I can hear you saying, “Who?”
Mary Webb was a British novelist of the early 20th Century. She lived nearly all her life in Shropshire, and loved the area. She died aged 46 in 1927, having written six novels and several volumes of poetry and short stories. Not many people read her now, but I count that as a shame. She wrote beautifully poetic descriptions of landscapes, and romances about the land. Her style infuriated Stella Gibbons so much that she wrote Cold Comfort Farm as a parody.
My favourite Mary Webb novel is Precious Bane. I met this at aged 20, when the BBC did an excellent adaptation with Clive Owen and Janet McTeer in what may have been almost their first leading roles. I just remember watching it, and being carried away by the pain Prue felt on being different for several reasons. Number one is, she has a hare-lip, at a time when many country folk took this as a sign of devilment and were superstitious enough to leave her alone. She also chooses to learn to read and to learn from the local Wizard Beguildy. Added to that the isolation of the farm and the natural intelligence that she has, and she is an interesting character. As soon as I could, I got a copy of the book, and one sits on my bedside table today.
I took Prue to heart when I was young. Because I was slightly weird (a sci-fi fan, a reader, a crafter) at a time when all of that was not the thing to do, I didn’t have many close friends locally. I remember thinking that I’d never meet the right man for me, or be a happy person. Of course, with hindsight I know that was all teenage angst and what I needed to do was relax and enjoy life, but I think wisdom is always more powerful after the fact. Suffice to say, I read Prue’s story and the love story with Kester Woodseaves with interest and that beautiful butterfly of excitement that one day… one day someone might say such beautiful things about me.
Kester Woodseaves is a travelling weaver, who goes from house to house weaving the yarn that the women spin. The novel is set during and after the Napoleonic Wars, and sets the scene beautifully of an agrarian world about to change. The lives of weavers and spinners would alter radically, with factories and long working days all year round as the norm. The story of Kester’s role in society makes interesting reading as a history buff, since you can trace the developments that were happening then and the novel allows an insight into the worries that the people must have faced then. He also reads and writes, which makes him and Prue the intermediaries between Prue’s brother Gideon, and his girlfriend, Jancis. Knowing that Kester will read the letters to Jancis, Prue adds extra bits to them, just for Kester, like “Tell Weaver it be cold and he should wear his green coat.”
Prue’s story is a lovely read, not too hard for a classic and very beguiling. If I ever see the BBC adaptation on again I will watch it. I had it on VHS (illegal copying) and watched it until the tape stretched too badly. You can read the Wikipedia entry on Precious Bane by clicking through.
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