by Mary Webb
A full introduction has been written for this website by Gladys Mary Coles, President of the Mary Webb Society.
Precious bane, first published in July 1924, was Mary Webb's fifth and last completed novel in a literary career cut short by her death at forty-six. One of the outstandingly successful novels of the century, Precious bane is remarkable above all for its style--rich, ardent, lucid, irreducible in its spiritual quality. Undoubtedly it belongs to the English romantic tradition, and it is now regarded as a classic of the genre of the rural novel: yet, like all great art, it transcends categories.
Mary Webb lived from 1881 to 1927 and most of her years were spent in her beloved Shropshire, which was not just the setting of her novels but the source of her inspiration, being both substance and symbol in her work. This was the landscape with which she was integral and from which, like Emily Bronte from the moors at Haworth, she could not bear to be separated. But in 1921, with three novels and a book of essays published, she moved to London when her 'dearest acquaintance', her husband Henry B. L. Webb, took up a teaching post at the King Alfred School, Golders Green. For her this was a fatal step which took her on a downward course to her tragic end--and to the peak of her creative achievement. Unable to be away from her countryside for long, she moved like a migrant bird between London and Shropshire: Precious bane was written in the contrasting environments of her cramped cottage at Hampstead and her Shropshire home on Lyth Hill overlooking 'the enchanted plain'. All Mary Webb's novels 'grew out of a long brooding' (as Martin Armstrong tells us), and the genesis of Precious bane with its tragic, moving story, was at Bomere Pool near Lyth Hill. Here, like Thoreau at Walden, contemplating, observing, she saturated herself in the atmosphere of the strange, lonely mere, tree-ringed and shrouded in legend--her imaginary Sarn. But the major part of the actual composition of the novel took place in London during the autumn of 1923 when, cut off from her green realm, she dwelt even more vividly in a 'land within'. Successfully fusing realistic and mystical elements in Precious bane, Mary Webb achieved a unique blend of romantic allegory, poetic parable and personal testament.
When, in February 1926, notification came from Paris that Precious bane had won the Prix Femina for 1924-5, critics affirmed this 'an honour to which the book was pre-eminently entitled'. A succis d'estime for Mary Webb, it confirmed the expectations of those, like T. P. O'Connor, who considered her to be 'one of the most brilliant of the younger generation of novelists'. It is worth noting that she had a circle of firm admirers in the literary world (including Walter de la Mare, John Buchan and Rebecca West) and was already becoming something of a cult before Stanley Baldwin read Precious bane at Christmas 1926 and wrote her a letter of appreciation for the 'keen delight' this 'first-class' novel had given him. Six months after her death his enthusiastic tribute to her at a distinguished literary gathering brought her the attention of the wider public--and an ironic posthumous fame.
Yet during her lifetime Precious banewas gradually making that break-through to public success: three reprints were issued between 1924-6, a French translation was planned, and a Travellers' Library edition came out a month before she died (8 October 1927). Baldwin's éloge in April 1928, though it certainly precipitated Precious bane to the top of the best-seller lists, could hardly have been responsible for keeping it there for almost a decade. In fact, in some ways this politician's praise had an adverse effect on the literary status of Mary Webb's work. But time has proved Baldwin's judgment to be sound and Precious bane a book of enduring appeal and significance. This fine novel, shot through with universal poetry and insight, has gone into numerous editions, has been translated into at least fifteen languages, has been acclaimed in America as 'a book in a thousand', has been dramatised, and was voted (by Sunday Times readers in 1961) among the hundred most memorable prose works of the half-century.
My own first reading of Precious bane held the excitement of a rare discovery. Captured at once by the unusual style, I read the opening chapter five times before continuing with the rest of the book. This description of Sarn Mere, for instance, compels re-reading:
There's a discouragement about the place. It may be the water lapping, year in and year out--everywhere you look and listen, water; or the big trees waiting and considering on your right hand and on your left; or the unbreathing quiet of the place, as if it was created but an hour gone, and not created for us.
I was impressed particularly by such passages of visually intense and haunting descriptive prose and by the immediacy of the narration which gives a sense of direct contact with the personality pervading the whole. Here, I thought, was a writer who extended and heightened my awareness and perceptions. Proceeding then to read Mary Webb's other novels, her poems and essays, I found the same highly individual vision informing them all: and so began the research and writing on her life and work which resulted in my biography, The flower of light.
There are two interwoven stories in Precious bane--a tapestry of dark and light threads--in which the destinies of the two protagonists, Prudence Sarn and her brother Gideon, are worked out. The setting, as in each of the novels, is the countryside of south west Shropshire (Baldwin and others were mistaken in thinking that Precious bane is set in north Shropshire: see The flower of light, pp. 332-3), among or near the border hills that look to Wales, a countryside where, as Mary Webb tells us in her foreword, 'the lapse of centuries' seems 'of little moment'. Imaginative penetration into the past of her county was the direction her work took in the last phase: she placed Precious bane in an earlier period than the previous novels--the second decade of the nineteenth century, the time of Waterloo and after--a period when the influence of the Bible, of local lore and superstition deeply penetrated rural life. While in this novel the Shropshire environment of woods, meres and remote farms is evoked with characteristic richness and clarity, the historical period, which she researched carefully, is also vividly conveyed in innumerable accurate details and deft touches. The pervasive sense of place, so dominant and effective a feature of her writing, is combined, in Precious bane, with a strong sense of the past.
Mary Webb's imaginative world is, however, peculiarly both in and out of a particular time and place, self-contained, unified within itself: here, in her fictional Shropshire, all interrelates and interacts, and hardly seems related to an actual world beyond its boundaries. In Precious bane, as elsewhere, Mary Webb creates a half-real, half-fantasy world, uniquely her own; and such is the pace, the passionate sincerity and persuasiveness of her writing that, in spite of the occasional extravagances and melodrama, she compels us into her world and keeps us there.
The title, taken from Paradise lost, carries multiple meanings and significance. It held a personal relevance for Mary Webb herself, first as a small child when she was referred to by her adored father as his 'precious bane', and later when she was afflicted with Graves' Disease (exophthalmic goitre) yet through her intense sufferings attained a richer inner life, developing her innate mysticism. This, in her novel, is implicit in the experience of the central figure (and narrator) Prudence Sarn who because of her bane--disfigurement by a hare-lip--finds 'a core of sweetness in much bitter'. Brought up in the isolation of Sarn, Prue becomes painfully aware of the hostility of the superstitious country people who spread tales 'in the lonely farms' that she is cursed, has the Devil's mark, changes into a hare at midnight, and is a witch. She finds solace in her illumined inner world, symbolised by the apple-filled attic where she experiences mystical intuition, a 'blessedness' she might not have found but for her 'hare-shotten lip'. Prue's inner radiance is discerned by the perceptive Weaver, Kester Woodseaves, whose love for her becomes 'the one maister-thread of pure gold'. While the title suggests one of the main themes of the novel--the value that inheres in suffering--it is equally appropriate to the story of Gideon, attuned to darker rhythms.
Gideon's bane is gold, which he sets out to acquire by means of 'the innocent gold' of corn. Ruthlessly ambitious for wealth and power, Gideon, at seventeen, becomes his father's Sin Eater, taking on the dead man's sins in return for his mother's promise of 'the farm and all'--and ignoring the superstition that Sin Eaters are cursed, irretrievably doomed. Encouraged by the Corn Laws, he turns his land over to corn, sparing neither himself, Prudence, his ageing mother or Jancis, his intended bride, in his relentless drive for money and power. Reminiscent of Henchard in Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, he is not without pathos, and the fate which inexorably overtakes him, while it arises fundamentally out of his own character is also influenced by ironic chance and superstition. In her novels, Mary Webb drew on her extensive knowledge of Shropshire folklore, legends and customs, selecting these in the interests of her main themes: numerous superstitions, beliefs and auguries are woven into this fable, heightening the local flavour and at the same time establishing and supporting the mood of impending disaster.
But it is how the story is told that is all-important: well suited by the first person narrative form, Mary Webb's technique has extraordinary fluidity. She weaves together retrospection and anticipation, introspection and action, the story unfolding at the same time that the mind and sensibility of her narrator are revealed. The lyrical reflective Prudence imparts to the telling of her tale warmth, humour, homely philosophising, a sense of the joys and troubles of life intermingled--and in this way Mary Webb's own personality and thoughts, mirrored in Prudence, permeate the book. A rich country flavour emanates from Prue's cadences, the fusion of Shropshire dialect and natural speech giving authenticity to the whole; and there are echoes of the Bible, of seventeenth-century prose writers and of the medieval mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich. Among the most memorable and finely achieved parts of the novel are Prue's descriptions of her visit to Lullingford market and the Mug of Cider, the hiring fair and bull-baiting (when Kester takes the place of the bull), the burning of the ricks, and the haunting of Gideon (which recalls Macbeth). All is viewed from one controlling centre of consciousness, giving the novel unity, singleness of mood and sustained intensity.
Mary Webb embodies universal themes in Precious bane --the significance of suffering, the awakening and burgeoning of the individual spirit, the struggle between spiritual and material values, good and evil, love and lust. A book of timeless value and interest, it will attract readers today, readers in any age. And few will fail to respond to the power and the poetry with which Mary Webb invests this truly luminous 'showing forth' of her vision of life.
© Gladys Mary Coles, 2002
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Page created 13 November 2002 and last
updated 22 July 2005
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