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Mary Webb, writer in a timeless landscape
Novelist and poet Mary Webb is the Shropshire Novelist. Her beautifully crafted characters are set against a timeless landscape that Webb knew intimately.
One of Shropshire's most famous writers is of course the novelist and poet Mary Webb (1881-1927)
She was born Gladys Mary Meredith on March 25th 1881 at Leighton Lodge, Leighton, a village south of Shrewsbury.
She was the eldest child of a teacher, George Edward Meredith and his wife Sarah Alice.
When Mary Webb was just one year old, the family moved to Much Wenlock where she was to spend most of her childhood.
Mary loved to walk and cycle in the Shropshire countryside. She was a great lover of the natural world, and the inspiration that her rural home provided is evident in her early work. Many of her essays and poems which have nature as the main theme (published in 1917 as The Spring of Joy).
In 1910, a year after the death of her father, Mary met her future husband Henry Webb, a teacher who shared her interest in writing. She had been devastated by the loss of her father and writing poetry had proved something of a therapy. Some of her most poignant poems were written at this time.
She married in 1912 and Mary spent an unhappy two years living away from Shropshire. At this time she began her first novel, The Golden Arrow, based in the Church Stretton area.
The Webbs returned to Shropshire in 1914 where Mary finished The Golden Arrow (published in 1916). At the time they were renting a cottage in Pontesbury near to the Stiperstones which features so heavily in that novel.
Mary's second novel Gone to Earth (1917), which was later made into a film, was written in response to her sadness at the cruelty of war. It was written during an unhappy period of her life when she had to spend the majority of her time away from her beloved Shropshire.
Lyth Hill by Danny Beath
In 1917 her husband Henry secrured a job at the Priory School in Shrewsbury and Mary was able to realise her dream when they acquired a small bungalow at Lyth Hill called Spring Cottage. It was here that Mary wrote The House in Dormer Forest (1920). She loved living in Lyth Hill and spent many hours enjoying the surrounding countryside and gathering information to include in later novels and poems.
But the search for literary success was to take Mary away from Shropshire once again and Mary and Henry moved to London next. Bouts of ill health followed, with alternate periods of nervous activity followed by deep depression. Her marriage was under stress too, due in part to her own possessiveness over Henry. However, she still managed to complete her fifth novel in 1922 Seven for a Secret followed two years later by Precious Bane.
This, like her other novels, was rich in folk lore and humour with cleverly drawn characters. Her effort was richly rewarded when for this book she was awarded the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse.
At last her place in the literary world was confirmed but ironically it was only after her death that the public acclaim for which she had longed was finally given to her.
The then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin praised her work at a literary dinner and this triggered off a remarkable demand for her work.
Her novels became best sellers for a number of years up to the outbreak of the Second World War.
After the war Mary Webb's name was largely forgotten and only in the last ten years has it begun to emerge and her work to be reassessed.
Mary Webb is now considered to be the Shropshire novelist. She loved and knew the county intimately. In her novels and poems, she created a timeless landscape peopled with vivid characters whose wisdom illustrates many well observed truths.
Most of the towns and villages mentioned in her novels under fictitious names are easily identifiable. For example Silverton is Shrewsbury, Mallard's Keep is Bishop's Castle and Slepe is Ratlinhope.
last updated: 30/07/2008 at 13:10