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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1519

First published: 1924

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Prudence Sarn, a harelipped girl

Gideon, her brother

Wizard Beguildy, an evil neighbor

Jancis Beguildy, his daughter

Kester Woodseaves, the weaver

The Story:

The...

(The entire section contains 1519 words.)

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First published: 1924

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Prudence Sarn, a harelipped girl

Gideon, her brother

Wizard Beguildy, an evil neighbor

Jancis Beguildy, his daughter

Kester Woodseaves, the weaver

The Story:

The country people said there had been something queer about the Sarn family since old Timothy Sarn was struck by forked lightning. The lightning seemed to have gone into Timothy and into all the Sarns. In Prue’s father, the lightning took the form of a raving temper, and in Prue’s brother, Gideon, the lightning was the more frightening because it was quiet but deadly. Dogs and horses turned away from Gideon’s gray eyes. Prue understood her brother better than most, but even she was frightened when Gideon offered to be the sin-eater at their father’s funeral. For a sin-eater took the sins of the dead person and sold his soul for a price. Gideon’s price was the farm that would have been his mother’s. Mrs. Sarn feared to accept the terms, for a sin-eater’s destiny was dreadful; but she feared more to let her husband go to his grave with all of his sins, and so she gave Gideon the farm.

On the night after the funeral, Gideon told Prue his plans. They were going to become rich, own a house in town, and have fine clothes and beautiful furniture. Gideon promised Prue that for her help he would give her fifty pounds to have her harelip fixed. He warned her, however, that he would work her as he would an animal. Because Prue had hated her harelip for many years, she consented to his terms. They signed an agreement and took an oath on the Bible that Gideon would be the master and Prue his servant.

Prue also was to learn to read and write and do sums so that she could keep the farm accounts. Her teacher would be Wizard Beguildy, a neighbor who was preached against in church because he earned his living by working spells and charms. Wizard was the father of Jancis Beguildy, a childhood friend of Prue and Gideon.

During the next four years, Prue and Gideon slaved long hours in the field. Prue grew thinner and thinner, and their mother became quite feeble. She was compelled to watch the pigs, for Gideon would let no one be idle. The farm prospered.

One part of Gideon’s plan, however, did not work out as he had arranged. He was in love with Jancis Beguildy and decided that he would make his fortune and then marry her. Jancis did not want to wait that long, but Gideon would not change his mind.

Gideon and Jancis were handfasted, and Jancis had a love-spinning, even though her father swore that she could never marry Gideon. At the love-spinning, Prue first saw Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. When Kester came into the room, it seemed to Prue that a beautiful mist surrounded her. Then she turned sadly away. Gideon had told her often enough that no man would love a girl with a harelip.

A few days after the spinning, Jancis went to tell Gideon that her father threatened either to sell her to a rich squire for his pleasure or to hire her out for three years as a dairymaid. Her only salvation was immediate marriage to Gideon; but Gideon told her that he had not made enough money, that she must be bound over for three years. Even Jancis’ tears would not move him. Jancis was sent to work for Mr. and Mrs. Grimble.

After several months, Jancis ran away from the Grimble farm. Because Gideon had a good crop of grain coming up, he promised to marry her after the harvest. Wizard Beguildy still swore that there would be no wedding, and Prue was afraid.

One day, as Prue was walking through the fields, Kester met her. When she tried to hide her face, Kester took her by the shoulders and looked straight into her eyes. He did not laugh but talked to Prue as a man talks to a woman who is beautiful and attractive. His words were almost more than Prue could bear.

Never had there been such a harvest. Gideon’s crop was piled in high ricks, and all the neighbor folks who had helped with the harvest came to the house to dance and feast. As soon as the grain buyer came to buy the crop, Jancis and Gideon would be married. Gideon, however, was unable to wait until their wedding and went to Jancis’ home to be with her. Mrs. Beguildy tricked her husband into leaving so that the lovers could be together. Wizard Beguildy, arrived home early, found Jancis and Gideon in bed together, and the two men quarreled. Prue was more frightened than ever.

Prue had reason for her premonition of danger, for that night Wizard set the ricks on fire, and everything burned except the house and the barn. Gideon was like a madman. When Jancis tried to comfort him, he said she was cursed by her father’s blood, and he drove her away. He tried to get to Wizard to kill him, but Prue prevented this deed by having Wizard arrested. Gideon cursed the Beguildy family, even Jancis. Jancis swooned and lay for days in a trance. She and her mother were put off their farm, for no landowner would have the family of an arsonist on his land.

Gideon began to rebuild his dream, but Jancis was no longer a part of it. He worked himself and Prue and their mother almost to death. When the mother became too weak to work, Gideon put poison into her tea, for he would feed no one who could not earn her way. Prue knew that her brother’s mind was deranged after the fire, but she had not known that he would kill for money.

Jancis returned with Gideon’s baby. When Gideon drove her out of the house, Jancis took her baby to the pond and drowned herself and her child. Gideon began to see visions. He often told Prue that he had seen Jancis or his mother, and sometimes he heard Jancis singing. He talked queerly about the past, about his love for Jancis. He no longer wanted the money that had been his whole life. One day, he rowed out on the pond and threw himself into the water and drowned. Prue was left alone.

Her vow to Gideon was ended, and Prue decided to leave the farm. When she rounded up the livestock and went into the village to sell them, the people called her a witch and blamed all the trouble on her harelip. They said that the forked lightning was in her worse than in all the other Sarns, and they put her in the ducking chair and ducked her in the pond until she was senseless. When she awakened, Kester was beside her, ready to lift her upon his horse and take her away to be his wife. Prue knew then that the forked lightning was not in her; the curse of the Sarns had been lifted.

Critical Evaluation:

The hero of Mary Webb’s novel is Nature. Nevertheless, it is a cruel force acting in a Darwinian universe that is only mollified when man acquiesces in its operation. Like a jealous owner, it brands him at his birth. The Sarn family is marked when Old Timothy, the grandfather, is struck by forked lightning. Prudence, the heroine, bears the scar, a disfiguring harelip. The main action of the novel is an account of Prue’s and her brother’s struggle with Nature to rise above the ordinary rhythms of life and gain the “precious bane.”

By unlawfully assuming the Sarn land at his father’s death, Gideon Sarn brings down Nature’s curse. In his desire for money and status, he ignores his own passions; he rejects the love of Jancis Beguildy. Ultimately, he pays for his avarice and his denial of his instincts by the loss of his soul and his life. He has dared to assert his superiority to Nature, and it crushes him in revenge.

Initially, he is abetted by Prudence. She binds herself to him under the promise that when their wealth is assured, he will pay for the removal of her disfigurement. Prudence, however, is saved from the curse by her realization of the corruption that wealth entails and her love for Kester Woodseaves, an enigmatic man of compassion and magnetic sexuality.

The final scene in which Woodseaves swoops down on his charger to save Prue from a mob that believes her to be a witch is primitive in its appeal, and the townspeople’s dunking of Prue is a superstitious ritual designed to appease outraged Nature. The union of Kester and Prue itself is a ritual; it is one that signifies man’s subordination to forces beyond him, unconscious forces that pull toward the rhythms of Nature and away from those of society.

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