The Hay Wain, painting by John Constable, 1821
The Novel

From the Preface by Gladys Cole:

Set in Shropshire in the 1800s, Mary Webb’s novel, Precious Bane is alive with the many moods of nature—both benevolent and violent, and the many moods—equally benevolent and violent—of the people living there. There are two interwoven stories in Precious Bane—a tapestry of dark and light threads—in which the destinies of the two protagonists, Prudence Sarn and her brother Gideon, are worked out.

The first protagonist, Prue Sarn, is an unlikely heroine, born with a facial disfiguration which the Fates have dictated will deny her love. But Prue finds great solace in her illumined inner world (symbolized by the apple-filled attic) where she experiences ‘a blessedness’ she might not have found but for her ‘hare-shodden lip’. Although she is scorned and suspected of witchcraft by her fellow townspeople, she rises above them through an all-encompassing sweetness of spirit. Prue’s inner radiance is eventually discerned by the perceptive weaver, Kester Woodseaves. Kester’s steady love for all created things leads him to resist people's cruelty toward nature and each other. His love for Prue Sarn becomes “the one maister-thread of pure gold.”

Precious Bane is also the story of Gideon, Prue's doomed brother, equally strong-willed, but with other motives. After his father’s death, determined to defeat the poverty of their farm, Gideon devotes all his energies into making money. Gideon’s passion for his sweetheart, Jancis is the one and only diversion from the ambition that enslaves him. But in the end he tragically abandons Jancis and their child for the stronger drive of his money lust.

Mary Webb embodies universal themes in Precious Bane—the significance of suffering, the awakening and burgeoning of the individual spirit, and the struggle between spiritual and material values, good and evil, love and lust.