Archive for September 4th, 2010

The mixed luck of Mary Webb

Saturday, September 4th, 2010
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I was lucky that the Green Library’s exhibition of Mary Webb lingered into the early days of September (it was supposed to wind up August 29).  Having spent most of the summer in wheelchair, on crutches, or in a moonboot,  I was finally fleet-footed and free, and took advantage of my first opportunity while picking up the catalogue for the museum’s upcoming exhibition on Mexico to take a look at the departing show I had previewed way back in January.  (Digital archives are online here.)

The bookcases were filled with Webb’s tidy, well-regulated handwriting in her correspondence and manuscripts, and photos of the Shropshire countryside she loved.  There were of course inclusions of her her books, her poetry, the reviews that mentioned her, and … Jennifer Jones in cheesy Selznick movie posters?

That’s right.  Webb’s novel Gone to Earth was made into Selznick’s The Wild Heart. It flopped.

Webb’s story of an English gypsy girl, steeped in superstition and magic, is apparently being “reassessed.” One website reads: “The cinematography is some of the best I have ever seen and the outdoor colors will make you swoon – and if that doesn’t Jennifer Jones will. I was so wrapped up in this film that I am prepared to continue to make sweeping and superlative statements about it – enough to fill this page. I will, for everyone’s sake, stop here. In short, THIS is MY type of film.”

In a sense, the story of the film illustrates the kind of luck Mary Webb (1881-1927) attracted as a writer.

For example, think you need a sugar daddy?  British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin‘s praise (“absolutely first-class quality,” “neglected genius”) proved to be both helpful and harmful after her death — he managed to get her books reissued, but then she was snubbed by the literati and the academics, precisely because she had been endorsed by the prime minister-cum-litcritic.

She was therefore immortalized as the inspiration behind Stella Gibbons‘s 1932 parody, Cold Comfort Farm, an honor she shares with more illustrious D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, and even the Brontës.

In all the hoopla, it’s hard to recognize the woman who died in loneliness, poverty, and obscurity — and also in reckless generosity, giving her money to war veterans, and to those even more destitute than she was.  A 1928 edition of Bookman praised “her knowledge of human nature profound, unfathomable.”

“I never knew her to be mistaken in her diagnosis of the real character of anyone,” it continued, “a more generous, modest spirit I have not met. To the end she never realized how great a genius she was.”