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Re-imagining the Past - Writing the Diary of Mary Webb

23 March 2016

I have a bit of a soft spot for forgotten women. Previously, this has expressed itself as fascinations with Hatshepsut, Pope Joan, Sylvia Townsend Warner and others. I frequently find myself working work to give them a new voice. So its no surprise then that I find myself writing a novel about my favourite writer, called Looking For Mary Webb. This will be the bulk of my PhD thesis, alongside a 40,000 word critical commentary.

Mary Webb is the personification of obscure and undervalued. Despite periods of being a best seller in the 1930s and later in the 1980s, she has largely disappeared from public view. During my previous three years of post graduate research on her, I frequently wondered what would have happened to Mary Webb if she had left more of a literary footprint – most of her papers were burned or sold by her husband when she died, and not much survives. But what would have happened if she, like Virginia Woolf, had left behind a diary? And that is where my latest novel begins – with the discovery of a diary.

But writing a novel about a real woman who lived, but whom I never met is unlike anything I have ever written before. Usually with a novel you have certain imaginative elements that go into it, which are blended carefully with the requisite amount of research. If you are writing about India during the last days of the Raj, or life in the trenches in the First World War, then there are history books you go to, or eye witness accounts. Writing the story of a rather obscure female writer from a hundred years ago is a delicate balance of imagination, fact, fiction and searching in amongst the undergrowth to try to find her own voice.

When I wrote Somewhere She Is There, I was imagining the narrative my late mother would have written, if she had the opportunity to write letters to me. For that, there was a balance of some (woowoo alert!) psychic development work and experimentation with channeling, balanced with a certain amount of imagination based on how well I knew my mother. I could clearly imagine what she might have said to me as she is part of every cell in my body. But writing the story of an unknown writer, although very dear to me, is a different kettle of fish. I don’t have Mary Webb’s voice in my head, like I have my mother’s voice in my head. I don’t know what she physically sounded like, since no recordings of her exist. Even the amount of photographs available are limited. There are about half a dozen biographies that have been written, and while these give the bare bones of her life and her experiences, they don’t tell me how she felt, and often they give conflicting reports of what she was like, and the relationship with her husband. The picture painted is an outline only, but I need to be able to colour in between the lines.

They do not really allow me to feel Mary Webb, which is essential, if a writer is to create a believable, living, breathing, fictional character. So how do we reconstruct this lost chapter of history and make the character believable?

My novel begins in 1911, the year before Mary Gladys Meredith married Henry Bertram Law Webb. I began by taking some of the few letters from her that survived. She corresponded with her future Mother In Law, Mrs Webb, in 1911, before she became engaged to Henry Webb and his family cut her off. The letters are newsy, chatty, very light in tone and quite engaging. She talks of excursions they have been on, memories of looking after her naughty younger brothers before they were sent away to school, but the letters stopped abruptly, presumably once the engagement was announced and Mrs Webb left the area. None of Henry’s family attended their wedding. Instead, Mary went against the wishes of her own Mother, and invited seventy guests from the nearby Millington Hospital, a home for the financially destitute whom she used to visit each week with gifts of fruit and sweets. The letters gave me a little window into a few months of her life, but when this stops, all I am left with is the odd letter (from much later in the 1920s) to her publisher or her agent, desperately making a plea for money.

So then I turned to the only other source I have, besides my own imagination – her novels, her essays and her poems. Every writer includes some details of their own life in their writing; one cannot help but do so. Where else can you find such rich emotional detail? It is in Mary Webb’s own writing that I start to find the little nuances that made her Mary Webb – the language patterns, the predicates, the favoured senses and emotional truths leaking out through the words. This is where all of my past lives have to become one in order to meet hers with open arms – the acting, the NLP, the soap-crafter, the pagan and the writer all meld into one. If a writer filters in the little details of their own life into their fiction, then I must do a creative ‘reverse look-up’ – I take the emotional details of my own life, combine them with the words of her fiction, and somewhere in there, extract the emotional patterns from her life as well. Its like blending essential oils to make a special Esbat soap, just like I used to do – you have to take into account the base notes, the middle notes and the top notes to make a scent that not only smells glorious, but one that will anchor to the soap and last the test of time. I am taking the basic soap recipe – each base oil selected for its caring qualities – coconut for lather, almond for skin softening, olive oil for its richness. Then I add in some herbs for natural colour, and, when the temperature is right, I must carefully pour in the essential oil blend. Finally, just like with soap, this one needs time to cure before it is carefully wrapped in pretty paper, and sent out into the world.


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