Even polymorphous littérateurs have their prejudices and blind spots. Anthony Burgess ungallantly sneers at Mary Webb in Little Wilson and Big God (1986), claiming that his first wife, Llewela Isherwood Jones (‘Of Christopher Isherwood . . . neither the Jones father nor daughter had heard’), was ‘unliterary, a fact confirmed by her liking for Mary Webb’. While at Manchester University in the late 1930s, around the time Burgess, then plain John Wilson, had discovered Finnegans Wake, Llewela gave him The House in Dormer Forest (1920) as a birthday present, though ‘she had overcome her devotion to that writer in a way that Stanley Baldwin never did’. Presumably Burgess never attempted to read the Shropshire author (perhaps he grew tired of listening to Llewela sing her praises), for he would have discovered that here was a visionary much concerned with harnessing language for artistic and symbolic ends:
"Well, it is all gone over now, the trouble and the struggling. It be quiet weather now, like a still evening with the snow all down, and a green sky and lambs calling. I sit here by the fire with my Bible to hand, a very old woman and a tired woman, with a task to do before she says good night to this world. When I look out of my window and see the plain and the big sky with clouds standing up on the mountains, I call to mind the thick, blotting woods of Sarn . . . There was but little sky to see there, saving that which was reflected in the mere; but the sky that is in the mere is not the proper heavens. You see it in a glass darkly, and the long shadows of rushes go thin and sharp across the sliding stars, and even the sun and moon might be put out down there, for, times, the moon would get lost in lily leaves, and, times, a heron might stand before the sun."
Precious Bane, from which the above is taken, is a triumphant brew, mingling folk wisdom, eroticism, mysticism, superstition, romance, the macabre, poignancy, tragedy, death and humour — quite an achievement for a ‘sub-literary’ author. Ghosts even materialize near the end, though they are of the psychological rather than genuine variety. Mary Webb’s poetic language elevates her books from rural melodrama into a higher sphere, ensuring they will always have readers — perhaps when A Clockwork Orange is forgotten. As Robert Lynd observed:
"If it is necessary to classify novelists — and we all attempt to do it — Mary Webb must be put in a class that contains writers so different as Emily Bronte and Thomas Hardy, for whom the earth is predominantly a mystery-haunted landscape inhabited by mortals who suffer. To class her with these writers is not to claim that she is their equal: all that we need claim is that her work is alive with the fiery genius of mystery, pity and awe. It is not too much, indeed, to say that in her writings fiction becomes a branch of poetry . . ."
Mary Webb was born Mary Gladys Meredith at Leighton, near Shrewsbury, below The Wrekin, in 1881. She came of Celtic stock: her father, George Meredith, was a teacher and gentleman farmer. A tender portrait of him appears in Mary’s first novel The Golden Arrow (1916), where he is the kindly, mystical sheep farmer John Arden, father of the heroine Deborah. Mary’s mother, Alice Meredith (née Scott), was related to Sir Walter Scott. Like Arthur Machen, bidding farewell to Gwent eighty miles to the south in the year she was born, Mary had a living spiritual relationship with landscape. In her novels and poetry this is expressed in metaphysical terms:
"For indeed every tree and bush and little flower and sprig of moss, every least herb, sweet or bitter, bird that furrows the air and worm that furrows the soil, every beast going heavily about its task of living be to us a riddle with no answer. We know not what they do. And all this great universe that seems so still is but like a sleeping top, that looks still from very stillness. But why it turns, and what we and all creatures do in the giddy steadfastness of it, we know not." (Precious Bane)
In 1912, two years after the death of her father, which affected her severely, she married Henry Bertram Law Webb (1885-1939), a Cambridge graduate, writer and philosopher, who taught at Meole Brace, the village where the Merediths lived. He was Mary’s soulmate, and much of his strength and integrity are reflected in Kester Woodseaves, the hero of Precious Bane. Henry’s teaching career took them to Weston-super-Mare, where Mary began writing The Golden Arrow, set against the primeval, brooding backcloth of the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones (called Wilderhope and Diafol in the novel). Returning to Mary’s ‘hills of heaven’ in 1914, they lived idyllically at Pontesbury, near Shrewsbury, and later built Spring Cottage on Lyth Hill, one of Mary’s beloved viewpoints. The couple subsequently moved to London, living from 1923 at 5 The Grove, Hampstead (now 12 Hampstead Grove). ‘Transplanting to London did not suit her,’ Henry later confessed, and Mary escaped to Lyth Hill at every possible opportunity; but it at Hampstead, in three months in 1923, that Mary wrote Precious Bane: an amazing tour de force.
That ‘book in a thousand’, as one US reviewer referred to it, is Mary’s best-loved novel. Set in south-west Shropshire around the time of the Battle of Waterloo – thought he book has a timeless quality as it deals with eternal verities – it tells the story of Prudence Sarn’s struggles against rural superstition and the fear of witchcraft. Prue’s wisdom, tenderness and courage make her one of the most memorable heroines in romantic literature. She is cursed with a ‘hare-shotten lip’, a witch-mark supposedly caused when a hare crossed her mother’s path, and this has condemned her to a lonely spinsterhood. ‘Being as how things are, you’ll never marry, Prue’, her brother tells her. In Prue’s girlhood she is innocent of her ‘bane’; only the insensitivity of those around her finally brings it home to her. Prue is granted a deserved fairy tale ending in the arms of Kester, who sees through her disfigurement to the soul within. He rescues her from villagers at Sarn who accuse her of witchcraft, and rides off with her into a blissful life together.
For Prue’s creator there was no happy ending. By 1926 Henry had drifted out of love with her, transferring his affections to a girl he was coaching for university entrance. Henry was the centre of Mary’s world, and this betrayal devastated her. Her health, never robust after a childhood thyroid complaint, broke down under a starvation diet of tea, ‘bread and scrape’ and self-neglect. She died, of pernicious anaemia, at Quarry Hill Nursing Home at St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex, on 8 October 1927, and was buried at Shrewsbury.
Fate conspired against her in death as if life. Her five completed novels had been well received — Rebecca West, no mean critic, stated after the publication of Gone to Earth (1917) ‘Mary Webb is a genius’— but sales were disappointing. After her death the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin praised her novels at a dinner of the Royal Literary Society Fund; she was, he said, ‘one of about the three best writers of English today, but nobody buys her books’. The resulting press coverage aroused public interest, her neglected books were revived, with Introductions by G. K. Chesterton and John Buchan among others, she was widely translated and her works sold in their hundreds of thousands. Then, in 1932, came Stella Gibbons’ parody of the rural novel, Cold Comfort Farm. The book also satirized the works of D. H. Lawrence and T. F. and John Cowper Powys, but Mary Webb was viewed as the principal target. Critics were already hostile to the concept of Mary as a writer of importance. How could a woman from a rural backwater have any artistic merit when the common herd adored her books? Who could trust the opinion of a Tory politician on literature? Thus for many years Mary Webb was facilely dismissed as old fashioned, a mere ‘woman’s writer’. But her books are surely too rewarding to languish long in the shadows.