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My Precious Bane

Posted @ 11:32:12 on 04 June 2012

It is never a good sign when I start a new post thinking "My goodness, is it really that long since I last posted?" but yes, it really is that long. This year has been a busy one, and having been in virtual hibernation for the duration of the MA, I can feel the beginnings of a spring-like stirring. I am actually starting to go out again, and think about new adventures.

The next few months are promising some staggering adventures. I have now started work on my MA dissertation, which will lead directly into my MPhil / PHD programme, which starts a mere two days after the end of the MA. But this is where I feel like I am coming alive again, as it is time for me to finally give room to Mary Webb, who has been with me ever since I fell in love with Kester Woodseaves at the age of sixteen, while reading Precious Bane, the closest thing she has to a most famous novel.

For any of you I haven't already bored senseless with details of who she was, Mary Webb was a writer in the early twentieth century who wrote six novels and lots of poetry. She was a nature mystic, and I am sure if she had lived a few decades later would have found a spiritual home amongst some of the modern pagan groups, although she tended to shun the crowd, and firmly believed in thinking for oneself. She lived in virtual poverty, giving away all that she had to people she believed needed it more, and died in her forties in virtual obscurity and poverty. A speach given by Stanley Baldwin at a literary fund dinner six months after her death meant that her work then had a brief period of recognition, but other than a brief rennaisance in the 1980s when I found her, most people haven't heard of her.

When I started my MA, I attended an induction class where we were asked to discuss what Modernism was. The lady I was paired with seemed very clear about her opinions, that it was about technology, the city, the crowd; F Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and TS Eliot. When I said, "What about DH Lawrence or Thomas Hardy?" (thinking inside, 'What about Mary Webb?') she scoffed and said, "They're not Modernists" and we moved on. That discussion stayed with me, because if someone doesn't fit into the major zeitgeist of their time, what do we define them as? Mary Webb wrote about the country, not the city. She mentions no cars, no telephones, no city landscapes at all, and yet she was still there, writing novels during the First World War and beyond.

Persistence has paid off, for me at least, because on the strength of "What about Mary Webb?" I have been given the opportunity to spend the next five years researching this and writing a thesis. The first stage will be the dissertation, where I will look at how Mary Webb portrays Shropshire in her novels, my first 15,000 word "toe-in-the-water" which will then continue in October, when I will start loooking at her use of folklore, gender roles, attitudes to marriage, how the war affects her, and any possible links to the esoteric communities at that time.

This week I have been booking my first research trip in three weeks' time, to visit Shropshire with my two sisters for a Mary Webb pilgrimage. We will be visiting the welsh borders, the high hills of the Stiperstones and the Devil's chair, which feature so strongly in her novels, and the lower and more fertile plains of North Shropshire, where Precious Bane was set. But my gem for the week, which has really got me inspired, was that I managed to track down some really beautiful illustrations to the novels which were commissioned for the 1930's editions, drawn by Norman Hepple and Rowland Hilder. I think they are just stunning!

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