Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Stanford Library Exhibit Celebrates "A Neglected Genius."

Novelist And Poet Mary Webb, Neglected Genius.
(Image Courtesy Of
Has No One Heard Of Mary Webb? Facebook Page.)

Welsh writer Caradoc Evans summed up the brief life of his friend, English novelist and poet Mary Webb (1881-1927), with these bitter words: "All her life she had wished for riches, fame, applause, admiration, babies . . . and she got nothing." In 2010, thanks to one dedicated collector, The Grolier Club, and Stanford University's Cecil H. Green Library, Mary Webb has another chance to gain at least that fame, applause, and admiration. (The riches and babies are still a lost cause...) The first-ever exhibition celebrating her life and work is now on display.

Mary Webb As A Girl In Her Beloved Shropshire.
(Image Courtesy Of Mary E. Crawford.)

The exhibition, Mary Webb: Neglected Genius, consists of items from the personal collection of "Webbiana" amassed by amateur literary historian Mary E. Crawford over a 25 year period. Ms. Crawford estimates that over the years she and her husband, Bruce, have spent $250,000 on the nearly 600 piece collection. Through sheer determination they have acquired first editions and important association copies of Webb's published works, along with manuscripts, correspondence, and ephemera from the Shropshire writer's career. Luckily, unlike many collectors, Ms. Crawford is eager to share the fruits of her labor of love with the public. She curated Mary Webb: Neglected Genius, published a two volume exhibit catalog of the same name, and created a companion "Webb-site,"

Lordshill Chapel And Minister's House In Shropshire, One Of The Settings For Mary Webb's Novel, Gone To Earth.

"The chapel and minister's house at God's Little Mountain were all in one – surrounded by the graveyard, where stones, flat, erect, and askew, took the place of a flower garden. Away to the left, just over a rise, the hill was gashed by the grey steeps of the quarries. In front rose another curve covered with thick woods…Behind the house God's Little Mountain sloped softly up and away apparently to its possessor."
- Gone to Earth

Mary Webb published six novels and one volume of poetry during her brief career. She also had numerous poems and short stories published in magazines like The Spectator and The Atlantic Monthly. Her work was well-reviewed, but never popular. And though she was paid reasonably well for her writing, she was hopeless with money, and plagued by debt and poverty. Her charitable donations were generous to a fault, leading a friend to say: "She might have twenty pounds in the morning and hardly ten shillings at night." One of the items in the current exhibition is the slightly charred manuscript of Webb's last, posthumously published novel, Armour Wherein He Trusted. It was rescued from the fireplace by Mary's husband, and is the only one of her original drafts not to have been burned for wintertime warmth.

The Devil's Chair At Stiperstones, A Setting For Mary Webb's Novel, The Golden Arrow. (Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia Commons.)

"For miles around, in the plains, the valleys, the mountain dwellings it was feared. It drew the thunder, people said. Storms broke round it suddenly out of a clear sky; it seemed almost as if it created storm…. It had the look of a chair from which the occupant has just risen, to which he will shortly return."
- The Golden Arrow

Webb's work was respected and admired by many major writers of her day, including Dame Rebecca West, J.M. Barrie, and G.K. Chesterton. In a 1917 review of Webb's second novel, Rebecca West wrote: "This year’s discovery has been Mary Webb, author of Gone to Earth. She is a genius, and I shouldn't mind wagering that she is going to be the most distinguished writer of our generation." Had she made that bet, West would have lost. Webb's work was so praised for its poetic descriptions of the Shropshire countryside; its frank addressing of controversial topics such as premarital sex, abortion, and patricide; and its psychologically complex characters that she was favorably compared to Thomas Hardy. But she never came close to Hardy's fame or fortune during her lifetime.

Buildwas Abbey In Shropshire, A Setting Which Inspired Mary's Last Book, Armour Wherein He Trusted.
(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

A shy and sensitive woman, Mary Webb suffered with ill health for most of her life. At twenty she was diagnosed with a case of the then-incurable thyroid condition, Graves' Disease. This illness cursed Webb with exhaustion, fevers, nervousness, severe headaches, and depression for the rest of her life, and also progressively disfigured her face and neck. She married late for a woman of her generation, at age 31 in 1912. Her husband, a school teacher and part-time writer, was at first supportive of her career, but later abandoned her for one of his much younger students. Poverty, loneliness, and disappointment caused her to assess herself as a failure who was "wholly-ungifted," and "whelmed in remorse and terror," by her literary shortcomings. She died alone in her Shropshire cottage from complications of Graves' Disease at age 46.

British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Who Turned Mary Webb's Books Into Best Sellers.
(Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia Commons.)

Mary Webb's reputation was made six months after her death by a fervent admirer of her work, then Prime Minister of The United Kingdom, Stanley Baldwin. He praised her writing in a speech at a Royal Literary Fund dinner in 1928, and announced his displeasure at the press for scarcely acknowledging her passing. Upon seeing a headline story featuring Baldwin's praise of Webb as a "neglected genius," publisher Jonathan Cape quickly produced a seven-volume set of Webb's complete novels and poetry. Each individual volume became a stand-alone best seller, and Cape and Mary's widower (from whom she had never been divorced) reaped a tidy profit. But Mary Webb's literary flame dimmed as quickly as it flared, and by the 1950's she was once again forgotten by all but a tiny circle of devoted readers and scholars.

Mary Webb In Later Years.
(Image Courtesy Of Mary E. Crawford.)

Now once more, a small group of Mary Webb's devotees want to have a big impact on her literary stature. Collector and curator Mary E. Crawford hopes Mary Webb: Neglected Genius, shown earlier this year at New York City's prestigious Grolier Club, and now on display at Stanford through August of 2010, will cause the writer's work "to be re-evaluated by the academic community." And already, important collections of Webb's papers are held in archives at the University of North Texas and at Smith College. And in Webb's native Shropshire, the setting for all of her novels, a series of four walking tours in her honor has been created on the "Mary Webb Trails," which pass by locations central to her novels. If things continue like this, perhaps the next exhibition of her work can be entitled: Mary Webb: Recognized Genius.


  1. See Gladys Mary Coles' introductory biography of Mary Webb in Seren's Border Lines series

  2. Amazing. Thanks for your excellent post. I'm putting Webb on my library list.

  3. When I was a wee girl dashing up the steps of a rickety stair to a waiting train in New York, I stopped to buy a paperback read, Precious Bane, that has resonated throughout my life. On that long ride, in those pages, I fell in love with the writer, her transparency of soul, her luminous love and compassion for all things, her transcendent vision that revealed with a recognizable clarity and beauty what we all intuit "out there and within." On that long ride, I woke up.

  4. Thanks. Nice article. Was introduced to Mary Webb by Virago many years ago. I also have a first (that is,fully illustrated) edition of "The Golden Arrow" (Jonathan Cape) published 1930, which I think must have been sent as a review copy to "Punch"... The illustrations (including some colour plates) are by Norman Hepple (RA?)
    Didn't realise that Stanley Baldwin was a champion of her work, good for him...but am very annoyed that that odious-sounding husband of her's probably reaped all the financial benefits of the posthumous editions!
    Graves disease is still tricky to treat these days, but no longer a death sentence (I've had it...) Indeed, it's shockingly sad that MW felt so marginalised and under-appreciated just before her death etc...


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