Both fair and good: The novels of Mary Webb

Date of Completion

January 1990


Literature, Modern|Literature, English




Traditionally, Mary Webb has been perceived as a ruralist, a romantic, and a mystic. Both augmenting and revising these views, this study reassesses her five completed novels by examining particular themes and motifs which reflect her intellectual interests as well as her personal contexts. With internal evidence, it shows her previously unnoticed use of medieval motifs to articulate her private emotions as well as the female experience. It also addresses disturbing motifs of the Great War and post-war years, which reflect her sense of threat by a world hostile to the individual and to nature. Culminating in Prue Sarn of Precious Bane, the analyses of Mary Webb's heroines reveal transcendent and metamorphic figures, who create personal, "re-made worlds" of words and nature.^ This reassessment of Webb's novels focuses upon her transforming vision. Part of her Anglo-Welsh heritage in Shropshire, her literary penchant for the magical change of heart and feature was also influenced by her father's Wordsworthian nature-mysticism, her disfiguring illness at nineteen, her bittersweet marriage, and the themes of female transformation in some of her favorite medieval readings. Webb's heroines reflect her own spiritual and physical dilemmas. But they also join a literary tradition of wounded women, which Webb represents in her Chaucerian companion themes of the loathly lady and patient Griselda as well as in her reflections of the spiritual narratives of Julian of Norwich.^ In separate chapters, discussions of The Golden Arrow, Gone to Earth, The House in Dormer Forest, Seven for a Secret, and Precious Bane center upon the paradigmatic and the individual qualities of the wounded heroines, who grow through adversity. But, in each novel, the character of the Webb heroine evolves towards a transformative self-affirmation. A conclusive chapter addresses Mary Webb's weaving of language and nature to transcend her paradigms and, finally, to create her first "whole" woman in Prue Sarn. In an appendix, an essay on critical views of Mary Webb suggests that her extremes of popularity, neglect, and misrepresentation have warranted a fresh approach. ^