Webb, Mary (1881–1927)

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Webb, Mary (1881–1927)

English novelist and poet whose work became widely celebrated only after her early death . Born Gladys Mary Meredith on March 25, 1881, in Leighton, Shropshire, England; died in St. Leonards, Sussex, on October 8, 1927; daughter of George Edward Meredith (a schoolmaster) and Sarah Alice (Scott) Meredith;educated at home and at a boarding school in Southport, Lancashire, 1893–95; married Henry Bertram Law Webb, in 1912; no children.

At age one, moved with parents to The Grange, a small country house near Much Wenlock, Shropshire; between 12 and 21, lived at Stanton-on-Hine Heath, six miles from Shrewsbury, followed by ten years in Meole Brace, one mile from Shrewsbury; after marriage, lived for two years in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, before returning to Shropshire, to live in Pontesbury, where she was a market gardener, and Lyth Hill; in the last few years of her life, divided her time between Hampstead, London, and Shropshire; her writing career developed from about 1916 and continued until her death.

Selected writings:

The Golden Arrow (Constable, 1916); The Spring of Joy (J.M. Dent, 1917); Gone to Earth (Constable, 1917); The House in Dormer Forest (Hutchinson, 1920); Seven for a Secret (Hutchinson, 1922); Precious Bane (Cape, 1924). Her collected works were published in 1928, by Cape in London and Dutton in New York, and included the unfinished Armour Wherein He Trusted.

On January 14, 1927, Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, wrote from his official residence at 10 Downing Street to Mary Webb:

I hope you will not think it an impertinence on my part if I tell you with what delight I have read Precious Bane. My people lived in Shropshire for centuries before they migrated to Worcestershire, and I spent my earliest years in Bewdley, which is on the border. In your book I seem to hear again the speech and turns of phrase which surrounded me in the nursery. I think it is really a first-class piece of work and I have not enjoyed a book so much for years. It was given to me by one of my secretaries and I read it at Christmas within sight of the Clee Hills, at home. Thank you a thousand times for it.

This spontaneous praise—the two had never met or exchanged correspondence—would have delighted any author, particularly one as little read and uncelebrated as Mary Webb. Yet, although Baldwin's acclaim was to bring her name before a wide public, it came too late for her to benefit personally. Still only in her mid-40s, Mary Webb was mortally ill, and within nine months would be laid to rest in the earth of her native Shropshire.

The county of Shropshire lies in the west of England and runs along the border with Wales. Those parts of it known as the borderlands are mostly rural, with some deep, wooded valleys and craggy hills that impart a unique atmosphere. A hundred or so years ago, both local customs and a distinctive dialect survived in forms little changed in centuries. In her early years, Mary Webb absorbed the characteristics of the place and people and immortalized them in her novels, essays and poems. Her father George Meredith was a man of education, a graduate of Cambridge University who tutored young men preparing for civil service and similar examinations. He had, however, deep roots in the area; both his father and grandfather had been vicar of Leighton Parish Church (where Mary was christened), and he delighted in roaming about the countryside and collecting the anecdotes and proverbs of the local people. Her mother Sarah Scott Meredith was the daughter of an Edinburgh doctor who claimed to be of the clan of Sir Walter Scott, the author of Rob Roy, Ivanhoe, and many other novels. For seven years, Mary was the Merediths' only child, and then between 1888 and 1894 three brothers and two sisters were born. In keeping with the common attitude towards girls, George Meredith seems not to have educated his daughter very systematically. He taught her to read and write, and at age 12 she went, for two lonely years, to a school of modest educational standards in Southport. Fortunately, she was a quick learner who devoured books avidly. A novel that had a particular influence in stimulating her sense of social justice was Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe . Her father did, however, kindle her imagination during their walks together about the countryside, and many of his stories were retold when she began to write.

Although not wealthy, the large Meredith family lived comfortably, in a manner similar to that of the local gentry. To accommodate his pupils, George Meredith rented a large house, and was able to keep servants and ride to hounds. Mary's only serious difference with her father was over the question of hunting, which she regarded as cruel and unnecessary. In her teens, as part of her system of personal morality, she decided to become a vegetarian. By this time she had been brought home from the school in Southport after her mother suffered a riding accident. Sarah Meredith, probably due to a psychiatric disorder, then withdrew to her bedroom where she remained for the greater part of five years. Mary helped to take charge of the household and, later aided by a governess, the upbringing of her brothers and sisters. As befitted the Merediths' social standing, Mary was expected to undertake charitable work among less fortunate neighbors, such as visiting the sick and reading the Bible to a blind man. On these occasions, she absorbed more of the local speech and was able to make a close study of the type of village characters who were later represented in her fiction.

When Webb was about 20, her mother resumed her place in the household. Very soon after, Mary's health began to fail. She became depressed and withdrawn, to such an extent that a psychosomatic illness has been suggested as the cause. However, her symptoms may have been due to the onset of a thyroid condition known as Graves' disease or thyrotoxicosis. This illness, which medical science was not then able to cure, led to intense headaches, giddiness, delusions and irrational actions in those who suffered from it. The patient's neck became swollen and the eyes appeared to bulge in their sockets. Although Mary had periods of respite, so sensitive was she about her appearance that she became reclusive. Her illness led her to behave eccentrically at times, and she always dressed in high-necked clothes in an attempt to conceal her distended throat. As an outlet for her emotions, and with the encouragement of the family's governess, she began to write sketches and poems, though seldom allowing even family members to read them. On her better days, she continued to ramble about the countryside and visit the local cottagers. She remained, too, a voracious reader, of poetry, Shakespeare, natural history and folklore. Several modern writers—Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Richard Jeffries among them—also gave her pleasure.

Those who knew Mary began to regard her with sympathy, as a gentle and kindly person who seemed doomed to the short, unfulfilled life of the invalid. There was much surprise, therefore, when her engagement was announced to the son of a local doctor. On July 12, 1912, she married Henry Webb, a Cambridge graduate and a schoolmaster (like her father, who had died in 1909), and six years younger than Mary. Her intelligence and loving disposition, it seems, mattered more to him than her handicaps. Instead of her sisters, she arranged for her bridesmaid to be the three-yearold daughter of the gardener and invited as her guests all the old people from the local almshouse at which she had been a regular visitor. In the early years of the marriage, Henry Webb indulged his wife's unusual fancies. He resigned from his post at a school in Somerset so that they could move back to Shropshire and for a time made a precarious living from market gardening. The Webbs would carry their flowers and fruit to Shrewsbury market, where Mary enjoyed the conversation of customers and other stallholders.

With Henry's encouragement, Mary began to offer her writings to magazines and was able to get accepted a few nature studies, sketches of the pleasure to be found among the plants and sounds of the countryside. In the spring of 1915, during three weeks of intense creativity, she wrote a lengthy novel, The Golden Arrow. Critics agree that the character of John Arden was based on George Meredith and that Deborah, his daughter, was Mary Webb's representation of herself. A melodrama of Shropshire village life, taking its title from a local legend concerning a search for a golden arrow, it was published in 1916, when some reviewers compared it to the work of Thomas Hardy. It enjoyed sufficient success for another publisher to bring out a collection of her nature studies in 1917. Relatively little income came from Mary Webb's writings, and much of what she did receive was spontaneously given to those who seemed in need. Childless herself, she had a deep fondness for children and made a point of giving presents at Christmas and on birthdays to those in the village.

By the beginning of 1917, she had completed her second novel, Gone to Earth, the tragic story of Hazel Woodus, a wild, shy girl, the daughter of a Welsh Gypsy (Rom) and a halfmad beekeeper. Torn between two men, Hazel dies, along with her unborn child, in a vain attempt to save her pet fox from the hunt. Written at the height of the Great War, the novel has been seen as an allegory. It is true that, even in a remote part of the country, Mary Webb was deeply aware of the war. Although her husband, who had poor eyesight, was exempt from military service, her three brothers were in the army. In Gone to Earth there is a conflict between good and evil which symbolizes the war as Mary Webb saw it, but much of its appeal was in the strength and intensely poetic nature of the prose. Few made a direct link between the huntsmen—described as "fiery-faced and fiery-coated, with eyes frenzied by excitement, and open, cavernous mouths, they were like devils emerging from hell"—and the ferocities of the war. Indeed, the novelist John Buchan, in his introduction to a later edition of the book, wrote that "in the dark days of 1917" he read Gone to Earth as a relief from the world at the time. As well as human frailties, the beauty of nature was constantly present in Mary Webb's work. It was in this respect that Buchan made a point, shared by others who have studied her novels, that she "is curiously insensitive to the cruelties of nature"; to her, evil arises from man and his works, while nature is a benign and pure force. Although she regarded herself as a member of the Church of England, there was a mystical, pantheistic element in her beliefs.

Henry Webb, never a successful or fulfilled market gardener, was able to obtain after a few years another teaching post, in Shrewsbury. The Webbs moved from their smallholding at Pontesbury to temporary accommodation, until a small bungalow was built for them on Lyth Hill. Their new home, with its extensive views of unspoiled countryside, brought Mary an interlude of greater happiness. Her illness was less debilitating, while the modest success of her books brought her better financial terms for a new novel, The House in Dormer Forest. This attracted an American publisher, George H. Doran, who also undertook to pay for her next book. Though it was not large, she did have a circle of discriminating readers, along with the approval of those critics who warmed to her vivid prose and a treatment of natural beauty that contrasted with the imperfections of humankind. Just as, in Gone to Earth, it is the fate of Hazel Woodus to die, in The House in Dormer Forest, the symbolic ending is the burning down of Dormer Old House and the death of the character who started the fire.

By the time her fourth novel, Seven for a Secret, appeared in 1922, the Webbs had set up home in Hampstead, north London. In late 1920, Mary's health had worsened, in part due, her doctor suggested, to the solitary nature of a life which led her to brood about herself and her symptoms. There is some evidence too that Henry Webb was finding it too great a strain to adjust to his wife's style of life. She was indifferent to housekeeping and, as her illness became more acute, reproached him with her jealous suspicions. (Possibly not all these were unfounded: two years after her death, Henry Webb married Kathleen Wilson , who had been one of his students.) London, it seemed, would provide both with a greater social life, especially as Mary had a number of literary contacts made through her novels and short stories. For a time, she did move in circles frequented by other writers, though she also retreated regularly to the cottage on Lyth Hill. Seven for a Secret has been compared to Emily Brontë 's Wuthering Heights for the sense of profound emotion that pervades it, though most would find the over-melodramatic plot inferior in concept and execution. The theme is one common to all Mary Webb's novels, the conflict between a love that is sacred and one that is profane. The main female character, Gillian Lovekin, is infatuated by Ralph Elmer, an inn landlord who symbolizes profane love, and allows herself to be seduced by him. She then learns that he is married to Rwth, a dumb Gypsy, used by him as a drudge. Once Elmer is unmasked, Gillian marries a poetical shepherd, Robert Rideout. Mary Webb dedicated the book to Thomas Hardy.

Seven for a Secret has been criticized for an over-reliance on coincidence in the plot, a tendency to use stock characters of a type that appeared in her earlier novels, and a labored prose style. It is notable, therefore, that in her next book, Precious Bane, Mary Webb recovered her artistic power to the extent of producing what is usually regarded as her finest piece of work. This success in part arises from the technical skill involved in writing a novel in the first person. It is an approach that requires the character who tells the story not only to be plausibly present in every scene (or have reason to be informed about what has occurred) but also to convey the thoughts and motivations of all the other characters. In Precious Bane, the narrator is Prudence Sarn, the daughter of a Shropshire farmer in the early 19th century. Some reviewers did doubt that a girl of these origins would have the command of language that the narrative shows,

but admirers of the novel have been unaffected by such a criticism. Moreover, the way in which dialect words, popular beliefs and historical details are deployed makes the narrator's account seem plausible. A theme of the story is the evil that results from the love of money (as hinted in the title which is taken from a line in Milton's Paradise Lost: "Let none admire/ That riches grow in Hell; that soyle may best/ Deserve the precious bane"). Gideon Sarn sacrifices his life through greed, but his sister Prudence is finally rewarded for her unselfish love when she becomes the wife of the good weaver Kester Woodseaves. Prudence has been mistreated because of her harelip, which the superstitious peasants regard as a sign of evil, and this has been interpreted as a fictional representation by Mary Webb of her swollen neck.

G.K. Chesterton">

Much of the noble work of Mary Webb might be called the prose poems of a Shropshire Lass.

G.K. Chesterton

Other characters too have been identified as having their origins in their creator's own life, the minor figures drawn from Mary's village acquaintances and the more virtuous main ones from her family circle. The wicked, however, have been criticized as rather stock figures, melodramatically based on the villains of popular fiction. Moreover, even those who praised her gift for description found her characters insufficiently convincing. Grace Chapman , for example, in reviewing the collected works of Mary Webb in 1931, noted "an exquisite feeling for Nature in all its manifestations" but went on to write: "The good remain irritatingly righteous, the bad monotonously wicked; while the comic are at all costs facetious, and the faithful persevere in unswerving devotion." The satirical pen of Stella Gibbons in her novel Cold Comfort Farm (1932) was another response to Mary Webb's rural types. Gibbons had in mind several writers on rustic themes, including Sheila Kaye-Smith , but Mary Webb was the principal target of her parody.

Precious Bane brought new admirers, and it remains, despite adverse criticism, the best regarded of her novels. In 1925, it was awarded a literary prize, the Femina Vie Heureuse, though the citation that accompanied it—the award was for an imaginative work by an author who had not gained sufficient recognition—served to emphasize Mary Webb's lack of literary standing. Some fellow authors sought to enhance her reputation; Rebecca West , for example, had been among the first to praise Gone to Earth. Another admirer, the publisher Hamish Hamilton, passed a copy of Precious Bane to a civil servant who worked with the prime minister. As a result, Baldwin in January 1927 sent the aforementioned letter. But although Mary replied to it gratefully, she did not seek from him any public endorsement. In the last months of her life, she wrote short stories and reviews and, rather fitfully, worked on a historical romance, Armour Wherein He Trusted, the manuscript of which she almost destroyed in a mood of despair. As well as Graves' disease, which was gradually destroying her system, Mary Webb was suffering from pernicious anaemia, also beyond the power of doctors to cure. It was agreed that a visit to Miss Lory, her old governess, at St. Leonards on the Sussex coast, might be of benefit, but on her arrival she had to be taken to a nursing home. A few days later, on October 8, 1927, Mary Webb died. Her body was returned for burial to Shrewsbury in Shropshire.

Her death was little noticed. On April 25, 1928, Stanley Baldwin spoke at the annual dinner of the Royal Literary Fund, referred to Mary Webb as a novelist of genius and expressed surprise at her neglect. The report of his speech led to a level of interest in her books that had not existed before. The publishing firm of Jonathan Cape quickly organized a collected edition of seven volumes, each prefaced by a well-known literary figure, except for Precious Bane which was introduced by Baldwin. In the 1930s, her books sold well; Cape issued them in cheaper editions and some were translated into various European languages. Quiet Shropshire villages were invaded by tourists, intent on discovering what one guidebook termed "the haunts of Mary Webb." In 1950, Jennifer Jones starred as Hazel Woodus in a film version of Gone to Earth (released in the United States as The Wild Heart). Since then, Mary Webb's books have been regularly reprinted, and collections of her poems have been issued. Some critics have suggested that she is a greater poet than novelist, and others that her romances reveal a feminist perspective. Academic opinion, however, remains more doubtful about the claims made on behalf of her work. Although she has received scholarly attention, it has been on a minor scale, and, as in her lifetime, those who find genius in the work of Mary Webb fail to persuade the majority.


Barale, Michèle Aina. Daughters and Lovers: The Life and Writings of Mary Webb. Middletown: CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1986.

Chapman, Grace. "Mary Webb," in London Mercury. Vol. 23, no. 136. February 1931, pp. 364–369.

Coles, Gladys Mary. The Flower of Light: A Biography of Mary Webb. London: Duckworth, 1978.

McNeil, W.K. "The Function of Legend, Belief and Custom in Precious Bane," in Folklore. Vol. 82, no. 2. Summer 1971, pp. 132–146.

Moult, Thomas. Mary Webb: Her Life and Work. London: Cape, 1932.

Pitfield, Robert Lucas. "The Shropshire Lass and her Goitre: Some Account of Mary Meredith Webb and her Works," in Annals of Medical Science. Vol. 4, no. 4. July 1942, pp. 284–293.

Wrenn, Dorothy P.H. Goodbye to Morning: A Biographical Study of Mary Webb. Shrewsbury: Wilding & Son, 1964.

suggested reading:

Cavaliero, Glen. The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–1939. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Cockburn, Claud. Bestseller: The Books that Everyone Read 1900–1939. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1972.

related media:

The Wild Heart (82 min. film), starring Jennifer Jones, Emeric Pressburger, Cyril Cusack and Sybil Thorndike , released in 1950.

D. E. Martin , Lecturer in History, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England

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Webb, Mary (1881–1927)

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