Precious Bane, Paperback
4 out of 5 (4 ratings)


Born at the time of Waterloo in the wild country of Shropshire, Prudence Sarn is a wild, passionate girl, cursed with a hare lip -- her 'precious bane'. Cursed for it, too, by the superstitious people amongst whom she lives. Prue loves two things: the remote countryside of her birth and, hopelessly, Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. The tale of how Woodseaves gradually discerns Prue's true beauty is set against the tragic drama of Prue's brother, Gideon, a driven man who is out of harmony with the natural world.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Historical fiction
  • ISBN: 9780860680635



Free Home Delivery

on all orders

Pick up orders

from local bookshops


Showing 1 - 4 of 4 reviews.

Review by

I bought this to read after seeing the TV adaptation which I much enjoyed. However I found the way Mary Webb wrote dialogue attempting to put the Shropshire dialect and accent on paper really put me off, and I found it a barrier to reading the book, although I know the story has themes and ideas which interest me. Somebody told me that it was Mary Webb's writing in 'Precious Bane' that was being satirised in Stella Gibbon's comic masterpiece 'Cold Comfort Farm'.

Review by

Terrific! I approached this book with serious misgivings. For one it was brought by The Book People's Lucky Dip bag who also brought such books as "American Psycho" and "The Blue Afternoon" both of which I hated. But the old adage of never judging a book by its cover is proved true 100 times over in this book. It appeared based on the jacket blurb and the title to be one of these modern attempts at historical fiction. The kind of thing you'd expect from Phillipa Gregory. I do enjoy those books on one level, but my taste in historical fiction tends to be a bit deeper than that. The blurb on the back of the book made it sound like this book would, well, suck. I mean it. "Born at the time of Waterloo in the wild country of Shropshire, Prue Sarn is a free spirit cursed with a hare lip - her 'precious bane'. The supserstitious townspeople titter behind their fans, uncertain what to make of her, but Prue takes comfort in her love for the remote countryside of her birth and her passioante - if seemingly hopeless - love for Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. How Woodseaves finally discerns the true beauty of gentle Prudence is set against the tragic drama of her ambitious brother Gideon, a driven man who spurns that harmony with the natural world which his siter has always nurtured." After reading that I braced myself for rubbish. The names alone sounded silly enough to prepare me for extreme distaste. But when I opened the book and read about Mary Webb, the author, and discovered that she, a Shropshire native, wrote the book in 1924 I began to think I might have more on my hands that I expected. After reading the introduction by Stanley Baldwin, former PM, I thought that maybe what I was about to read was more than I gave it credit for.The book is astounding. I have never been happier to be proved wrong. If I wasn't so obsessed with knitting I would've finished this in a single night. I want you all to go out and borrow or buy this book and just read it. Approach it knowing nothing about it and forgetting everything you may have heard and just be blown away.This book is my NEW FAVOURITE BOOK.

Review by

My interest in Mary Webb is partly because she's a Virago Modern Classics author, but also because she's a Shropshire lass. It was a little hard to get past the thought that Mary Webb's books were a big inspiration for Stella Gibbons' wonderfully funny Cold Comfort Farm, but this novel is no sillier than anything by Thomas Hardy. Webb, like Hardy, writes about country folk, their daily lives and their superstitions. Although she uses Shropshire dialect, the story and characters are far less melodramatic than I'd imagined.The heroine of the book is Prue Sarn, a strong and intelligent girl with a 'hare-shotten' lip, which everyone assumes will preclude her from having a lover, husband or children. Her brother Gideon is driven by work and the desire to become rich. At his father's funeral he performs the task of sin-eater - pawning his own soul in exchange for the running of his mother's farm.In one electrifying scene, Prue appears in front of the wizard Beguildy and two men (one of whom is weaver Kester Woodseaves, with whom Prue is secretly in love), naked, in the raising of Venus. Originally the part of Venus was to have been played by Gideon's sweetheart Jancis, but Prue offers herself in her stead, because unlike Jancis Prue has no lover, nor - as Jancis reminds her, to Prue's fury - is she ever likely to have one. As she dances naked, her face and hare-lip are hidden, but Prue is fully aware of the power of her naked body to inspire helpless lust in men. It's a feeling she enjoys, though she is bitter because she thinks they would recoil if they saw her face.Without wishing to give away too much of the story, it's enough to say that tragedy follows tragedy, as though Gideon is indeed cursed. There's an inevitability about his death. To Prue, the manner of it seems a fitting end "to a life which so cut itself adrift from all pleasant, feckless human ways and doings. He belonged to none, seemingly, for he gave the go-by to his nearest kin. What he had most truck with was the earth and the water from which he was building himself a life to his mind." To some of her neighbours, though, it is Prue herself who is seen as the cursed one, and one of them whips up feeling against her that climaxes in an attack on her.The book is at heart, I think, a love story, and a story about finding beauty and contentment in what one has. Prue is a virtuous girl, but she doesn't pass judgement on others. Her heart is genuinely big, which is precisely what Kester Woodseaves sees - not her hare-shotten lip or the curse it is supposed to represent. [April 2005]

Review by

Being the devoted reader of British classics I am, how I've managed to miss this little gem of a book for so long I honestly don't know. But beware, my dear reader, this is not Jane Austen. This is a harsh tale, in the style of Thomas Hardy or even George Eliot, you'll see the characters you so much come to care for struggle in an unfair and prejudiced world, and you'll suffer along with them.Prudence Sarn is a country girl who lives with her simple mother and her older brother, Gideon, "Maister of the place". Prue is gentle, goodhearted and has a fine figure along with a sharp brain. But she also has a harelip, meaning her whole existence is blighted, as it's impossible that anyone would marry a girl with a curse like that. In spite of her bleak future, she makes light of her woes and from very early on, she develops a special relationship with everything alive, her senses being aligned n harmony with the wild natural world; animals, trees and even the wind are her most beloved companions.Gideon, in contrast with good natured Prue, is as ambitious and severe as he is handsome. He works hard (and slaves Prue to do the same for him) to be wealthy and prosperous and his pride prevents him from marrying the girl he loves, fair Jancis, because he wants to be well-off before he gives himself that pleasure, not caring if others suffer because of his material whims.But Prue's peace of mind crumbles down when she meets the new weaver, Kester Woodseaves, whom she starts to worship in secret not believing herself worthy of him. It's up to this Prince Charming to perceive the real beauty of Pruedence Sarn and free her from gossip and hateful stares."This was the reason for the hating looks, the turnings aside, the whispers. I was a the witch of Sarn. I was the woman cursed of God with a hare-shotten lip. I was the woman who had friended Beguildy, that wicked old man, the devil's oddman, and like holds to like. And now, almost the worst crime of all, I stood alone".What mainly got me about this novel is Webb's capacity to transmit such a crude story in which guilt, hatred and prejudice get the worst of its characters, as if it was an innocent and sweet fable. And in that sense, the brutality of the morals which are trying to be taught become more evident and disturbing. Also the evident contrast between brother and sister, between evil and goodness: Prue's silent acceptance and her brother's endless thirst to yield power; her ability to be at ease with herself in spite of her faults versus Gideon's incapacity to accept his position in the world; her humble ways, his capricious goals. As if opposed poles inevitably attracted to each other. Yin and yang. Dark and light. Life and death. One can't exist without the other."Why, it was only that I was your angel for a day," I said at long last. "A poor daggly angel, too".What also had me bothered for some time is the subtle way in which Mary Webb implies that no one is naturally evil , what the characters (and ultimately what WE) become is the uncontrollable combination of fate, desire and chance altogether with their skill in taking the right decision at the right moment. This way to view life as a running river whose course we don't have the power to change produced a kind of claustrophobic feeling of impotence, with this constant foreboding, lurking behind my consciousness, that something gruesome was going to happen and that no one would be able to stop it, and I'd sink along with all the characters."There are misfortunes that make you spring up and rush to save yourself, but there are others that are too bad for this, for they leave nought to do."So, imagine my joy, when out of the blue, some shinning and pure light came through and gave me hope and a new understanding, teaching me a valuable lesson: never stop believing in the magic of life, because the moment you stop believing, you will start fading away only to become an invisible spot of dust in this infinite nothingness which some call existence.

Also by Mary Webb   |  View all

Also in the VMC series   |  View all