Inaugural post, prompted by the existence of the 1924 Club, the concept of which delighted me.
I chose to read Precious Bane by Mary Webb, simply because of the three eligible novels of which I owned copies, it was the only one both not cited in the master post and which didn’t bore me within the first few pages. (The other two being The Rector’s Daughter by F. M. Mayor, and Some Do Not … by Ford Madox Ford, the first in the Parade’s End tetralogy, respectively.)
Despite having started over a week ago, I have not yet read much more than a third of the novel. Probably its most notable feature is that it is written in Shropshire dialect, which often renders the text opaque and (to me) the thought of picking the book up at all rather forbidding, especially just before bed when I do most of my reading. This post is therefore likely to consist more of a series of impressions rather than of a review proper.
Precious Bane is famous for Stella Gibbons’ parody of it in Cold Comfort Farm, a novel of which I am rather fond. The first sentence does little to allay any apprehension that this will be a somewhat sentimental novel:
It was at a love-spinning that I saw Kester first. And if, in these new-fangled days, when strange inventions crowd upon us, when I hear tell there is even a machine coming into use in some parts of the country for reaping and mowing, if those that mayhappen will read this don’t know what a love-spinning was, they shall hear in good time.
This establishes the themes as (heterosexual) romantic love, and nostalgia for a way of life about to be destroyed by new technology; both familiar, the latter especially to anyone who has read any amount of Hardy. Yet this is also a complex sentence, establishing the narrator as intelligent, and there is a suggestion of a reluctance to make the world of the novel easily understood.
This reluctance is borne out within the first few chapters, where dialect words are introduced without explanation, some with a readily discernible meaning (‘tuthree’, for instance, is clearly ‘two or three’), others less so but still used repeatedly, emphasizing the distance between (modern-day) reader and narrator. Funeral practices quite alien to the modern reader are described in some detail; yet the Church’s apparent toleration of traditions such as sin-eating caused me to wonder whether we were dealing with the established Church at all. (A more observant or knowledgeable reader might find themselves less in the dark than I.)
Other expectations are subverted. To me, the mental image of a room lit only by firelight is cosy and welcoming by default. Here, accompanying the description of an upbringing marked by an abusive father, it is ominous:
The room was all dim like a cave, and the red fire burning still and watchful seemed like the eye of the Lord. There was a little red eye in every bit of ware on the dresser, too, where it caught the gleam.
The surveillance of God and of an abusive parent, who justifies his abuse with reference to God, are here conflated frighteningly.
When her father dies, Prue (the narrator) does not escape oppression, as her new status is of servitude to her brother, now the head of the household. Gideon is bent on making money, and to him it appears that women are mere instruments – their mother virtually disappears from the story. What is refreshing is that Prue does not appear to love her brother particularly despite the fact that their upbringing was about equally as traumatic for each of them and that in the hands of a lesser writer might be thought to bind them together particularly strongly.