Precious Bane has been languishing on my bookshelves for some time as I hadn't particularly enjoyed the other Mary Webb that I had read, Gone to earth. However, I felt it was time to give it a go, and thought it would provide a good contrast to the other VMCs that I've been reading recently. Which it did.
Precious Bane is a rather lovely tale that evokes the countryside of Shropshire in the early 19th century. Although the book tells the story of Prue, a girl with a hare-lip, who only becomes conscious of it being a problem due to the reactions around her, the beauty of the book is in the descriptions of the land, the pastoral scenes, and the depiction of countryside customs, such as hiring fairs and "caking" (playing cards for cake - I like the sound of that!). Prue loves the countryside and this is readily apparent in the writing:
"Sitting there looking into the green trees, with the smell of our hay coming freshly on the breeze, mixed with the scent of wild roses and meadowsweet in the orchard ditch, I hearkened to the blackbirds singing near and far. When they were a long way off you could scarcely disentangle them from all the other birds, for there was a regular charm of them, thrushes and willow-wrens, seven coloured linnets, canbottlins, finches and writing-maisters. It was a weaving of many threads, with one maister-thread of clear gold, a very comfortable thing to hear"
The book is certainly reminiscent of Hardy and the Brontes, but it has a style all of its own.
Mary Webb is an author who was neglected during her lifetime; although she wrote 6 novels she did not achieve any sort of popularity until after her death, when Stanley Baldwin (Prime Minister) read Precious Bane and began to publicise it; the Virago edition contains a foreword written by Baldwin.
This was a very early VMC, number 6 in fact, and has been published four times - I especially like the most recent two covers which feature mystical countryside/pastoral images. My copy is the most recent one which has a wonderful turquoise spine. It looks like all of Mary Webb has been included in the VMC list, so there are four more novels to go. Although I did enjoy this one much more than Gone to earth, I feel that a little Mary Webb can go quite a long way. 3.5*