Precious Bane by Mary Webb

Being an author has made me picky about what I read. I was picky before; now it’s practically impossible to find a book to suit me. But they come along, and I read the hell out of them, and oh. It’s so good to remember what the reader’s rush feels like.

I just finished Precious Bane by Mary Webb, and what a rush. What gratification. What a learning experience–and what a strange feeling to be sure I’ve found a kindred spirit among authors.

It was published in 1923, so it’s square in the middle of the Gilded Age’s fad for gruesome tragedies, and has one solid foot in Victorian romances and the other–very solidly, I believe–in 20th century modernism and feminism and naturalism and all the isms. On the one hand, it’s a rural domestic story with a very predictable end. On the other hand, Prue Sarn–the first-person narrator–is thoroughly unexpected. She’s a barely-literate northern England farm woman with a “hare-shotten lip”. Her love interest isn’t a nobleman, or even a gentleman. She never looks to him to save her. When he saves her, she glosses over the details rather than wallow in them, and most gratifying of all, she saves him in a very brave, violent, and physical way.

From man-baiting. Yes, the hero has fighting dogs set on him while people watch for fun. I’ve seen this happen in exactly one other book, and I wrote that book.

Anyway: it’s a masterpiece of first-person narration. You spend the book immersed in Prue’s way of thinking. Mary Webb wrote in Shropshire dialect, and makes a lot of allowances for what Prue would have known how to spell or even understood the meaning of. Mary Webb understood that Prue was a woman without distractions; she did farm work all day, which left her with a lot of time to moodle, to observe, to love, and to go on flights of fancy. Moreover, because Prue didn’t have access to novels, she’s ignorant of narrative norms and will, on the one hand, say things that would make you roll your eyes coming out of a Victorian heroine, and on the other hand, sound bold and progressive in 2015.

The story is not truly Prue’s, though. It’s really the story of her brother Gideon. Prue’s love story seems very much tacked-on, so that we can tuck Prue in at the end of the book without worrying about her … except that it leaves all the ends untied. If ever a novel screamed for a sequel, it’s this one.

Anyway. If you have patience for flowery Victorian-style narration but not Victorian-style heroines, give this one a go. It has its flaws–Prue’s narrative ignorance, for example, sometimes means she goes on a flight of fancy when exciting things are happening; the ending is abrupt; and WHY COULDN’T SHE WRITE MORE ABOUT RAISING VENUS–but books should be loved because of their flaws, so do give it a try.


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