Precious BaneApril 23, 2011
You may have noticed I haven’t been around much lately. I’ve been pretty busy, and I haven’t been doing much other than working, sleeping and eating. That bit’s over now, but somehow the idea of reading a book is still kind of daunting. I’m working on that.
Mary Webb’s Precious Bane was the last book I managed to finish before I got too busy to read, which was, I guess, a few weeks ago. This is the second time I’ve read it. The first time was during my freshman year of college. It kind of bowled me over then, and it bowls me over even more now.
I feel sort of guilty about liking Precious Bane as much as I do, because my favorite book when I was in my early teens was Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons, and when she’s not sneaking in weird futuristic bits about glass pants and videophones, Gibbons is making fun of exactly this kind of earthy rural novel. On the other hand, “earthy” sort of implies that something takes place on earth, and it is my private conviction that Precious Bane does not.
I’ve never been all that into fantasy novels. I read a fair number of them as a teenager, and I liked a lot of them, but I always liked them for the characters or the politics or the swashbuckling. I never got all that excited about magic, or any of the other fantasy elements. Which is not to put down fantasy novels in any way — there were some that I loved then, and some that I still love now. I just never found the fantastical bits to be all that exciting. Precious Bane isn’t a fantasy novel. It takes place in Shropshire. It is, strictly speaking, a historical novel. But it’s also something that I’ve secretly wanted every fantasy novel I’ve ever read to be: fundamentally foreign. This book makes me feel like I’m visiting another universe. It’s pretty cool.
There’s another special thing about Precious Bane, and that is its heroine. Prue Sarn is observant, intelligent, and massively competent — all good things — and also she has something no other heroine I’ve ever come across has had, and that is a harelip. That’s not a great thing to have in rural Shropshire in the early 19th century, because people are pretty superstitious, and the people who don’t know Prue well tend to think she’s a witch, but that’s actually not the worst of her problems. That would be her brother.
Gideon Sarn is hard-working, ambitious, good-looking, and inclined not to pay any attention to the local superstitions — again, all good things. But he’s also completely unable to relate to the people around him. He’s fond of Prue, and he falls in love with their friend Jancis Beguildy, but he is completely unable to comprehend what anyone else is feeling, and that turns out to be something of a fatal flaw. Basically, I guess, he’s a sociopath. And his lack of understanding of peoples’ feelings, and the consequences when he hurts them, causes him to destroy everyone and everything around him.
As the central character in possession of a fatal flaw — and, for that matter, the destruction of everything around him — implies, Precious Bane is pretty tragic: Prue gets a happy ending (heavily foreshadowed from the beginning) but pretty much everyone else dies. And I tend not to like books like that, but this one works for me. It’s not tragedy for tragedy’s sake. All the bad things happen because of decisions the characters make, and none of those decisions are out of keeping with those characters’ previous behavior. And Prue’s narration helps, too, because she’s a genuinely kind and charitable person, and the way she deals with the awful things around her make them seem less awful.
I suppose the narration also makes the book seem less ridiculous, but it can only help so much. Sometimes you will roll your eyes at the characters. Sometimes you will giggle at the things they say — and take completely seriously — but the characters and the writing are both kind of special. Even with all the moments where I was actually embarrassed to be reading it, Precious Bane is kind of worth it.