Posted in Personal Purchase

Throwback Thursday! Precious Bane by Mary Webb.

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.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Throwback Thursday! A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray.

Meet the Bradleys.

In lots of ways, they’re a normal family:
Zippy is sixteen and in love for the first time; Al is thirteen and dreams of playing for Liverpool. And in some ways, they’re a bit different:
Seven-year-old Jacob believes in miracles. So does his dad. But these days their mum doesn’t believe in anything, not even getting out of bed.

How does life go on, now that Issy is gone?

This book is truly beautiful, moving and insightful novel about a family dealing with grief. The Bradley family have lost four year old Issy, and Carys Bray tells their story through each family member in turn. Bray has personal insight into the Mormon church, although she’s no longer a member. That doesn’t mean that this is a grand criticism of the religion, what she does is use her insight to craft a family of faith coping with the worst thing that could happen to them. She takes us on the weekly Merry-go-round of family night, youth club, Saturdays writing sermons and church on Sunday. I was brought up in a similarly restrictive evangelical Christian background till I rebelled at 16. I have spent my whole life watching adults try to reconcile their faith in an interventional God, with tragic events in their lives. When people believed that God granted them the good weather for their BBQ, it was hard for them to understand why my Multiple Sclerosis hadn’t responded to their healing. This could go one of two ways: God had a reason for giving me MS or I didn’t have enough faith for their healing to work. This family experience similar feelings and treatment, as their comfortable and cosy religious world implodes.

What the author shows us, is that nobody is immune from grief. Dad is a bishop in the church, and since marriage outside the faith is discouraged, Mum is a Mormon convert. His standpoint, although written with great empathy, is the one I found it hardest to relate to. Possibly this is because of my religious bias, but it felt like he was trying to make sense of it too early in the grieving process. It can take years to be able to put such an enormous loss into context and be able to identify its effect on your emotions and choices. This is the immediate aftermath and Ian is trying to make sense of it in terms of God’s purpose. As a bishop he has the pressure of the ‘public’ face he has to maintain. He’s a leader so he can’t appear weak, doubtful or as if he’s questioning God. It’s quite a normal reaction to feel very angry with God. If you have given your life over to his work you could be forgiven for having questions: Why has this happened when I serve you? Why should I believe in you? If followers see that doubt or uncertainty, it could undermine their faith. The only way to rationalise this, in the context of his position, is to assume God is testing him – testing his faith like Job or teaching him something. While this might keep Ian’s public face intact, he could be experiencing a crisis of faith behind the mask. Even worse it could put him on a collision course with the rest of his family.

Wife Claire is simply overwhelmed, unable to maintain a private face never mind a public one. She retires to her bed, completely paralysed by grief. She finds herself asking all the questions Ian is avoiding and as a convert she has a different context through which she can view her grief in many different ways, instead of just one. However, as she stays in bed, the rest of the children are dealing with their grief alone. The faith they’ve been brought up in has failed them, they have been faced with mortality so close to home it raises fears of further trauma. Eldest girl Zippy is trying to hold everything together at a turbulent point in her own development. She tries to be Mum to her youngest brother, the beautifully drawn Jacob. Her brother Alma is disappearing into his football and dreams of playing for Liverpool. All the children find their father’s responses strange and unsympathetic, but feel abandoned by Mum. There’s also an anger developing. Their father is a powerful man in church terms, so how have their parents let this happen? Could it happen to them? Bray has written in these children’s voices with skill and empathy. She has thoroughly imagined what their inner language would sound like. Jacob’s concept of his faith as at least the size of a toffee bonbon. They were so real I wanted to gather them and care for them.

For me, this was a stunning first novel and catapulted Carys Bray onto my list of authors whose work I would buy without hesitation. Her understanding of family dynamics and construction of each character’s inner world is exquisite. She just ‘gets’ the psychology of grief and I wasn’t surprised to discover she has experienced personal loss. Her care for each of these people, and even the religion she has left behind, is so evident and I was left feeling an affinity for her as well as the characters. The death of someone in such a young family is like throwing a grenade into the room. I felt like this book was capturing that immediate aftermath where adrenaline is still running, your ears are ringing, you don’t know where anyone else is or even how injured you are. I remember that feeling – of being so lost, you don’t know how lost you are. Bray is a novelist of exceptional depth and skill. I have just bought her third novel and I’m so looking forward to immersing myself into another of her worlds.

Meet The Author

Carys Bray was brought up in a devout Mormon family. In her early thirties she left the church and replaced religion with writing. She was awarded the Scott prize for her début short story collection Sweet Home. A Song for Issy Bradley is her first novel. She lives in Southport with her husband and four children.

Her first novel A SONG FOR ISSY BRADLEY was serialised on BBC Radio Four’s Book at Bedtime and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the Desmond Elliott Prize. It won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. Her second novel, THE MUSEUM OF YOU, was published in June 2016. WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT, her third novel, was published in May 2020. Carys has a BA in Literature from The Open University and an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University.