudence and her mother are under the protection of her brother Gideon who inherits the farm. Gideon was mistreated by their father, so now he sees the freedom to make changes at the farm and run it his way. This worries Prudence who knows her brother isn’t in tune with nature – at the funeral we see local superstition as the clergyman calls for the sin eater. Sin eaters were at funerals to take in the guilt and shame left over from sins that were not confessed before death. As Pru’s father died suddenly, they need someone to take on his sins so that he can enter heaven. The whole funeral party gasps as Gideon steps forward to take on his father’s sins. This will change his characters and peace of mind, as well as ruin his fledgling relationship with the beautiful Janice.
We see everything through Pru’s eyes and learn her innermost feelings about her life, family or about her looks. She refers to her lip as ‘hare-shotten’ – meaning that her pregnant mother was startled by a hare affecting her baby. Pru’s disability is what we know as a cleft palate; an opening in the lip that could extend to the nose or upper palate. This disability causes problems with eating, speaking and even hearing. These days it’s often corrected. Pru is philosophical about her lot and sees it as something that could have been much worse. It only starts to affect her when she falls in unrequited love. Each small holding would spin their own wool and employ a travelling weaver to create the fabric that they could use or trade. Pru is helping at Janice’s parents when the weaver arrives. Janice is the daughter of local wizard Beguildy, who has begrudgingly promised her to to Pru’s brother Gideon. All the women come together for a ‘love spinning’ to celebrate the wedding, but for Pru everything changes when Kester Woodseaves arrives. She explains it as a feeling that ‘the master has come’, but immediately knows there’s no future in it. Kester would not want a hare-shotten wife so she keeps her love close to her heart.
In the meantime, Gideon’s character has changed considerably since eating his father’s sins. He wants to run the farm his way after years of cruel treatment by his father. This means Pru and her mother working their fingers to the bone, for long hours and little thanks. He becomes obsessed with wanting a grand house in town and starts to neglect his relationship. He sees Janice less and when he does see her he is pressurising her to give up her virginity before their wedding. Janice will do anything for Gideon and when the consequences of his actions start to show, he has a choice. Will he forego material aspirations, marry Janice and claim their child? Or will he reject Janice’s plea for help and keep working towards the grand house? Even worse, if Janice is rejected by Gideon where will she go? Meanwhile Pru is strong as a workhorse, but life has had the joy sucked out of it and she worries about the long hours their elderly mother is working. She’s also concerned that Gideon has lost his soul.
Meanwhile, in a strange and comical turn of fate involving the mischievous Beguildy, Kester has seen Pru as a desireable woman. Aside from her face, Pru is aware that she’s not curvy and golden like Janice, but tall and willowy. Kester is transfixed by her figure when she poses as Venus, but he doesn’t see her face. However, he carries that vision in his mind as he moves to his next job far away and can’t forget her. For Pru, life takes a turn into tragedy that leaves her vulnerable. As the consequences of Gideon’s choices start to reverberate through the village, those who were friends and neighbours start to think differently. Crops fail and they’re looking for someone to blame. Superstition runs rampant as they suggest that witches can affect crops and livestock. Does a witch live in their midst? Does anyone have the mark of a witch? Pru is without protection and if the villagers turn who will save her?
I love this book because it depicts a woman with a disability in love, and being seen as desirable. Of course Mary Webb is writing back to the 18th century, from 1924. It has parallels with Daphne Du Maurier’s 1946 novel The King’s General, where the heroine, Honor, is a wheelchair user. It’s as though awareness at that time had changed towards disability – potentially due to two world wars creating veterans with impairments. I am emotionally invested as a disabled woman, because I want to see characters with impairments and illnesses being seen as sexual beings and potential life partners. Pru’s humbleness is so endearing. She doesn’t imagine for a second that Kester might see her or pick her out in a room full of women. That he might see her calmness, her intelligence, her modesty and think she’s the sort of woman he might want. I love the rural setting, the local superstition, and rituals like the love spinning or picking each other’s crops. Every time I read this, I fall in love with it over again. I can smell the warmth on the hay bales, the fresh picked apples and hear the buzz of dragonflies on the pond. This is one of my favourite love stories and it breaks my heart as Pru resigns herself to never being loved like Gideon loves Janice. Yet it warms my heart every time too. Pru calls her cleft palate her ‘precious bane’ and in truth it is a blessing. In a way it forces someone to look past her looks to her character and it brings her someone who is genuine, who loves her as she truly is and who gets her. That’s all we ever want.