British Author
Born 1881 Died 1927

She was born Mary Gladys Meredith on the 25th March 1881 at Leighton Lodge in Leighton, a village to the south of Shrewsbury in Shropshire, the eldest of the six children of George Edward Meredith and his wife Sarah. Her father was a "country gentleman of Welsh descent" and an Oxford graduate, who became a schoolteacher, while her mother was the only daughter of an Edinburgh doctor who claimed to be a distant relation of the novelist Walter Scott.

Shortly after her birth her parents moved to The Grange at Much Wenlock where she spent much of her childhood. She received her early education through a mixture of governesses and attendance at her father's school, before spending two years at Mrs Walmsley's Finishing School in Southport, whilst she later took some literature courses in Shrewsbury which were run by the Cambridge University Extension Society. Her upbringing was also especially effected by the influnce to her father George Meredith who instilled in her a love of nature and an interest in the traditions and folklore of Shropshire.

A vegetarian from childhood, she became an opponent of blood sports, especially fox-hunting, but at the age of twenty she became seriously ill with Graves' disease, otherwise known as thyrotoxicosis which left her with a disfigured face and a reclusive disposition. It was while she was convalescing from her first attack of that disease that she wrote many of the nature essays that were later published as The Spring of Joy in 1917, and began to develop a serious interest in writing.

It was 1910 that Mary met a schoolmaster Henry Bertram Law Webb who shared her interest in writing. They were married on the the 12th June 1912 and went to Weston-super-Mare, where Henry had a teaching post. There Mary became homesick for her native Shropshire and began writing what was to be her first novel The Golden Arrow, in which she created a fictional version of the Shropshire world that she knew so well.

The Webbs returned to Shropshire in 1914, and spent the two years at Pontesbury. They moved briefly to Chester in 1916, but returned to Shropshire in 1917 when Henry secrured a job at the Priory School in Shrewsbury and the couple went to live at Spring Cottage in nearby Lyth Hill. The Golden Arrow was published in 1916 under her married named and followed by Gone to Earth in 1917. Further novels followed in 1920 and 1922 all of which were favourably reviewed and suggested that Mary had a future as a novelist.

In 1921 the Webbs decided to move to London in order to further Mary's literary career (Henry found a teaching post at the King Alfred School). Mary reviewed books, firstly for The Spectator (1922–1925) and then for The Bookman (1925–27) whilst writing her fifth and best-known novel, Precious Bane (1924), which won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize. But although her literary career benefited from the move to London her health suffered and she died of combination of pernicious anaemia and Graves' disease at the Quarry Hill Nursing Home in St Leonards, Sussex, on the 8th October 1927, at the age of forty-six, and was later buried at Shrewsbury cemetery on 12th October. Her sixth unfinished novel, Armour Wherein he Trusted was published after her death in 1929.

Although her work was supported by a number of literary heavyweights such as Walter de la Mare, John Buchan and Rebecca West, Mary received little in the form of popular acclaim during her lifetime. It was only after her death that her work became popular, thanks largely to the efforts of the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. He wrote her a letter of appreciation shortly before her death in January 1927 and afterwards eulogised her work at a Royal Literary Fund dinner held on the 25th April 1928. Her novels subsequently became best-sellers throughout the 1930s and 1940s although interest waned rapidly thereafter as tastes changed.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger filmed Gone to Earth in 1950, much of which was shot on location in Shropshire and featured Jennifer Jones in the starring role. The film's American release was much delayed as David Selznick felt it needed improvement and insisted that much of it should be reshot for its American release. When the film finally emerged in May 1952 it was under a new title The Wild Heart and made little impact. The original version was unavailable until the National Film Archive released a new print at the 1985 London Film Festival. Some hailed it as a a masterpiece; others sympathise with the original view of the New Statesman which described the film as "the worst bit of kitsch its makers have yet produced".

This reflects a persistent divergence of opinion regarding the value of Mary Webb's novels. There are enthusiasts such as Gladys Mary Coles who argue that her work is becoming increasingly relevant because of "her perception of the natural environment and man's relationship with it", Mary Webb's work can firmly be placed in the 'rural genre' which was so ably satirised by Cold Comfort Farm and regard it as the sort of nonsense that it best forgotten about. Some remain enthusiastic about her work. There is (or at least was until recently) a Mary Webb Society founded in 1972 which has arranged for commemorative plaques to be placed at the Mary Webb Library in Shrewsbury, and at the house which she briefly lived at Weston-super-Mare; while Shropshire Tourism has sought to take advantage of the fact that all her novels are set in south Shropshire by designating a Mary Webb Trail which highlights many of the locations which are featured in her work. Shropshire County Council also has a fairly comprehensive website on Mary Webb's work as part of the West Midlands Creative Literature Collection which includes downloadable copies of all her novels which are now out of copyright.

Bibliography

Novels

Other


REFERENCES

Gladys Mary Coles, ‘Webb , Mary Gladys (1881–1927)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
Mary Webb 1881-1927 Profile by Gladys Mary Coles http://www3.shropshire-cc.gov.uk/webb.htm
Mary Webb Trail http://www.shropshiretourism.info/mary-webb/

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