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 & B – all 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
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.