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Literature / Precious Bane

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A 1924 novel by Mary Webb, set in rural Shropshire in the early 1800s. The main character is Prudence ("Prue") Sarn, who lives on an isolated farm with her parents and older brother, Gideon. Prue's life would be relatively uneventful, except that she was born with a harelip, so the locals think she's cursed. Despite her disfigurement, she falls in love with a traveling weaver, Kester Woodseaves, while Gideon falls in love with the neighbor's beautiful daughter, Jancis Beguildy. One love story ends happily, while the other ends in tragedy.

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  • Absurdly High-Stakes Game: Prue is with a group of women who are playing a card game to win small cakes or gingerbread men. Felina thinks that playing for cakes is boring and she jokes that maybe they should play for the weaver's soul, instead. Prue wins every round after that.
  • Abusive Parents: Old Sarn beats his kids for skipping church. Beguildy beats Jancis for saying she won't play "Venus" for the benefit of Young Camperdine.
  • Alpha Bitch: Tibby. It ends badly for both herself and Prue.
  • Badass Bookworm: Prue. A dog attacks Kester and gets its jaws on his throat. Prue runs to his rescue and stabs it to death with a knife, saving Kester's life.
  • Berserk Button: On a rare trip into town, Gideon and Prue stop at a tavern to eat. People stare at Prue and whisper when she walks by, and the squire's daughter starts making nasty comments about how Prue must spend her time riding on broomsticks and dancing with the devil. It takes Gideon a little while to catch on to what she's implying about his sister, but when he does, it's not pretty.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: Kester and Prue end up together, but all of Prue's family is dead, as well as Jancis and her baby, and the rest of the town has turned on her for being a witch.
  • Bookworm: In a time and place when most people were illiterate, Prue keeps a diary and reads the Bible and Milton. (The fact that she can read and write is the first thing Kester learns about her.)
  • Brainy Brunette: Prue
  • Driven to Suicide: Jancis, because Gideon won't take her in or acknowledge their baby and later Gideon, himself, out of guilt for causing Jancis' death.
  • Dumb Blonde: Jancis
  • Foregone Conclusion: Prue starts the book by with a couple of paragraphs about her married life with Kester.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Kester is a rare male example. He's so disturbed by a local bull baiting that he offers to let the dogs attack him in the bull's place. Instead, the dogs refuse to attack him because he's already befriended all of the dogs in the village (except for one).
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  • Funetik Aksent: Representing the local Shropshire dialect. (E.g., "I amna afeerd of work.")
  • Good Bad Girl: Felina's also the only one who treats Prue like a friendly equal (even Jancis has an innocently insensitive moment or two), and tries to get her husband to stick up for Prue in the end, amid the mob.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Jancis
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Jancis
  • Literary Allusion Title: "Precious Bane" is a reference to a line from Milton's Paradise Lost. The phrase refers to the destructive force of greed, which is a theme in the novel.
  • Mark of the Beast: What people think Prue's harelip signifies.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: At the end of the book, it's not clear whether Gideon was lured out into the mire by Janice's ghost, or whether his guilt caused him to drown himself. The book leans towards the latter, but Prue notices water tracking across the floor and hears "a wailing song" off in the distance...
  • Moral Event Horizon: After rejecting Janice and their baby, Gideon finally, definitively crosses it by murdering Mother for being too old and infirm to work.
  • The Midlands: The story is set in rural Shropshire.
  • Playing Cyrano: A particularly complex variant. Gideon and Jancis are engaged, but Jancis has gone to work in town for a few years. Gideon promises to write to her, but neither of them is literate, so Prue has to write Gideon's letters and Kester agrees to write Jancis' letters. The only problem is, Prue is in love with Kester and she knows he'll be reading the letters she writes, so half of what she writes is stuff she wishes she could say to him. (Kester figures out pretty early on that Prue is writing the letters and that she's writing them with him in mind. When Jancis comes back they drop the pretense and start writing directly to each other.)
  • Rage Breaking Point: Grimble is upset with Kester over the fallout from the bull-baiting and he tries to spread gossip about Kester in the town, but Kester is such an honest, principled person that Grimble can't get any of his accusations to stick. Finally, Grimble sees Kester and Jancis sitting together while Jancis is dictating a letter, and Grimble suggests that if Kester is spending so much time with Jancis, maybe he should start weaving baby linen. Kester stands up and vows he'll never weave for Grimble again, then storms out of the house.
  • Witch Hunt: Grimble convinces the townsfolk that Prue is to blame for all of the misfortune suffered by her family.
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