My Valentine’s Recommendation : A romance with a dark heart

Image : Pixabay

Valentine’s Day is around the corner – well, around the corner and long the corridor a bit, but definitely within spitting distance – and that being the case, I’ll be absent from Word Shamble for a few days.

Now, I know many of you are cynical about the event, trussing a 3rd century Roman saint to selling chocolates and jewellery and overpriced flowers, pressurising lovers into expensive purchases to prove the depth of something as ephemeral as love.

You have a right to feel cynical. The heart shaped balloons and cutesy ‘wuv woo’ bears and cards, the way manufacturers package seemingly unrelated items in red just to sell them to men desperate to get themselves out of trouble … It’s capitalism run riot and it ain’t pretty.

May I suggest an alternative to this unpleasantness?

Those who’ve followed this blog a while will already know my attachment to certain books – every reader has them, those tomes that burrow into your psyche, often at a young age, and squat in your brains like benevolent worms, raising their heads and twitching their tales every now and then to make their presence felt.

For me, Precious Bane by Mary Webb is one such book.

Set in the Shropshire of the early nineteenth century, it focuses on Prue Sarn, cursed with a ‘precious bane’ (a hare lip) that seems to rule her out of marriage, out of happiness, that shapes her life, her personality and her destiny.

Yes, it’s terrifically romantic and melodramatic – there are love spinnings and sin eaters and wise men. There’s a fair amount of yearning, of chaste glances between Prue and the gentle, magnificently named weaver Kester Woodseaves.

There’s darkness too. Unfathomable lakes, moody landscapes, curses, folk magic, pain, humiliation, betrayal, death – lots of death.

But aside from the fabulous prose, here’s a wonderful thing about the book. Prue is not Disney Cinderella beautiful. She is outshone by her best friend, seen as ugly and shunned. But she is brave and loyal and decent and all of that makes her shine through as a character, means that she’s no wishy-washy heroine who gets a fit of the vapours when spoken to unkindly. She works the fields – she drives a sodding plough, for heaven’s sake – and even though she suffers greatly, she is nothing like a victim.

So, here’s my recommendation.

Leave the chocolates, leave the flowers (okay, buy the flowers – I am a florist after all!), leave the teddy bears (no, really LEAVE the bears) and buy a copy of Precious Bane instead.

It’s one of the few truly romantic novels I’ve ever read.

And if you doubt the quality of Webb’s writing because you’ve never heard of her, take a look here to see why The Guardian newspaper’s Eloise Millar thinks she’s better than Thomas Hardy.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. See you on the other side.

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Wednesday Word Tangle: Wackford, Bathsheba, Beguildy: Why a good name is the best gift you can give your protagonist

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Character names are important.

At their most basic they must be credible: probably best not to name a middle-aged accountant living in a suburb of modern day Leeds whose having an affair with his son’s primary school teacher Bumbletuke Humpty-Bump. That may sit well in A Christmas Carol, but it won’t do on the darts team of the Dog and Duck.

At best they’re shorthand, communicating in a few syllables something of the character, a boiled down essence of their personality. I’ve talked about preconceptions on this blog before – it’s okay, we all have them – but they aren’t just confined to the clothes someone wears or their looks: they extend to names too.

If you read a newspaper article about a man called Gary who’d been caught speeding, you’d have a very different chap in mind from one named Sebastian. It doesn’t mean one is more likely to speed than the other, but you wouldn’t expect Sebastian to have been brought up on the local Council Estate – but Gary … possibly.

Rightly or wrongly, we associate certain names with certain types of people.

Ever noticed how many heroes are called Jack? From the dandy charmer Sparrow, through the doom-laden Bauer, to the kick-ass Ryan, when your main protagonist is called Jack you can expect guns, explosions, fist fights and a body count that’s through the roof. Jacks know how to look after themselves.

Today’s Wednesday Word Tangle is not dedicated to your Jacks, your Garys or your Sebastians. But to the more unusual, the peculiar – the downright inventive.

  • From Precious Bane by Mary Webb: Wizard Beguildy, Jancis Beguildy.

The wizard is a con man and a trickster, while his daughter Jancis is attractive in a brainless sort of way, which makes them both ‘beguiling’ – ‘to deceive or trick’ , ‘to charm and fascinate’.

In the Bible, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, was seduced by King David and mother of King Solomon. Did Hardy choose the name intentionally to convey to his Bible-literate readership a little of Bathsheba’s future man trouble? Then there’s Gabriel Oak. Why did Bathsheba not know to marry this guy from the start? He’s half angel, half reliable, deep rooted stock – as English as cream teas and an obsession with the weather. I would’ve been ordering a dress just on learning his name.

  • From the Harry Potter books: J.K. Rowling’s devised some cracking names for her characters, so many it’s hard to choose just a few but …

Albus Dumbledore: ‘dumbledore’ is an English dialect word for a bumblebee – love the name just for that. Then there’s Draco Malfoy: ‘draco’ can mean dragon and Draco was also an Ancient Greek lawgiver with some extreme ideas of justice. A perfect combination for a baddy. Lastly, Severus Snape: his first name sounds like ‘severe’, surname makes me think of snakes and ‘snipe’ (‘to criticise unpleasantly’) something Snape’s very good at.

You can’t have a list of character names without mentioning the king of weird character names.

  • From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Ebenezer Scrooge: a dour, Biblical beginning, then a surname that sounds a bit like ‘screw’, which is apt.

‘Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!’ A Christmas Carol

  • From Nicholas Nickleby: Wackford Squeers – sadistic Yorkshire schoolmaster at Dotheboys Hall  who regularly ‘whacks’ his students.

And before you dismiss Dicken’s character names as comical and ridiculous, bear in mind that parents called their kids some very odd names during the Victorian period ‒ Friendless Baxter and One Too Many Gouldstone being but two genuine examples.

  • From The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien: Bilbo Baggins: oh, just because it sounds great, doesn’t it?

I could go on and on but I’m not going to.


What’s your favourite character name? And here’s a challenge for those who fancy having a go. Choose from one of the following and come up with a fitting character name to share with the group:

  • A burglar with a love of horticulture.
  • A cross-dressing policeman.
  • A serial killing teacher… Or share one of your own devising 🙂

Books in the Blood #14 : Why do fictional heroines have to be beautiful to be loved?

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Now, so far my Books in the Blood have been on the populist side, or at least books many of you will have read. Some of this is due to my featuring so many school set books – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, Shakespeare plays, Lord of the Flies.

Clearly the curriculum developers know what they’re doing. It’s not meant as an insult when I describe some of these choices as the literary equivalent of a parasitic bug that’s burrowed into your brain – once it’s got its hooks in, it won’t detach.

But with BITB #14 – or Bitby 14 as I’ve suddenly decided to call it – the book choice is one that many of you won’t have heard of, by an author who died almost ninety years ago and I’m suspect is largely unknown.

Now, just as a preamble, I must explain there’s a big part of me that’s always despised romantic fiction.

Before you legions of ladies (and let’s face it, it’ll be mostly ladies) rise up and bludgeon me to death with your nearest weapon – a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos, say, or a passing Pomeranian – I admit that (as you can deduce from my sniffy comment) I have a twisted view of the genre.

You see, when I was growing up, the only examples I’d heard of were Barbara Cartland and Miles and Boon and the covers of M & Ball hazily painted swooning females and towering Milk Tray men – were enough to put me off. Remember, I loved mystery and adventure stories most and would soon embark on years of little else but Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels. I was beyond heaving bosoms and being swept up in manly arms.

Then came the BBC adaptation* of Mary Webb’s

PRECIOUS BANE,

with the towering Janet McTeer (literally towering, as she stands at just over 6 feet) in the role of Prue Sarn.

Prue’s my kind of heroine. You see, I’m always mildly irritated by attractive leading ladies. You know the ones – they’re feisty with tousled hair and an untamed beauty and men tend to fight over them at the drop of a tricorn hat.

This seems to me an inherently flawed starting point. Most of us – even in a kind light with a little Vaseline softening the lens – can’t be described in such terms. Most of us are lucky enough to be okay looking, neither drop dead gorgeous nor ‘cover her face’ ugly. But even if we are conventionally unattractive, should it naturally follow that we’re undeserving of love? No, of course it shouldn’t.

So why are many romantic heroes and heroines so stunning? Surely, that alienates the majority of readers, demonstrating to the young and single that the only way any of us will receive passionate, breath taking love is by having a new nose / boobs / chin / cheekbones and industrial strength liposuction.

I adored Prue because she starts the story on the aesthetic back foot. You see, she’s born with a harelip (we’d more generously call it a cleft palate these days) which gives her an unmistakable facial deformity. Not only that, she’s unlucky enough to have been born into a rural society during the nineteenth century, so because of her lip, she’s believed to be cursed and possibly a witch.

Prue’s probably a little retiring for modern tastes – she does have to be rescued by a man at one point – but as the book was first published in 1924, this is hardly surprising. She’s cowed, bullied and put upon by family and friends alike – the assumption being that a ‘hareshot’ girl will never get a lover, and as she can work as hard as most men, she may as well be used as free labour on her brother’s farm.

But Prue is kind hearted, intelligent and brave in her way and she wins her man not by looks alone – but by being a lovely girl. As I was a lumpy, lonely singleton living in a thatched cottage in the broad expanse of the Suffolk countryside when I first encountered this story, you can imagine how it appealed to me.

Along with the romance, there’s a lot of death, a whiff of the supernatural, plenty of superstition and a beautiful snapshot of a lost, rural Shropshire, filled with ‘sineaters’, a wizard called Beguildy and a brooding countryside of meres and mists that is both protector and death bringer to the inhabitants.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Precious Bane and old cynic that I am, it still weaves a spell over me now.

‘Saddle your dreams before you ride’em.’


*With apologies, this is the only clip I could find for the BBC adaptation – skip through and you’ll find Janet. I gather it’s not available on DVD either. As Sarn Mere, it is lost in the mists.