Mary 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 which she knew. Her novels have been successfully dramatized, most notably the film Gone to Earth in 1950 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They inspired the famous parody Cold Comfort Farm.
She was born Mary Gladys Meredith in 1881 at Leighton Lodge in the Shropshire village of Leighton, 8 miles (13 km) southeast of Shrewsbury. Her father, George Edward Meredith, a private schoolteacher, inspired his daughter with his own love of literature and the local countryside. On the side of her mother, Sarah Alice, she was descended from a family related to Sir Walter Scott. Mary loved to explore the countryside around her home, and developed a gift of detailed observation and description, of both people and places, which infuses her poetry and prose.
At one year old, 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.
Her parents moved the family again in Shropshire, north to Stanton upon Hine Heath in 1896, before settling at Meole Brace, now on the outskirts of Shrewsbury, in 1902.
At the age of 20, she developed symptoms of Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder (which resulted in bulging protuberant eyes and throat goitre), which caused ill health throughout her life and probably contributed to her early death. This affliction gave her great empathy with the suffering, and finds its fictional counterpart in the disfiguring harelip of Prue Sarn, the heroine of Precious Bane.
Her 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 paper 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, who printed the poem anonymously. Mary, who usually burnt her early poems, was appalled before hearing the newspaper received appreciative letters from its readers.
In 1912, she married, at Meole Brace's Holy Trinity parish church, Henry Bertram Law Webb, a teacher who at first 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. Her time in the village was commemorated in 1957 by the opening of the Mary Webb School.
The publication of The Golden Arrow in 1917 enabled them to move to Lyth Hill, Bayston Hill a place Mary loved, buying a plot of land and building Spring Cottage.
In 1921, they bought a second property in London hoping that she would be able to 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.
In her own lifetime, she won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse for Precious Bane, but her output was not otherwise greatly esteemed. It was only after her death that Stanley Baldwin, then Britain's Prime Minister, brought about her commercial success through his approbation; at a Literary Fund dinner in 1928, Baldwin 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.
Her work is still widely admired. Three of her novels have been reprinted in recent times by Virago; these, like her writing in general, are notable for their descriptions of nature, and of human psychology.
Stella Gibbons's 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm was a parody of Webb's work, as well as of other "loam and lovechild" writers like Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary E. Mann and, further back, Thomas Hardy.
The museum at the Tourist Information Centre in Much Wenlock includes a lot of 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, but has been much extended and modernised.