I read what is probably Mary Webb’s most famous novel, Precious Bane, a few months back. So when a friend and follow bibliophile offered me his extra copy of this novel I was thrilled at the prospect of reading another of Webb’s books.
Gillian is the only child of a very wealthy farmer, so whomever she marries will not only be lucky to have a pretty bride, but will also have the added benefit of inheriting a large fortune. Gillian is nineteen when the novel opens and she is a starry-eyed romantic who wants to flirt with men so that they will fall in love with her. Gillian, in many ways, still acts like a child and she is is selfish, narcissistic and silly towards others in her life. The kind and simple shepherd named Robert who is employed by her father is oftentimes the target of her coquetry. But Gillian keeps telling herself that she can never fall in love with Robert because she doesn’t want a simple farm hand for a husband; she wants excitement, passion and a man who can ride a horse bareback. Webb beautifully foreshadows the suffering that Gillian will have to endure before she can have her happily ever after.
Robert is the only son of Mrs. Makepeace who lost her husband when Robert was a very young boy. Mrs. Makepeace has remarried a man named Jonathan who, despite being so clumsy, is a great husband and stepfather. Mrs. Makepeace knows her son Robert well, so she senses it when Robert begins to fall in love with Gillian. Robert is the main farm hand and does the lion’s share of the work for Gillian’s father; he has grown up with Gillian and as they both mature he sees her in a very different light and begins to develop deep romantic feelings for her. It is sweet that since he cannot express his love to her directly, he composes penillion verses about her and his love for her. He is a gifted poet but he never writes his poetry down or shares it with anyone, especially not Gillian.
When another sheep farmer comes to town and buys the local inn, Robert is very suspicions of this mysterious man from the beginning. Ralph Elmer is not married, or so he says, and lives with his servants Fringal and Rwth. Rwth is mute and Robert treats her very badly. Both Robert and Gillian take pity on Rwth and treat Rwth with kindness and compassion; Gillian’s kind treatment of Rwth, for me, was the beginning of her transformation into a mature and less selfish woman.
Unfortunately, Gillian is smitten with Ralph Elmer and despite the warnings from Robert, she continues to spend a lot of time with Ralph. Ralph makes physical advances toward Gillian that show us he is not a gentlemen. But Gillian is too silly and young to make the distinction between passion and physical lust and true love. While she is allowing Mr. Elmer to court and kiss her and do other things to her, she is really thinking about Robert and wishing it was the shepherd-poet who was paying her so much attention.
In the end, Gillian does have to suffer in order to become a better human being; she becomes someone with whom we can sympathize and someone who is finally worthy of Robert’s love. I am so glad I had the opportunity to read another of Webb’s novels and I would like to read even more of her works.
About The Author:
Mary Webb (1881-1927) was an English romantic novelist of the early 20th century, whose novels were set chiefly in the Shropshire countryside and among Shropshire characters and people which she knew and loved well. Although she was acclaimed by John Buchan and by Rebecca West, who hailed her as a genius, and won the Prix Femina of La Vie Heureuse for Precious Bane (1924), she won little respect from the general public. It was only after her death that the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, earned her posthumous success through his approbation, referring to her as a neglected genius at a Literary Fund dinner in 1928. Her writing is notable for its descriptions of nature, and of the human heart. She had a deep sympathy for all her characters and was able to see good and truth in all of them. Among her most famous works are: The Golden Arrow (1916), Gone to Earth (1917), and Seven for a Secret (1922).