Mary Webb

Portrait of Mary Webb

Mary Gladys Webb (25 March 1881 – 8 October 1927) was an English romantic novelist and poet of the early 20th century, whose work is set chiefly in the Shropshire countryside and among Shropshire characters and people whom she knew. Her novels have been successfully dramatized, most notably the film Gone to Earth in 1950 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The novels are thought to have inspired the famous parody Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons.


She was born Mary Gladys Meredith in 1881 at Leighton Lodge in the Shropshire village of Leighton,[1] 8 miles (13 km) southeast of Shrewsbury. Her father, George Edward Meredith, a private schoolteacher,[2] inspired his daughter with his own love of literature and the local countryside. Her mother Sarah Alice was descended from a family related to Sir Walter Scott. Mary explored the countryside around her childhood home, and developed a sense of detailed observation and description, of both people and places, which later infused her poetry and prose.

At the age of one year, she moved with her parents to Much Wenlock, where they lived at a house called The Grange outside the town. Mary was taught by her father, then sent to a finishing school for girls at Southport in 1895.[2]

Her parents moved the family again in Shropshire, north to Stanton upon Hine Heath in 1896, before settling in 1902 at Meole Brace, now on the outskirts of Shrewsbury.[2]

At the age of 20, she developed symptoms of Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder that resulted in bulging protuberant eyes and throat goitre. It caused ill health throughout her life and probably contributed to her early death. This affliction resulted in her being empathic with the suffering. She is considered to have created a fictional counterpart in the disfiguring harelip of Prue Sarn, the heroine of Precious Bane.

Webb's first published writing was a five-verse poem, written on hearing news of the Shrewsbury rail accident in October 1907. Her brother, Kenneth Meredith, so liked the poem and thought it potentially comforting for those affected by the disaster that, without her knowledge, he took it to the newspaper offices of the Shrewsbury Chronicle, which printed the poem anonymously. Mary, who usually burnt her early poems, was appalled before learning that the newspaper had received appreciative letters from its readers.[3][better source needed]

In 1912, Webb married Henry Bertram Law Webb, a teacher, at Meole Brace's Holy Trinity parish church. At first he supported her literary interests. They lived for a time in Weston-super-Mare, before moving back to Mary's beloved Shropshire, where they worked as market gardeners until Henry secured a job as a teacher at the Priory School for boys in Shrewsbury.

The couple lived briefly in Rose Cottage near the village of Pontesbury between the years 1914 and 1916, during which time she wrote The Golden Arrow.[4] Her time in the village was commemorated in 1957 by the opening of the Mary Webb School.[5]

The publication of The Golden Arrow in 1917 enabled them to move to Lyth Hill, Bayston Hill, a place she loved, where they bought a plot of land and built Spring Cottage.

In 1921, they bought a second property in London, in the hope that by being in the city, she could achieve greater literary recognition. This, however, did not happen. By 1927, she was suffering increasingly bad health, her marriage was failing, and she returned to Spring Cottage alone. She died at St Leonards on Sea, aged 46. She was buried in Shrewsbury, at the General Cemetery in Longden Road.[6]


Her writing in general was reviewed as notable for poetic descriptions of nature. Another aspect throughout her work was a close and fatalistic view on human psychology.[7]

She won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse for Precious Bane. After her death, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin brought about her commercial success when, at a dinner of the Royal Literary Fund in 1928, he referred to her as a neglected genius. Consequently her collected works were republished in a standard edition by Jonathan Cape, becoming best sellers in the 1930s and running into many editions.[8]

Stella Gibbons's 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm was a parody of Webb's work,[9] as well as of other "loam and lovechild" writers like Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary E. Mann [10] and, further back, Thomas Hardy. In a 1966 Punch article, Gibbons observed:

The large agonised faces in Mary Webb's book annoyed me ... I did not believe people were any more despairing in Herefordshire [sic] than in Camden Town.

Literary critic John Sutherland refers to the genre as the "soil and gloom romance" and credits Webb as its pioneer.[11]

The museum at the Tourist Information Centre in Much Wenlock includes much information on Mary Webb, including a display of photographs of the filming of her novel Gone to Earth in 1950.

Her cottage on Lyth Hill (not open to the public) can still be seen. In September 2013, plans were submitted for its demolition.[12]

Three of Webb's novels have been reprinted by Virago.[7]


  • The Golden Arrow (July 1916). London : Constable.
  • Gone to Earth (September 1917). London : Constable.
  • The Spring of Joy; a little book of healing (October 1917). London : J. M. Dent.
  • The House in Dormer Forest (July 1920). London : Hutchinson.
  • Seven For A Secret; a love story (October 1922). London : Hutchinson.
  • Precious Bane (July 1924). London : Jonathan Cape.
  • Poems and the Spring of Joy (Essays and Poems) (1928). London : Jonathan Cape.
  • Armour Wherein He Trusted: A Novel and Some Stories (1929). London : Jonathan Cape.
  • A Mary Webb Anthology, edited by Henry B.L. Webb (1939). London : Jonathan Cape.
  • Fifty-One Poems (1946). London : Jonathan Cape. With wood engravings by Joan Hassall
  • The Essential Mary Webb, edited by Martin Armstrong (1949). London : Jonathan Cape.
  • Mary Webb: Collected Prose and Poems, edited by Gladys Mary Coles (1977). Shrewsbury : Wildings.
  • Selected Poems of Mary Webb, edited by Gladys Mary Coles (1981). Wirral : Headland

Dramatic adaptations

Gone to Earth is the story of Hazel Woodus, a child of nature who simply wants to be herself, living among the remote Shropshire hills of the Welsh Marches with her harpist coffin-building father. She is reluctantly drawn into the world of romantic human relationships through her great beauty, marrying a local church minister, but also becomes the object of the local fox-hunting squire's obsessive love. Hazel is chased over the edge of a quarry trying to save her beloved pet fox from the local hunt. The title, of course, is the hutsman's cry denoting that the fox had escaped into its den. Gone to Earth was filmed in 1950 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, starring Jennifer Jones as Hazel Woodus. However, it was later re-edited, shortened and retitled for its American release, and fell into relative obscurity. In 1985, the full 110-minute restored version was released by the National Film Archive, to critical acclaim.[13]

Precious Bane is set in the years after the Battle of Waterloo, and tells the story of Prue Sarn, disfigured by a harelip which her superstitious neighbours regard as a sign that she is a witch, and how she falls in love with a visiting weaver, Kester Woodseaves. It was first produced as a six-part BBC television drama series in 1957, starring Patrick Troughton and Daphne Slater.[14] It was then adapted for French television (ORTF) in 1968 by director Claude Santelli, with Dominique Labourier as Prue, Josep Maria Flotats as Gedeon and Pierre Vaneck as Kester.[15] The title was Sarn, after the French title of the novel. The most recent adaptation was as a television play by the BBC in 1989, with Janet McTeer as Prue, Clive Owen as her brother Gideon, and John Bowe as Kester.


A monumental bust of Mary Webb, commissioned by the Mary Webb Society, was unveiled in the grounds of Shrewsbury Library on 9 July 2016.[16]

Bust of Mary Webb.jpg