Every morning, when the dog drags me out, we take the Church Walk behind the shops, through a wrought-iron gateway into the churchyard, passing the old half-timbered Guildhall. There, on a rock sticking out of a shrub border, is a bronze plaque of a woman with an odd gaze, her hair done up in a bun, against a background of distant hills. The plaque is a brand: Much Wenlock and this part of south-west Shropshire have become Mary Webb Country.
Many years ago, long before the rituals of dogs and middle age, even before England had been divided into heritage-branded literary fiefdoms – Wordsworth, Brontë, Hardy countries – three figures stood at the graveside of Mary Webb in Shrewsbury cemetery: my girlfriend Nancy, our friend Keith and me. Each of us had grown up in Shropshire. As we put a fistful of wild flowers in a jam-jar on the grave and faced the hills of south Shropshire and the Welsh Marches, we felt their timeless mystery, the weight of shared history. We wandered the countryside Mary called ‘half in faery and half out of it’, as if in a parallel novel, finding the poetry in rocky crags, secret pools and dark woods; the countryside was our narcotic. What a bunch of hopelessly romantic hippies.
Keith’s nan had been a girl in the 1920s and had known Mary Webb when she lived in the house she and her teacher husband Henry had built in the hamlet of Lyth Hill. Mary would walk or cycle miles to take flowers and garden produce to Shrewsbury market; sit outside her home, Spring Cottage, brooding at the horizon; haunt the nearby Bomere Pool. Children liked her, for she was kind and generous, but adults were wary of her and the gossip about her was harsh. To local eyes she looked odd, for she had Graves’ disease, a thyroid disorder which made her eyes bulge. This disfigurement she shifted as a hare-lip to the face of Prue Sarn, the central character of her last complete novel, Precious Bane, a tragic tale set around Sarn Mere – her fictional name for the mysterious Bomere Pool.
Precious Bane is set in the early part of the nineteenth century, at a time when rural communities were still remote, self-contained and steeped in folklore, superstition and religious bigotry; on the cusp of the change to mechanized agriculture, travel, communication and the modern world. For all its remoteness, it was a vibrant, ecologically rich countryside, with a visceral – and to Mary Webb, mystical – wildness to the borderlands which so inspired her. In a reversal of the pathetic fallacy, instead of projecting human characteristics on to Nature, Mary’s characters absorbed the natural qualities of their landscapes.
The twin destinies of Prue Sarn and her brother Gideon are intertwined with curse and tragedy. Prue, the dutiful and beautiful spirit of Sarn Mere, is cursed by isolation and her ‘hare-shotten’ lip and suspected of all kinds of witchery. But for the love of Kester Woodseaves, an itinerant weaver and Hardyesque hero, Prue’s suffering would drown her. Gideon is cursed with a passion for wealth and power, and a love for Jancis, the beautiful daughter of ‘cunning-man’ Beguildy. The collision of these passions has terrible consequences. The novel is written in the first person, narrated by Prue, and this device gives it a powerful purpose and fluidity, like Sarn Mere itself.
On a cold, windy day in March 2005, a couple of weeks before Mary Webb’s 124th birthday, I went to Bomere Pool. Twenty-five acres of deep water lie within high wooded banks in an area of rolling drumlins and moody hollows between the River Severn and the Shropshire hills south of Shrewsbury. The pool was formed 18,000 years ago when a great lump of ice, stranded from the retreating glacier, ground itself into a pit of gravels and clays, creating a ‘kettlehole’. These open-water kettle-holes are called ‘meres’ in Shropshire. In the opening chapter of Precious Bane, the narrator Prue Sarn leads the reader to Sarn Mere:
There’s a discouragement about the place. It may be the water lapping, year in and year out – everywhere you look and listen, water; or the big trees waiting and considering on your right hand and on your left; or the unbreathing quiet of the place, as if it was created yesterday, and not created for us.
Today, despite the chill, there’s not much ‘unbreathing quiet’. The sound of water comes from the bow-waves of surging motorboats slapping against the tangle of fallen willows along the sandy edge. Wet-suited water-skiers swing at breakneck speed through arcs of water, and the quiet between charging boats is broken by whooping Brummie anglers pulling 20lb pike from the depths. This is a place of fun, thrills and excitement – the antithesis of Mary Webb’s Sarn Mere.
Yet, apart from the water-skiing, much of what I saw and felt there would have been seen and felt by Mary Webb eighty years ago: tall, gothic-headed oaks, emerging carpets of bluebell leaves, a fringe of tawny reeds, sharp calls of birds and the wind scattering shards of light on black water. In its sheltered, wooded hollow, with no views beyond itself, this deep pool is still a place apart and retains an ability to seep into the spirit.
The values and attitudes which shape the experience of Bomere Pool now represent something very different from those which inspired Sarn Mere. In 1923, when Mary Webb wandered the maze of twisty lanes from Lyth Hill into the steep woods which hold the mere, she was following a route travelled elsewhere by William Wordsworth, Richard Jeffries and others who found spiritual sustenance and moral instruction in Nature. Mary herself had an unusually sophisticated ecological literacy, an appreciation of the interrelationships between the natural world and the ways of people. She understood the potency of folklore, and knew of Bomere’s mythical fish monster and its legend of the village drowned in the mere as retribution for returning to heathen ways. She knew that human settlement at Bomere went back at least to the Iron Age, but that the relationship between people and natural places which held a continuity, ‘the lapse of centuries’, was about to change for ever. Sarn-Bomere was Mary Webb’s Walden pond, and its very existence was a critique of modernism.
It is natural that emerging generations should mock the values and attitudes of their predecessors. In Mary’s case Stella Gibbons did it with her expert parody Cold Comfort Farm. To the sophisticated, urban literati of the 1930s, the deeply rural novel felt claustrophobic, all blasted heaths inhabited by rent-a-rustic nutters, and the romantic sensibilities in Mary’s novels and poetry seemed clunkily sentimental and a bit daft. But works like Cold Comfort Farm were not just a reaction to what had become known as the Loam and Lovechild School of romantic fiction. They were also an exorcism: driving out troublesome ghosts to prepare the way for the industrialization of the countryside, and the turning of the haunted, lonely wastes into venues for recreation.
Ironically, Mary wrote most of Precious Bane not from Shropshire, but from her cottage in Hampstead, to which she unwillingly moved when Henry took up a teaching post in London. Sarn Mere and Bomere were not just different names for the same place: Sarn had become something Mary could pack into the luggage of her imagination, ‘the land within’, while Bomere remained to endure its history. In 1928, a year after her death at the age of 46, she was awarded the Prix Femina for Precious Bane, belatedly gaining the recognition she had desperately needed. Seven years later another Mrs Webb (Stella Gibbons) won the same award for Cold Comfort Farm, her lampoon of the first Mrs W. Mary Webb’s husband went off with another woman but was killed falling off a cliff in the Lake District, and the woman went on to marry Jonathan Cape who inherited Mary’s literary estate. It almost has the makings of a conspiracy.
The greatest conspirator in all this, however, is the countryside itself. We have grown used to the notion that our landscapes are neutral, that they make no claims on us, that they exist for our benefit. This is not so. Our landscapes may not make us what we are but they have a powerful influence over who we are. Our experience of them and their meaning for us is framed by our culture and our history. The values we hold concerning landscape are like abrasive surfaces, and the more separately and strongly they are held, the greater the friction when they are forced together.
I stand on a little wooden fishing jetty over Bomere Pool. When the next power boat roars across the water towing a skier who skips and twists over its wake, I expect to feel abusive, as if this is an act of sacrilege. But I don’t. I’m impressed by the balletic movement and envious of the exhilaration, the rush. After boat and skier fade away, the momentary silence which closes in is thick and profound. A north-westerly breeze ripples the surface, the mere is moving like a deep dark river and, standing above it, I feel giddy, disoriented, as if the past is flowing under me. ‘The past is only the present become invisible and mute,’ writes Mary, ‘and because it is invisible and mute, its memorised glances and its murmurs are infinitely precious. We are tomorrow’s past.’
This place gave Mary Webb the fame and recognition she desired, but only after – in a symbolic sense – it had drowned her. I feel the mere’s claim on me too. Mary’s legacy looms in the landscapes we both inhabit and I belong to a tradition of Nature writing which has room for us both. Bomere, despite its unique atmosphere, does not exist in isolation but is part of a transcendent countryside of inestimable value. It has the power to move us, yet it also binds us with obligations, duties and responsibilities as strong as any curse: our precious bane.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 10 © Paul Evans 2006