In 1957 the book was made into a six-part BBC television drama series starring Patrick Troughton and Daphne Slater. Under its French title 'Sarn', it was produced as a television play by French Television ORTF in 1968, with Dominique Labourier as Prue, Josep Maria Flotats as Gedeon and Pierre Vaneck as Kester; the director was Claude Santelli. In 1989 it was again adapted for British television by the BBC, directed by Christopher Menaul and starring Clive Owen and Janet McTeer.
The story is set in rural Shropshire shortly after the Napoleonic Wars. It is narrated by the central character, Prue Sarn, whose life is blighted by having a harelip. Only the weaver, Kester Woodseaves, perceives the beauty of her character, but Prue cannot believe herself worthy of him. Her brother Gideon is overridingly ambitious to attain wealth and power, regardless of who suffers while he does so. Gideon is set to wed his sweetheart Jancis, but he incurs the wrath of her father, the cruel and scheming self-proclaimed wizard Beguildy. An act of vengeance by Beguildy makes Gideon reject Jancis and tragedy overwhelms them both. Prue is wrongly accused of murder and set upon by a mob, but Kester defies them and carries Prue away to the happiness she believed she could never possess because of her harelip. The setting for the story has been attributed to the Meres of northern Shropshire, but is more likely to have been the area around Bomere Pool which was closer to the author's own home at Spring Cottage on Lyth Hill. These locations were very rural at the time the novel was written, and Mary Webb was herself very much part of local country life there in the 1920s.
- Let none admire
- That riches grow in Hell; that Soyle may best
- Deserve the precious bane.
It refers to the love of money, which, as Prue records, blights love and destroys life. But the title also refers to Prue's deformity, which she comes to recognize as the source of her spiritual strength. In one of the most moving passages in the book, she relates: "...there came to me, I cannot tell whence, a most powerful sweetness that had never come to me afore... as if some creature made all of light had come on a sudden from a great way off, and nestled in my bosom.... Though it was so quiet, it was a great miracle, and it changed my life.... If I hadna had a hare-lip to frighten me away into my own lonesome soul, this would never have come to me.... Even while I was thinking this, out of nowhere suddenly came that lovely thing, and nestled in my heart, like a seed from the core of love."