A Single Violet:
The Imagined Diaries of Mary Webb
I completed work on my Creative Writing PhD at Middlesex University in 2021. My work for the PhD included a novel about Mary Webb, which wove in all of my favourite fictional elements - diary writing, time in nature, folklore, haunting, and a little bit of magic... This was accompanied by a critical commentary - the thesis element of the PhD.
In 1928, Stanley Baldwin gave a speech at the Literary Fund dinner in praise of Mary Webb, a little known author who had won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse for her novel, Precious Bane. The following day, the Times ran her obituary: it was five months after she had died at the age of forty-six, leaving her sixth novel unfinished. Soon after Webb's death, her works received some of the recognition she had so ardently wished for during her lifetime; various biographies were published during the 1930s, but as time passed, this attention waned.
For those of you who were around to witness the 1980s, she may be a more familiar name, since this was her last period of popularity in the UK. At this time Virago published Precious Bane and Gone To Earth, and the BBC made a fantastic adaptation of Precious Bane, which starred John Bowe, Janet McTeer and Clive Owen (which is when
I first came upon her in my early teens)
Gladys Mary Coles also published her autobiography of Webb, Flower of Light (1978). More recently, Andrew Radford included a chapter on Webb in his excellent study the significance of the Demeter - Persephone myth in the work of several writers between 1850 and 1930 (The Lost Girls), but publications have been few and far between, thus Webb remains slightly obscure, and is left out of most canonical lists of writers of her time.
WHAT IS THE APPEAL?
Quite simply, I fell in love with her work because it is very beautiful. Her earlier novels are imperfectly stuctured, but her writing is characterised by several features which make it so appealing; she was a 'nature mystic' so she found spiritual connection and healing through spending time in nature and her descriptions of it are minutely detailed and very inspiring.
Locals remember her sitting for hours in the outdoors meditating, so much so that birds were known to come and settle on her as she was so still. Another captivating feature is her use of folklore which abounds in her novels; this folklore links back to my own very rural roots on Dartmoor - tales of the Wild Hunt, witchcraft and magic. She was also very adept at observing human behaviour and motivation, which makes the characters in her novels really come to life. But she is also quite difficult to place within the canon; her work does not contain any of the usual markers of the Modernist period and she doesn't make any reference to the First World War which was already raging when she published her second novel, Gone To Earth, in 1917.
MARY WEBB AS A PROTO-PAGAN WRITER
The challenge for any study on Webb is in placing her work within existing literary frameworks. Webb has previously been identified as a 'romantic' writer, or a 'nature' writer, which I think is a very limiting label. She is not an obvious modernist, she is not consistently radical and does not follow any of the critical frameworks that might enable her to be classified as a straightforward regional writer (since she does not bear the marks of realism that regional writers often demonstrate). Had Webb lived just forty years later, it is likely that her unconventional views might have found a connection with the beliefs of modern paganism, which Ronald Hutton states developed in the latter part of the twentieth century as 'a radical spiritual alternative to Christianity and to conventional mores'. Webb's opinions, expressed in her 1916 volume of nature essays, The Spring of Joy have much in common with the ethos of modern paganism. For Webb, a connection to the divine could be found in nature.
LOOKING FOR MARY WEBB: WRITING THE IMAGINED Diary
Mary Webb wrote novels, essays and poems in the early Twentieth Century that explored folklore and the sacred qualities of nature. Webb worked with a very unusual method of composition – she would enter into what she called 'long brooding', which may have been altered states of consciousness, facilitated through long periods of meditation in nature. When she returned to waking consciousness, she would have her novel plotted out in her imagination, and would then work furiously to write it down. Using this method her first novel was written in three weeks. Although Webb did not receive the attention she strived for in her lifetime, she received posthumous success during the countryside revival of the 1930s, and in the 1980s as Virago Press re-introduced her work to a new readership. Since then, Webb has gone largely forgotten and unstudied, and very few personal papers survived in the archives.
For my practice-led PhD in Creative Writing, I took inspiration from the life and work of Webb, to write a novel which sought to use imagination to fill the deep lacuna in the record. I set out to create ‘a living, breathing, fictional Mary Webb’ through the imagined recreation of her diaries.
The creative element of the PhD was accompanied by a critical commentary that explored the challenges I encountered in writing the fictional diary, thereby contributing to the reflexive element of Creative Writing research. I identified six distinct questions which the commentary interrogated, through reflective and critical analysis of my own practice, as well as the work of other writers. In the first chapter of the critical commentary, I explored how to identify the reader of a diary and write for them, whilst retaining the illusion of privacy, as well as how to write a diary which is authentic in its daily detail whilst still being engaging to the reader. I also examined the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Mary Butts and Joe Orton and the critical work of Jennifer Sinor, Elizabeth Podnieks, and Judy Simons. In the second chapter I looked at the difficulties of re-creating a story when the records have all but vanished. In the third chapter, I turned to issues around the narrator’s voice – how to foster empathy in the reader for a complex, eccentric and sometimes unlikable narrator.