The following profile has been specially written for Literary Heritage West Midlands by Gladys Mary Coles, president of The Mary Webb society.
Mary Webb (Mary Gladys Meredith) was born at Leighton, Shropshire, on 25th March 1881. On both sides of her parentage she was Celtic. George Edward Meredith, her father, was a country gentleman and tutor, proud of his Welsh descent; her mother, Sarah Alice Meredith, was the only child of a rich Edinburgh surgeon, Walter Scott (of the clan of his great namesake). Mary was their first child, and eldest by six years of the other Meredith children (she had two sisters and three brothers).
When Mary was still a baby her parents moved to Much Wenlock, buying a large house, The Grange, their home from 1882-96. Here George Meredith, an Oxford M.A., expanded his boarding school for boys and kept a home farm. A cultured man who wrote poetry and painted, he was generous, humorous and a lover of nature. Mary adored him and he was a great influence on her. He shared with her his deep knowledge of the countryside and introduced her to the history, folklore and legends of Shropshire. Taught in her father's school, and later by a Governess, Miss Lory, Mary's studies included her favourite writers--Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantic poets, the Brontës, Thomas Hardy--and many other works of English and Classical literature. At fourteen, she went to a Finishing School at Southport for two years, her first period away from home. Already her deep bond with the Shropshire countryside was a moulding influence on her mind and spirit, and this is seen in some of her earliest poems. Also among her early writings were stories and little plays to amuse her small brothers and sisters.
Mary loved to wander in Shropshire fields, woods and lanes, studying the natural wonders of her environment. She developed an extraordinary perception of minute detail in nature, reflected throughout her poetry and prose. The Merediths moved, in 1896, to 'The Woodlands' at Stanton-on-Hine Heath in north Shropshire. Here, unfortunately, Mary fell seriously ill at the age of 20, with Graves Disease, an incurable thyroid disorder. This disease caused ill health for much of her life and contributed to her early death. It also altered her appearance, resulting in protrusion of the eyes and goitre. Mary became very self-conscious, retreating into her own solitary world and relying ever more on the joy and solace she found in nature.
During convalescence from this first attack of Graves Disease, she wrote the nature essays which became her first prose work, The spring of joy (not published until 1917 when she had made her name as a novelist).
When, in 1902, the Merediths moved to Meole Brace near Shrewsbury, Mary was still recovering from her illness. She loved their new home, Maesbrook, an old Mill House, with a mill race running through the wooded grounds. Gradually she became stronger, venturing out into Shrewsbury, borrowing books from the library and attending literary lectures and concerts. It was a devastating blow when her father died early in 1909, leaving her again very ill with Graves Disease.
In 1910 Mary met Henry B. L. Webb, a young Cambridge graduate who came to live at Meole Brace (a nephew of the first Channel-swimmer, Captain Webb). Henry was a teacher, cultured and charming; Mary saw in him qualities she had loved in her father. They shared interests in writing and nature, and became engaged in 1911. The following year they married on 12th June at Holy Trinity Church, Meole Brace.
After the wedding, Mary had to leave Shropshire to live at Weston-super-Mare where Henry was then teaching. In exile from her beloved countryside, she began writing her first novel, The golden arrow, set in an area of the south Shropshire hills which she knew intimately--the Long Mynd and Stiperstones, and the valleys between. She created a portrait of her father in the central character, the gentle shepherd, John Arden. Like Emily Brontë, unhappy when away from the Haworth moors, Mary was homesick for her border landscape, so essential to her creative spirit.
The Webbs returned to Shropshire in 1914, living at Pontesbury, where Mary completed The golden arrow (published 1916). The First World War affected her deeply; she was concerned for her three brothers serving at the Western Front. At this time of sadness and horror at the carnage of the war, Mary wrote her second novel, Gone to earth (published 1917), again a rural story set in the south Shropshire hills, but reflecting in its mood and tragedy her response to those dark years. This novel was acclaimed by Rebecca West and other critics and writers of the day, such as John Buchan.
In 1917, Mary fulfilled her dream of living in a house of her own on Lyth Hill, near to the village of Bayston Hill. She and Henry, then teaching at the Priory School, Shrewsbury, bought a field and had a small bungalow built, naming it Spring Cottage. Lyth Hill, overlooking the Shropshire Plain, was Mary's favourite place. Here she found peace and derived inspiration for her novels and poems. At Spring Cottage she wrote The house in Dormer Forest, her third, and most humorous novel, published in 1920; this and her earlier novels were vied for by American publishers. Mary spent her literary earnings on presents for children at Lyth Hill and on the streets of Shrewsbury. Sadly, she had no child of her own
Henry Webb, in 1921, took up a teaching post in London at the King Alfred School. While keeping Spring Cottage to return to during the school holidays and weekends, the Webbs moved to live in the capital, first at Bayswater, then from 1923 at Hampstead. Before long there were strains in their relationship. Henry was enjoying his new teaching post, but Mary yearned for Shropshire. Pining for Lyth Hill, she returned frequently to Spring Cottage, yet felt desolate there too, missing Henry. However, in London her literary career was benefiting from contact with other writers and editors, and from attending meetings of literary societies.
Seven for a secret, her fourth novel, published in 1922: was reviewed in all the notable journals and newspapers. Afterwards she herself became a reviewer, writing for The Spectator and The Bookman. Her finest achievement was the award of the Prix Femina, a coveted literary prize, for her fifth novel, Precious bane (1924), a story of rural Shropshire in the early nineteenth century. This book was greatly admired by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who sent Mary a letter of appreciation. But although her work was praised by discerning critics, Mary had not yet won popular success. This wider public recognition was to come too late. By 1926 her health was failing, and also her marriage; she was also worried by debt, yet gave generously to the beggars crowding the London streets. Distressed and ill, Mary was unable to finish her sixth novel, Armour wherein he trusted, set in medieval Shropshire.
She spent the summer of 1927 alone at Spring Cottage, and in late September travelled to St. Leonard's-on-Sea, Sussex, to be with her former governess, Miss Lory. In a nursing home at St. Leonard's, Mary died on 8th October at the age of forty-six. She was brought home to Shropshire for burial at Shrewsbury Cemetery.
Mary's death went virtually unnoticed in the press and literary world. Ironically, six months later she became posthumously famous when the Prime Minister acclaimed her work in his speech at the Royal Literary Fund Dinner (April 1928). Newspapers the next day reported Baldwin's tribute to this 'neglected genius' and the public flocked to buy her books. Publisher Jonathan Cape brought out the Collected works of Mary Webb (1928-29), which included her five novels, the unfinished novel, her short stories, poems and nature essays. These were bestsellers throughout the 1930s and went into many editions.
The late twentieth century has seen a revival of interest in Mary Webb dating from the 1970s, with the founding of the Mary Webb Society and the publication of the first major study of her life and work, The flower of light, an award-winning biography by the present writer, Gladys Mary Coles.
For her evocation of the Shropshire border countryside, her timeless themes and insights, her perception of people and of nature, Mary Webb's writings will continue to attract and reward both readers and students of literature.
© Gladys Mary Coles, 2003.
The following works are available in the West Midlands Creative Literature Collection:-
Armour wherein he
The golden arrow (1916)
Gone to earth (1917)
The house in Dormer Forest (1920)
Precious bane (1924)
Seven for a secret (1922)
The Spring of joy (1917)
A sample chapter and the complete text of the following are available on this website:
Most of the towns and villages mentioned in Mary Webb's novels under fictitious names are easily identifiable. For example 'Silverton' is Shrewsbury, 'Mallard's Keep' is Bishop's Castle, and 'Slepe' is Ratlinghope. Her poem Viroconium was inspired by by the Roman city of this name, the remains of which can be seen at Wroxeter, Shropshire.
Those marked with an asterisk (*) are available in the West Midlands Creative Literature Collection:-
Goodbye to morning* (1964) by Dorothy P. H. Wrenn
Mary Webb; a narrative bibliography of her life and work* (1981) by Gordon Dickins
Selected Poems by Mary Webb (1987) edited by Gladys Mary Coles
Mary Webb: a biographical and critical study (reprint 1996) by Gladys Mary Coles
The flower of light* (1998) by Gladys Mary Coles
Mary Webb and her Shropshire world (2003) by Gladys Mary Coles
A short walk along Wenlock Edge is described on this website. It includes fine views of the countryside that the young Mary Webb knew and loved, including a glimpse through the trees of her home at The Grange.
The Mary Webb Society is actively promoting the enjoyment of the author and their website is regularly updated. They maintain a small collection of documents at The Mary Webb Library, Bayston Hill, Shrewsbury, Shropshire.
Page created 9 February 2001 and last
updated 23 January 2003
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