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.