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115 MARY V/EBB: AN INTRODUCTION by Charles Sanders (University of Illinois) Mary Meredith V/ebb (1881-1927) is remembered, if at all, for one work, PRECIOUS BANE, her last completed novel. It was this novel which brought her to the attention of Stanley Baldwin, and through his appreciation of it, to a larger reading public; it was this novel which won her the only literary prize of her career—the Prix Femina for the best English novel of 1925. Her canon, the product of little more than a decade, includes, however, poems, essays, short stories, and six novels, here listed in the order of their British publication: THE GOLDEN ARROW (novel, 1916); THE SPRING OF JOY (essays, 1917; reissued as POEMS AND THE SPRING OF JOY posthumously in 1928); GONE TO EARTH (novel, 1917); THE HOUSE IN DORMER FOREST (novel, 1920); SEVEN FORA SECRET (novel, 1922); PRECIOUS BANE (1924); ARMOUR WHEREIN HE TRUSTED (an uncompleted novel, with ten short stories, published posthumously in 1928); FIFTY-ONE POEMS (published posthumously in 1946). As may be expected in the case of an author whose output was not quantitatively slim but whose literary fame was and remains obscure, the critical reaction to Mrs. Webb has been mixed; it ranges from vehement admiration to vehement condemnation , and often the objects of both critical admiration and censure have been the same: her bucolic subject matter (she has been happily and/or sadly labeled the "Hardy of Shropshire" or the "Shropshire Lass"); her use of rural dialect, superstition, and folk lore; and her lyricism. The uncertain position of the "regional writer" and the varying tastes for him may, in part, account for the critical ambivalence. Her works prior to PRECIOUS BANE do, however, contain many obvious technical flaws, and PRECIOUS BANE is not altogether free of them. About these flaws Mrs. Webb's disciples and enemies almost perfectly agree. They both recognize, for instance, that her strength did not lie in the invention of plot, that the structure of even her most successfully realized novels tended to be diffuse and too manifestly contrived. In addition, Mrs. Webb's characters of major proportions want psychological depth; more often than not they are mouthpieces, and betray her least ingratiating quality, a high-strung, blunt didacticism. For this didactic strain there is little vindication. Against the charges of diffuseness and generalized characterization, it must be remembered that Mrs. Webb functioned best with symbol and allegory, that often the lyrical high pitch of her prose obscures the symbolic ordering of event, and that the major characters were meant to be typical. The minor characters, whose psychological reality and depth have so often been praised by Mrs. Webb's disciples and foes alike, act as foils tothemajor characters and underscore her intention to portray general virtues and vices at war with one another. H. R. L. Sheppard has observed that although her novels are "always interesting as stories and character studies," genuine nature mysticism "is the essence of Mary Webb's strength," and "her books . . . were essays in the life of the spirit."' 116 The strength of PRECIOUS BANE, writes Stanley Baldwin, "is not in its insight into human character, though that is not lacking. Nor does it lie in the inevitability with which 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."2 These statements may not only be considered as exemplary of Mrs. Webb's strengths and deficiencies, but serve as an introduction to her ethical and "philosophical" concerns. Mrs. Webb was the modern "child of nature." It is to nature she turns for intuitive instruction, religious communion, and solace; it is from nature that she realizes, as Prue does in PRECIOUS BANE, a "spot of time": The attic was close under the thatch, and there were many nests beneath the eaves, and a continual twittering of swallows. The attic window was in a big gable, and the roof on one side went right down to the ground, with...


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pp. 115-118
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