<MILD SPOILER ALERT>
I’ve now read Precious Bane, and as I mentioned before, I’m shocked to find that I loved it. It’s not what I generally think of as my cup of tea. I like historical novels as much as the next guy, if not more, but I tend to prefer them less rustic and more ironic and subversive. At the very least I like a sea battle or two. Subjects like, oh, illiterate farmers destroyed by singleminded obsessive ambition, and their harelipped sisters finding love through adversity, tend not to interest me so much.
Obviously what makes PB so riveting is the writing. I have no idea whether Mary Webb got early-19th-century Shropshire dialect right, but it hardly matters, it’s completely convincing to early-21st-century me. PB sucks you in linguistically the way some of Anthony Burgess‘s books (A Clockwork Orange, A Dead Man in Deptford) do. [Good Lord, I just compared Mrs Webb to Anthony Burgess, and Precious Bane to A Clockwork Orange; have I lost my senses?]
Atmosphere is more than dialect, of course, and there’s much else right in PB‘s atmosphere. I particularly liked the almost-medieval worldview of the Shropshire yeomen, steeped equally in the Bible and in old country superstition.
Yes, I can see how the whole thing cries out for parody, but really, the best subjects for parody are often great in themselves.
Addendum number one: the BBC made a movie of Precious Bane starring what must be a very well cast young Clive Owen and Janet McTeer; unfortunately, despite having been shown on Masterpiece Theatre it seems not to be available here.
Addendum number two: I ran the text of PB through a spell-checker; the results (unfiltered for proper names, mild variant spellings, and the like, and with no thought given to contractions and the occasional funky diacritic) are here.