It was the first time that I had been to Much Wenlock and I was impressed. We were passing through, just to see the sights, to get a taste of this part of England – Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, Worcester, its Cathedral, the River Severn – I liked everything that I saw.
At Much Wenlock one could not fail to notice the imposing church standing just off the village square and I went inside for a quick look round but I was only in the village for a short while and there wasn’t time for browsing. Besides, there was plenty more to see. .
It was as I was walking back past the wall surrounding the church grounds that I came face to face with Mary. She is an old friend, not thought about for years and I experienced that leap of pleasure at the memory of the time our lives touched.
Let me explain that Mary Webb was not walking along the street towards me. If that had been the case I would have been seriously disturbed because she had been dead for eighty-eight years. Instead I had stopped to read a sign pinned to the wall and it told me that there was a memorial to her in the church gardens. Until that moment I had forgotten any connection with Mary Webb the novelist and Shropshire.
I immediately went into the garden to find it and It wasn’t easy. The area was surrounded by deep, mature hedges and it took me a while, poking under the shrubbery to locate her. Even then she was barely visible, being shrouded in shadow.
People who dismiss history miss so much. One of the many pleasures is coming upon someone who, had you both been alive in the same time and place, you would have liked, wanted to chat with and share their company. Mary Webb was just such a person. There was more information to be had in the village tourist office and I made my way there to find out what I could.
Mary had been born in 1889 near Wenlock Edge, a dramatic ridge that dominates the skyline. Her father, George Meredith, headmaster of a boys’ school had educated her himself until sending her off at the age of 14 to finishing school in Southport. He encouraged her to write and to immerse herself in the essence of the countryside and the culture and language of the local people.
Mary’s family life was not straightforward. An only child until she was six, her mother (who was distantly related to Sir Walter Scott) then produced several children in quick succession so that Mary learned to rely on herself. When she returned from Southport however, her mother was ill and she became the carer for her siblings, a role she seems to have embraced. When her mother recovered, she was no longer needed
When Mary was twenty, she began to be ill. It was the sort of condition with no obvious cause but leaving the sufferer exhausted and generally feeling unwell. She was finally diagnosed with Graves disease, a glandular problem that has the unhappy side effect of causing the eyes to bulge and the throat to swell with a goitre. Unhappily, what cannot be cured must be endured and Mary endured.
Then she fell in love. The object of her desire was Henry, Bertram, Law Webb, a teacher and the pair married and moved to Weston Super Mare. Henry had literary ambitions of his own and the life of a school master irked him so that they returned to Shropshire and, as conflict enveloped Europe, ran a market garden. It was Mary who made the long round weekly journey to Shrewsbury market, doing her bit for the war effort and again immersing herself in the sights and sounds of her native Shropshire.
In 1916 Mary’s first book was published, Golden Arrow but it did not have the impact that she hoped for There followed Gone to Earth, a book greatly admired by the writer Rebecca West even calling her a genius, but the public had a war to worry about and sales were modest. Book three, The House in Dormer Forest and book four, Seven for a Secret followed the same path being admired in some circles but getting very little acclaim elsewhere. And then along came Precious Bane. This is where Mary became my friend.
Precious Bane tells the story of the Sarn family, country folk making a living from the Shropshire countryside. It is full of wonderful images of rural life and superstitions, like telling the rooks when someone dies to avoid bad luck.
The daughter, Prue, has a cross to bear for she was born with a hare lip. Her friend Jancis is beautiful but her scallywag of a father has pretensions to be an alchemist. I forget the details but In the hope of making money, he declares that by means of magic he can conjure up a beautiful woman and Jancis, swathed in smoke, is to be that girl. Jancis is terrified of being exposed naked and her loyal friend Prue, who has no hopes of marriage, agrees to take her place.
To tell the truth, I didn’t fall in love with Prue or Jancis,although they had my sympathy. I didn’t like Prue’s authoritarian brother Gideon either, but along came Kester Woodseaves, the weaver who comes annually to the village to collect the yarn to weave into cloth. Prue fell in love with him and so did I. Kester is his own man, principled, compassionate and in a memorable chapter he arrives as a dog fight is about to take place. When he tries to prevent it the villagers, looking forward to the bloody spectacle, refuse until Kester offers to stand against the fighting dogs himself To a dog the canine fighters recognise decent man when they meet one and each dog fails to attack him. Kester is also aware that beauty is only skin deep and it is the kind, caring Prue who steals his heart.
Sadly, there was no such happy ending for Mary. Her adored husband found one of his students much more to his liking and became increasingly distant, choosing to live in London and leaving Mary in their Shropshire cottage.. Mary earned a modest living for them with her books and in 1925 she won the Prix Femina Vie Hereuse, awarded by a panel of French women writers, but the recognition she craved, did not come her way. A sixth book was started but unfinished for poor Mary, sick and lonely, lost her battle with life at the age of 46.
Even more unfair, after her death she at last came to the notice of the public. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was shocked to learn that she had died virtually un-noticed and declared her to be a neglected genius. The rewards began to come in, garnered by Henry and his new wife. Now they could lead the good life with country and town houses, visits abroad and even a yacht. Perhaps things weren’t quite as good as they appeared however and while climbing at Scafell Pike Henry fell to his death. There was even a hint that it might have been suicide. Perhaps Mary can take some comfort in the knowledge that it is her writing and not Henry’s that has stood the test of time.
As for me, every time I remember that fleeting visit to Much Wenlock, I remember too a book I read fifty years earlier. Both memories give me pleasure.