Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Precious Bane

Posted by nliakos on December 4, 2011

by Mary Webb (1924)

I finally bought myself an e-reader (a Nook) last week, and the first book I downloaded (for the whopping price of $0.99) was Precious Bane.  I had already listened to the audiobook twice; it was one of those books I discovered on the audiobook shelves of the Quince Orchard Library here in Montgomery County MD.  (I found it pretty discouraging to look for a particular audiobook; much better to browse the shelves and just pick something that looked good.)  I loved the book the first time I heard it. Then I borrowed it again and enjoyed it just as much the second time. So it looked like a good first download for the Nook.

Precious Bane is the first-person narrative of Prudence (Prue) Sarn of Sarn, in Shropshire, around the turn of the 19th century. Prue has a harelip, and it dictates much about her life, such as how others relate to her (many suspecting her to be a witch) and what her future holds (no marriage). Prue is one of those heroines you can’t help but like because she is so good and at the same time, so real.

The book is written in Shropshire dialect, so a reader must guess at a lot of the meanings of words in context (a mere is a pond or lake; hiver-hover is apparently something like dilly-dally; etc.) and recognize different spellings and pronunciations of other words (wrostle for wrestle, summat for something, munna for mustn’t, etc.). I never did figure out what leasing meant in the context I found it here. But no matter. The dialect is just one of the charms of the story of Prue Sarn. The reader will consider the situation of people with disabilities (perhaps that is the wrong word for Prue’s harelip, which doesn’t seem to impede her eating, drinking, or speaking, and certainly not working; but it was certainly a social handicap for her), the “sport” of bull-baiting, the daily lives of people  and animals living in rural Shropshire at that time, relationships between the local gentry and the farmers and between men and women.  The description of the grain harvest (“love-carriage”) is so vivid that you feel as if you were right there, participating in the work and the festivities. The characters are varied and real: not only Prue, but her mother and her brother Gideon, driven by his desire for wealth and position; beautiful Jancis Beguildy and her father, the would-be wizard; simple Tivvy, the Sexton’s daughter; the horrible Mister Grimble and Mister Huglet; the courageous, kind and handsome weaver, Kester Woodseaves.

Even on the third read, it was hard to put the book down. It has everything you could ask for in a novel: joy, grief, crime, courage,  hate, and love. I’m trying not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, so I won’t be more specific than that. Suffice it to say that it has become one of my favorite books.

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