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Precious Bane

by Mary Webb

My battered old edition of Precious Bane has an introduction by Stanley Baldwin, the then Prime Minister (1928). He writes about the book eloquently and sensitively. 'How extraordinary' was my first thought. Then I thought that no, it isn't extraordinary to have a Prime Minister (a Conservative one at that!) with that level of sensibility. In fact, we should expect it. But I'd better not get into a rant about the sorry inhabitants of Number 10 over the past thirty years…..

Stanley Baldwin loved this book. He loved the lyrical intensity of Mary Webb's descriptions of the west country and her ability, like Hardy, to relate human passions to the fields and skies. It is written in the voice of a simple country girl, Prue, in the dialect of her native north Shropshire. She tells the story of the ruthless ambitions of her brother, Gideon, and the tragic outcome.

Prue is made aware from an early age that her own modest ambitions - to have a cottage of her own with a lamp to light when her man came home and a babe in a cot of rushes - would never be realised. She was born with a hare lip which, in the days before cosmetic surgery, was an unsightly deformity and a serious flaw in an otherwise beautiful young woman. Gideon tells her she will never marry but, if she swears to serve him totally in his venture to become rich, he will pay for a 'cure' for her hare lip. She takes on the task with determination, fired by her love for the itinerant weaver, Kester Woodseaves.

Set in the early nineteenth century, the novel describes equally skilfully the harshness and the beauty of rural village life at that time. People were at the mercy of fate and that sense of powerlessness that defined the ordinary man and woman is what gives the book its emotional force. I think the scene where Prue appears as a naked veiled 'Venus' to Kester has to be one of the most poignant I've ever read.

Clare Chandler

Published by Virago, 304pp.

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