After dinner at Pizzeria Due on a snowy New Year’s Eve, J. and I came home to my place at The Flamingo, where I subjected him to one of my favorite movies — Precious Bane, originally shown on PBS in 1989 and gone missing since. Based on the novel by Mary Webb, Precious Bane is not an ideal holiday movie, but somehow I was in the mood to see it and to share it.
For J., who has not read the book or heard of the movie, it was difficult to follow, partly because of the dialect. He did not understand why the characters believed in witchcraft and curses at such a late date. When Gideon tells Prue, “You’ll never wed,” he seemed to think it might be because the harelip marred her looks, but Gideon meant that no one would marry a woman with so evident a curse upon her.
I remember that I too had difficulty at first following the story when it was new to me; so much of it is alien to contemporary experience. Because it is so well told, however, it soon sweeps you into its world of isolation, ignorance, and superstition.
Underneath the ugliest elements — the superstition and narrowness of the villagers, the brutality of the Sarn men, Gideon’s greed and ironic self-righteousness, Beguildy’s abuse of his perceived powers — Precious Bane is a magnificent love-wish fulfillment story. After surviving all the suffering that life and human frailty create, two odd, deserving people ride off to what we are sure will be a life of love and contentment in each other, for they are kindred spirits. There’s no more satisfying — or unlikely — ending. Even the change of heart among the villagers seems surreal as they egg on the ringleaders, then turn against them. Whether we feel cursed or not (I sometimes do), it’s the denouement to a satisfying drama that anyone could wish for.
What most struck me, then and now, and when I read the book, was Prue’s passion for learning how to read and write. It’s an ability we take for granted because we don’t know what it’s like not to have it. We don’t always understand that the ability to read and write contributes to independence and helps us to stay connected socially and emotionally. For Prue, trapped on her farm by her obligation to her brother, poverty, and superstition, reading and writing are her lifeline to something greater than herself, to a life beyond the narrow one she knows. It is also the only way she has to open her heart, however obliquely, to the one person she knows to be a kindred spirit — the one person who sees past the curse into her blessed heart.
Today, when most of us can read and write, how do we use this powerful ability? Parents and teachers are thrilled that children read the Harry Potter books, because otherwise they might not read at all on their own. We send e-mails and messages that fulfill certain obligations but that do not communicate much beyond facts — certainly not feelings. “Thanks for your e-mail. School starts on the 10th. We’re not ready for it yet. Suzy outgrew another pair of shoes.” Expressing genuine emotion, which provide so much relief to Prue and took away the power of the curse forever (“No more sad talk! I’ve chosen my bit of Paradise. ‘Tis on your breast, my dear acquaintance!”) seems to be unacceptable, even vaguely subversive, now that we have the means to do it easily, even beautifully. To do so is to take a risk, that of revealing too much and of embarrassing ourselves in an irrevocable way. Even expressing gratitude to a persona who helped to shape our live and our perspective, is a terrible risk. What if they don’t remember us or don’t care?
I’m willing to take that risk.
I will write it.
But I don’t have to send it . . .
Too late. I did.
Edits: I didn’t receive a response, but for some reason I didn’t quite expect one. As a child, I would have been hurt. Now it doesn’t really matter.
Here’s a wonderful entry, with photos, about the Shropshire of Precious Bane.