‘Yeah, Tractor I love you, get orf my land.’ These are the words that flash through my mind when I think of ‘Country Novels’. I’m a True Born Londoner, I don’t understand generous back gardens let alone rolling hills, and I only bought Precious Bane because it cost 50p from a charity shop (#bookhustler), and only picked it off of my TBR bookcase because The Jason and I were going on holiday in Shropshire, where this novel is set, and it seemed an appropriate time to read a book that I wasn’t expecting to excessively enjoy.
Mary Webb, wherever you are in the great library in the sky, I apologize for underestimating you. This novel started off all Countryfile, but then BOOM, my jaw dropped barely 30 pages in at an incident so shocking I exclaimed to The Jason on the 11.10 to Chester ‘Well this ain’t Cranford!‘ and settled down for a dramatic and frequently dark tale of ambition and love told through some wonderful multi-faceted characters.
Published in 1924 but set in the early 19th Century, Prue Sarn recounts the tale of her family life in a small Shropshire village. Prue has a cleft lip. These days our physical aberrations end up in Heat magazine’s ‘circle of shame’ – so and so’s third nipple, some one’s extra-long middle toe – whereas in post-Napoleonic War Shropshire, this aberration causes Prue to be accused of being a witch. (You may say there are parallels in these treatments, and I’d be inclined to agree.) The contrast between Prue’s excitement at going into town compared with the moment she realizes everyone is looking at her cleft lip is heart-breaking:
‘All on a sudden I knew that all these folk…were staring at my hare-shotten lip. They were thinking…’Her’s a witch, an ugly, hare-shotten witch’…’ I was all in a swelter. For indeed I loved my kind and would lief they had loved me…’
However, Webb doesn’t portray Prue as some saintly martyr. Yes, she finds a lot of godliness in nature and links a religious epiphany in the attic to her cleft lip, but she is still a believable and relateable character. She is honest about her understandable jealousy of her beautiful friend Jancis (‘Times I could have strangled her for that smile’) and others who are more fortunate (‘I never love folks quite so well when it’s bright weather with them’). She is frank about her passion for weaver Kester Woodseaves – her feelings when she sees him for the first time (‘I rose up from my seat in the shadows…as if he was my own bidden guest’) her mad dash to save his life (as ‘there’s none so fierce as a loving woman’), and, in what I shall refer to as ‘the Venus incident’, her pride when Kester sees her naked glory (‘I knew for the first time that, whatever my face might be, my body was fair enough…I coudna but rejoice to have given my body… to the eyes of him who was maister in the house of me forever’). In fact there’s a lot of rustic female sensuality in this novel, and a fair bit of pre-marital hanky-panky. Well, there is something in that country air. I worried that just looking a sheep in the eye when I was in Shropshire was going to leave me with child.
Then we have Prue’s brother, Gideon, the local 50 Cent whose treatment of his family and those around him in his efforts to ‘Get Rich or Die Trying’ (chapter 3 is actually called ‘Or Die Temptin’ It’) could easily render him a straightforward villain, especially when coupled with the moment he promises to ‘take’ the Squire’s daughter, in revenge for her treatment of his sister, ‘out of wedlock… for what she said to you…I’ll make squire’s girl a w’ore’. Yet Webb shows us enough of Gideon to make it possible to sympathize with his desire for social standing and the despair he feels when he thinks he has lost any chance of it:
Not a word did Gideon say. He was stricken with a dumb madness, but he worked like ten men.. ‘I never,’ he said with a wild, pale face, ‘never had much strength about me, only me and these two’.
And with that he put his arm across his face as he was used to do when he was a lad and things went badly wrong, and cried.
Ah I tell you it was a thing few would have cared to see, a great, strong masterful man like that, crying like a little lad.
I felt this part of the novel in the pit of my stomach. We’ve all had moments where we’ve tried to get somewhere and had our hopes dashed. Just look at 50 Cent, he’s bankrupt now. I’m hoping 50 Cent can rap his way out of it, but Gideon had no hope, as it was the 19th century, rapping hadn’t been invented yet, and he was called Gideon.
There is so much more in this novel, but I don’t want to give too much away – local ‘wizard’ Beguildy who effectively prostitutes his daughter, women using clever tactics to progress their own or their daughters’ love affairs as ‘every woman’s clever when she is in love‘, and evidence of the power of education (Prue: ‘It made me gladsome to be getting some education, it being like a big window opening. And out of that window who knows what you metna see?’). Then, beyond all of this, there are the happy descriptions of a green and pleasant land. Alone, they would be twee; alongside the incessant drama of this novel, they are exquisite relief.
As a parting note, may I say that following my sojourn in Shropshire, I do get the whole countryside thing, although judging by the way these sheep stared at me near the Old Hill Fort in lovely Oswestry, I sincerely hope I don’t have to go on Jeremy Kyle for that all-important DNA test.