We tend to buy old books at library and tag sales to rescue them, particularly poetry books by women, suspecting they never had much of an audience. Who knows what hidden brilliance we might find?
Of course, the path to discovery is usually well-worn, and someone in Britain will have formed a Literary Society in her honor. But in this case, we too have finally learned a bit about Mary Webb. And in our defense, her own online biography is titled “Neglected Genius.”
What precipitated our investigation, however, was thumbing through “Poems and the Spring of Joy,” and coming across the following passages. (Bear with us, you’ll see where we’re heading in a minute, ye of little patience for poetic prose.)
“It does not matter how shut in we are. Opportunity for wide experience is of small account in this as in other things; it is depth that brings understanding and life. Dawn, seen through a sick woman’s window, however narrow, pulses with the same fresh wonder as it does over the whole width of the sea. A branch of flushed wild-apple brings the same joy as the mauve trumpet-flower of the tropics. One violet is a sweet as an acre of them. And it often happens – as if by a kindly law of compensation-that those who have only one violet find the way through its narrow, purple gate into the land of God, while many who walk over dewy carpets of them do not so much as know that there is a land or a way.
“Earth is not only the mother of the young, the strong, the magnificent, whose tried muscles and long-limbed grace are the embodiment of her physical life, in whose eager glance burns the vitality of her spirit: she is also the pitiful mother of those who have lost all; she will sing lullabies to them instead of battle-songs; she will pour her life into them through long blue days and silver nights; she will give back the mirth and beauty that have slipped through their fingers.
She describes “the sirocco of pain,” and then…
“Out in this world the spirit that was so desolate, lost in the strange atmosphere of physical inferiority, may once more feel the zest that he thought was gone for ever. And this zest is health: sweeping into the mind and into those recesses of being beyond the conscious self, it overflows into the body. Very often this great rush of joy, this drinking of the freshets of the divine, brings back perfect health. Even in diseases that are at present called incurable, and that are purely physical, no one will deny the immense alleviation resulting from this new life…
“Laughter need not be lost to those that are cut off from their fellows. The little creatures of earth are the court jesters of all that dwell in the hall of sorrow. And although more insight and love are needed to enjoy their subtle humour than to enjoy our own, we have an ample reward of unfailing and spontaneous laughter. As vicarious grief is the keenest of all, so is vicarious laughter. Anyone who has watched the farcical solemnities of a rookery, the carefully thought-out inanities of wagtails, the drunken decorum of bees in full honeyflow, will not mind being cut off from human gatherings, where the laughter is sometimes a little mirthless…
“There are many to whom all beauty seems denied; they hunger for it dumbly, unconsciously. Is their life to be a stricken tree, colourless and silent? Surely not.
“The flawless forms and colours of nature are an especial consolation to those who are oppressed by that dark tragedy, deformity of body or unloveliness of face. How deep is the desolation, when a sad soul looks out anxiously, through eyes that cannot reflect its beauty, watching for an answering smile, and meeting only a look of swiftly concealed repulsion!…
“Then a voice came in the long sigh of the dawn breeze: ‘I know, inhabitant of eternity, how strait and comfortless your home is. Go out into my garden and forget. The skies are clear; see where I lead out my sidereal flocks! The tall young larches are dreaming of green; there is moonlight in the primrose woods. There is a fit dwelling for you; go, and be at peace.’
She rose and went, and her laugh came back upon the wind. The leaves do not hesitate to finger and kiss any face, however marred, that looks up into their dwelling. No distortion of body frightens the birds, if the heart within loves them.”
Whew. This is evocative stuff, and during our reading our associative thinking conjured up Mrs. Rochester, consumptive orphans, Madame Blavatsky, the transcendentalists, Zen, John Donne, swooning Victorian ladies with smelling salts, the Elephant boy. In other words, we were confused, but intrigued. We looked up “sidereal” – it means of, or relating to, the stars. And we looked up Mary Webb.
Mary Webb (1881-1927), an English Romantic writer, was the eldest of six children. Her father ran a boarding school for boys and small farm near Northeast Wales. Mary was an only child for six years, then her five siblings were born within seven years, so she saw little of her preoccupied mother in her late childhood. She spent much of her time in her father’s school and library, and also rambled in the countryside. When she was sixteen, her mother, injured in a riding accident during a hunt, took to her bed as a semi-invalid, leaving Mary to care for her siblings. According to the MWS biography, “the next few years, while her mother kept to her bedroom, were among the happiest of Mary’s life.”
“In the spring of 1900 Mary’s mother unexpectedly reappeared, after many years spent in her bedroom as a semi-invalid, and rejoined the family without comment. Biographers speculate that Alice, a proper Victorian matron, arose from her bed when she believed that the lack of economic sense showed by her husband George and daughter Mary was leading the family to financial ruin. Nineteen-year-old Mary was henceforward relieved of family responsibilities. She was expected to obey her mother’s wishes respectfully and to follow her iron discipline.”
The following year, Mary collapsed and was discovered to have Grave’s disease (caused by an overactive thyroid), that was incurable at the time. It can cause disfiguring side effects (goiter, an enlarged throat) and bulging eyes. It was during this time when she wrote the above passages, which make sense in the context of a nature-loving young woman, suddenly losing her household status, looks, and health.
During the next decade, her health improved to an extent, and she continued writing and attended literary discussion groups, where she met her husband Henry, five years her junior. Once married, they moved to the Somerset coast, where Henry taught school briefly before pursuing his own writing career, supported in part by Mary’s own writing and inheritance. He resumed teaching when the war broke out, which along with nearsightedness and a bad back, gave him an exemption from active duty.
“Mary completed her second novel, Gone to Earth, during the year of the Battle of the Somme. Published in 1917, the novel (although set in Shropshire and never directly mentioning the war) is a passionate cry against man’s inhumanity to man. Rebecca West, in her review of Gone to Earth in the Times Literary Supplement, stated unequivocally “Mary Webb is a genius.” In a later symposium on novels for a leading London newspaper, West proclaimed Gone to Earth as “Novel of the Year” for 1917. Even though the novel was well received by critics, few people during wartime had the leisure or inclination to read fiction, and the booming guns of the Western Front drowned the voice of the poet.”
The couple moved to London, where Henry taught and she continued publishing. Eventually they built Spring Cottage in the Shropshire countryside, where Mary often retreated to write, as her health, and relationship with Henry deteriorated, as a result of his preoccupation with a young student he was tutoring. The biography does not state this explicitly, but it appears that the student in question would have been twelve to Henry’s thirty-five.
At age 46, Mary succumbed to her disease. Under-recognized during her lifetime, shortly following her death her works became best-sellers. Her widower Henry, now forty-three and wealthy from royalties earned from Mary’s books, retired from teaching and married his former student Kathleen, now twenty.
The plot thickens.
“Henry and Kathleen Webb owned a home in Golders Green; a cottage in New Forest; a Bentley; and a yacht. The newly-wealthy Webbs also enjoyed traveling to Portofino, Italy to practice their Italian. In 1939, soon after editing A Mary Webb Anthology, Henry Webb died at the age of fifty-three in a fall from the pinnacle of Scafell in the Lake District. [Gladys Mary] Coles suggests in the final chapter of her later biography (Mary Webb, 1990, p. 153), and in her published poem “To Henry Webb” (The Echoing Green, 1994, p. 67), that Henry’s fall may have been suicide. While the Coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death, Coles points out that this was Henry’s second “fall” in months.”
Hmm. Well, well, well. Was it guilt? And who (or what!) might have accompanied wealthy, nearsighted old Henry on those Cliffside walks?
Pardon us. It’s just all so…gothic. And the final twist?
“Coles tells us that, in a twist of irony that would not have been lost on Mary Webb, Kathleen Webb (then a thirty-year-old widow with two children) inherited Mary Webb’s literary estate.
By a strange coincidence, Kathleen, like Mary Webb, died of an incurable disease at the age of forty-six.”
You can read more of Webb’s biography here. Of note, the Webb’s Shropshire cottage is now at the center of a controversy. And there is a Mary Webb Society, which, among other things, arranges healthful walks in the countryside. Stella Gibbons‘s 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm was a parody of Webb’s work.