Sunday, November 4, 2012

Top Ten Underappreciated Novels or Series--Part One: Precious Bane by Mary Webb

The thought that there are "so many books to read, and so little time in which to read them" is not a new idea.  Bibliophiles the world over have lists of books to read and re-read, and the lists keep getting longer (or the piles of books deeper).  Prepare for the list to to get longer, because this is a list of the top ten novels or series that are under-appreciated.  Some have been overshadowed by the popularity of other books in a similar genre and some have just remained obscure.  The purpose of this series of reviews is to explain why they should see the light of day (or be illuminated by a reader's book light).
1. Precious Bane by Mary Webb, first published in 1924, is a novel set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, but is very different from what readers tend to think of as a "Regency novel."  It is the story of Prudence Sarn and her brother, Gideon, who are left to make something of the farm their father leaves behind when he dies.  Gideon becomes obsessed with ambition and wealth (his 'precious bane').  He pushes Prue to work even harder than most men.  She obeys because he promises that he will give her the money she needs to correct her hare-lip when the farm is a success.  The story is full of harsh realities, but in the midst of hardship arises a precious love story between Prue and Kester Woodseaves, the local weaver.  By the time the story is finished, Prudence and Kester, and even Gideon have taken residence in the reader's mind, and it is a story that is impossible to forget.
The characters in the story are a quirky bunch and the harsh realities of life in this time and place are punctuated by the mystical beliefs of the people who populate it.  Gideon becomes a 'Sin Eater' at the death of his father; Prue takes part in a plan to 'raise Venus' for the local lord, and Sarn Mere is a giver of both life and death.   All of these moments capture the reader's imagination and memory.  Stanley Baldwin, Britain's Prime Minister at the time, was so taken with the poetic beauty of the story that he wrote the introduction to the 1928 edition.  In the University of Notre Dame Press edition (1980), Erica Duncan writes, " . . .what is finally evoked in us [by Precious Bane] is more than the fairy tale longing that our inner beauty will be seen so clearly it will make us beautiful before the world, it is the longing to be known and loved for all our blemishes, our warts and wens and contradictions, to be 'let in' whole.  Thus Precious Bane becomes the secret gift, our deepest dream."  This novel becomes personal to the reader in an almost holy way, simply because the characters are human, but driven by forces that they cannot see.  Their world is real and magical at the same time.  Any reader who does not take the time to dwell within the pages of this book is missing an opportunity to experience true beauty.

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