Mary Webb - Precious BaneSunday, December 12, 2010
In the late 80s, thanks to British Airways I was invited on a press tour of Shropshire and London that was dubbed a literary tour of England. The tour opened my eyes to the poems of Alfred Edward Houseman, and gave me some insights (through locations) into D.H. Lawrence (his birthplace), Lord Byron (Newstead Abbey he lived there briefly) and Oscar Wilde (the Cadogan Hotel ,shortly after opening, the hotel became infamous for Wilde’s arrest in April 1895, in room no. 118. He was charged with “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons”). It was in room 118 that we were read John Betjeman’s famous poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel.
|Devil's Chair, Stiperstones|
But I must admit that I was keener in exploring Ellis Peter’s (the writer of the Brother Cadfael series of which I had read all) Shrewsbury and in noting the statue of Shresbury’s favourite son, Charles Darwin. One of my fellow journalists was the British upper crust sounding (but thoroughly charming) Araminta Wordsworth (a columnist for the National Post) who would have never admitted to have read a single tome of Peters’ prose.
While being shown castles, abbeys and charming little towns there was one name I did not recognize. This happened when we visited the gloomy and gothic Stiperstones (the highest of them is called the Devil’s Chair). Our tour guides kept mentioning Mary Webb. I had never heard of her.
My knowledge of Mary Webb ceased right there. It all changed two weeks ago.
After a pleasant lunch at the Railway Club with my friends, Vancouver Sun columnist Ian Mulgrew, designer Ian Bateson and novelist/thespian and expert on sabers, swords and foils, C.C. Humphreys, the latter and I walked over to the Vancouver Public Library. There was a sale in the atrium of books that had been de-listed (like Rosa ‘Mary Webb’?) or of books given to the library that the library did not want to keep. One of the books that I looked at (and which I subsequently purchased for a quarter) was Precious Bane by Mary Webb. Humphreys (who received a very good education in the British public school system) was impressed and told me the book was famous and considered to be Webb’s. I noted the beautiful illustrations in colour and in b+ w by one Rowland Hilder.
Since purchasing Precious Bane, Rosemary and I have watched The Gathering Storm (a DVD from the Vancouver Public Library) which is about the years in Winston Churchill’s (Albert Finney) life before the war when he was the only one who seemed to recognize Adolph Hitler for whom he was. At the time the Prime Minister was Stanley Baldwin who preceded Chamberlain’s (the prime minister after him) in his attempts to placate Hitler through Britain’s disarmament and while selling Rolls Royce Merlin engines to the Germans. Baldwin was played by Derek Jacobi, everybody’s favourite, and mine, player of Brother Cadfael in the TV series.
Baldwin crept up again in last week’s viewing of The King’s Speech. To be frank I had not only never really heard of Mary Webb, but until recently Baldwin had no connecting synapses in my brain’s memory.
Imagine opening the lovely little green book and reading that the introduction to the book was The Rt Hon Stanley Baldwin. That produced not mental activity or any signs of recognition. It wasn’t until I finished reading the introduction that I noticed 10 Downing Street, S.W.1 October 1928 that my brain reacted!
Mary Meredith, the author of Precious Bane, was born in the little village of Leighton near Cressage,under the Wreckin, on March 25th, 1881, and died at St. Leonards, October 8th, 1927, and was buried in Shrewsbury. She was the daughter of George Edward Meredith, a schoolmaster of Welsh descent, by his marriage with Sarah Alice Scott, daughter of an Edinburgh doctor of the clan of Sir Walter Scott. She was the eldest of six children and spent her early girlhood at The Grange, a small country house near Much Wenlock; form 12 to 21 she lived at Stanton-on-Hine-Heath, six miles north-east of Shrewsbury, and for the next ten years at the Old Mill, Meole Brace, a mile from Shrewsbury. In 1912 Mary Meredith married Mr. Henry Bertram Law Webb, a Cambridge graduate and native of Shropshire. After two years at Weston-super-Mare, where Mr. Webb had a post at in a school, Mr. and Mrs. Webb returned to Shropshire, living in Pontesbury and Lyth Hill, working as market gardeners and selling the produce at their own stall in Shrewsbury market. Mrs. Webb had written stories and poems from childhood, but it was at this period that she seriously turned her mind to writing novels. A volume of essays on nature, The Spring of Joy, and three novels, The Golden Arrow, Gone to Earth, and The House in Dormer Forest, has been published before she came to live in London in 1921. Seven for a Secret followed in 1922, and Precious Bane in 1924. It was awarded the ‘Femina Vie Heureuse’ Prize for 1924-5, given annually for the best work of imagination in prose or verse descriptive of English life by an author who had not attained sufficient recognition.
I am indebted for these biographical particulars to Mr. Webb, to whom Precious Bane is inscribed. I never met Mary Webb and knew nothing of her work until I read Precious Bane at Christmas, 1926. I am glad to think that I was in time to send her a few words of appreciation.
The stupid urban view of the countryside as dull receives a fresh and crushing answer in the books of Mary Webb. All the novels except Precious Bane are set in the hill country of south-wets Shropshire, between the Clee Hills and the Breiddens, and between Shrewsbury and Ludlow. The scene of Precious Bane is the country of north Shropshire meres – the Ellesmere district, but the dialect is that of south Shropshire. In the country of the Severn lowlands and of isolated upland ridges where Celt and Saxon have met and mingled for centuries. For the passing traveller it is inhabited by an uncommunicative population dwelling among places with names like Stedmont and Squlver and Stiperstone, Nipstone and Nind. There are of course the old castles and timbered black and white houses for the motoring visitors. But to the imaginative child brought up among the plowlands and pools and dragon-flies there is ‘a richness of the world, so it looked what our parson used to call sumptuous.’ It is this richness which Mary Webb saw and felt as a girl and remembered with lyrical intensity as a woman.
She has interlaced with this natural beauty the tragic drama of a youth whose whole being is bent on the toil and thrift and worldly success only to find himself defeated on the morrow of the harvest by the firing of the cornricks by the father of his lover. The dour figure of Gideon Sarn is set against that of his gentle sister, Prudence, who tells the tale. She is a woman flawed with a hare-shotten lip and cursed in the eyes of the neighbours until her soul’s loveliness is discerned by Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. And so there comes to her at the end of the story the love which is ‘the peace to which all hearts do strive.’
The strength of the book is not in its insight into human character, though that is not lacking. Nor does it lie in the inevitability which with the drama is unfolded and the sin of an all-absorbing and selfish ambition punished. It lies in the fusion of the elements of nature and man, as observed in this remote countryside by a woman even more alive to the changing moods of nature than of man. Almost any page at random will furnish an illustration of the blending of human passion with the fields and skies.
‘So they rode away, and the sound of the people died till it was less than the hum of a midge, and there was nothing but a scent of rosemary, and warm sun, and the horse lengthening its stride towards the mountains, whence came the air of morning’ (p. 126).
One reviewer compared Precious Bane to a sampler stitched through long summertime evenings in the bay window ofa remote farmhouse. And sometimes writers of Welsh and Border origin, like William Morris, have had their work compared to old tapestries. But while these comparisons suggest something of the harmonies of colour they fail to convey the emotional force which glows in these pages. Nature to Mary Webb was not a pattern on a screen. Her sensibility is so acute and her power over words so sure and swift that one who reads some passages in Whitehall has almost the physical sense of being in Shropshire cornfields.
|Unintended multiple exposure somewhere in Shropshire|
Precious Bane is a revelation not of unearthly but of earthly beauty in one bit of the England of Waterloo, the Western edge, haunted in the shadows of superstition, the legendary lore and phantasy of neighbours on the Border, differing in blood and tongue. This mingling of peoples and traditions and turns of speech and proverbial wisdom is what Mary Webb saw with the eye of the mind as she stood at her stall in Shrewsbury market, fastened in her memory, and fashioned for us in the little parcel of novels which is her legacy to literature.
10 Downing Street, S.W.1
There is a moment in Precious Bane by which our hare
-lipped heroine (stark naked) is pulled up a trap in a room where there is a pink light and smoke and the seated Squire who is there to see the raising of Venus that is as erotic a scene as I have ever read. I will not reveal any further details. But I would like to precede what to me is the better part of the quote above in Baldwin’s introduction:
I saw a great crowd of people beside the troubled water of Sarn. They were dressed in holiday colours, but their faces were evil. Then one came riding through them in a tall horse, and his face was the face of the weaver. A woman stood forth from the crowd. She had a necklace if green glass beads and green blazing eyes. She cried out- ‘My body, my body, for a ride in your saddle!” But he turned aside from her to one who stood hidden, in a torn, sad-coloured dress, with a hare-shotten lip. He stooped to her, saying – ‘Ah, my dear acquaintance!’
And she gave him a sprig of rosemary. She said no word and she supposed he would go by her. But he set his arms about her and gathered her up before him on the saddle, and his right arm was strong around her. So they rode away…
In my Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia I found an interesting citation:
Cold Comfort Farm (1932) a novel By Stella Gibbons (1902- ) A brilliant parody of the novel rustic pessimism, such as those written by Mary Webb (see Precious Bane) and other writers in the Hardy tradition, it virtually put an end to a widely popular genre.
Also interesting is the fact that Thomas Hardy died in 1928, only a year after Mary Webb.
Shining a light on a forgotten poet
Rosa 'Mary Webb"