Seven for a Secret by Mary Webb

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Review by Rob Spence

If you know Mary Webb’s work at all, it’s likely that you do so through her most successful novel, Precious Bane, published in 1926, and later the subject of several adaptations, including a successful BBC serialisation starring Janet McTeer. The book won the 1926 Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Prize, and has remained in print in the Virago Modern Classics collection. Webb’s reputation was already waning when she received the enthusiastic endorsement of the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who was instrumental in keeping her books in print after her early death at the age of 46 in 1927.

After years of neglect, excepting that stalwart Virago classic, Webb’s books are now being republished by Michael Walmer, the enterprising independent publisher based in Shetland. So far, five volumes have appeared, the latest being the novel under consideration here, Seven for a Secret. As with Webb’s other books, this one is steeped in the culture and customs of her native rural Shropshire, and although this story is set in contemporary times (i.e. the 1920s), apart from the occasional reference to a motor car, the reader could be forgiven for imagining that the narrative takes place in late Victorian England. It is significant that Webb sought, and received, permission to dedicate her novel to Thomas Hardy. Webb’s Shropshire has much in common with Hardy’s Wessex, where rural folk’s lives are dominated by the seasons and the rhythms of agricultural labour.

As well as the obvious influence of Hardy, there is definitely a debt to the Brontës in this tale set largely on the high moorland of the Shropshire – Welsh border. A romantic triangle plays out against this backdrop, and the characters owe more than a little to the protagonists of Wuthering Heights. Webb’s heroine, the wilful Gillian Lovekin, is the daughter of a gentleman farmer, whose cowman, Robert Rideout, she has grown up with. Rideout is no Heathcliff, though he is given to brooding, and composing poetry as he works in the fields. The other element of the love triangle is the casually brutal Ralph Elmer, an incomer with a mysterious past, who takes over a rundown inn on the moors. The way in which the love story develops is not unpredictable, though it is enlivened by a cast of memorable characters, including Robert’s gypsy friend, and Elmer’s grotesque servant, Fringal.

As is often the case in tales of passion such as this, the past casts an increasingly dark shadow on the present, and the resolution is a violent one. Webb’s creation of the insular world of the farming community is skilfully done, as is her handling of Gillian, at once manipulative and ingenuous, a kind of innocent minx. Rideout, who thinks nothing of walking twenty miles to receive lessons in poetic composition from a Welsh bard, is a complex character with surprising depth. Elmer is more of a pantomime villain, driven by innate evil.

One striking feature of the novel is Webb’s faithful reproduction of rural dialect and pronunciation in her dialogue. This can be heavy going at times, and this city-dwelling reader did have to look up quite a few archaic rustic terms. Still, this does add to the authenticity, though it also has the effect somehow of overlaying the world of a hundred years ago with a patina of mid-nineteenth century sensibilities. Gillian, for instance, agitates to go to Silverton, a fictitious version of Shrewsbury, which she imagines as some kind of capital of modern sophistication. Horses are the main means of transport, and no labour-saving machinery seems to have been introduced on the farm.

It is suggested that Stella Gibbons had the work of Mary Webb in mind when she composed her parody of rural fiction, Cold Comfort Farm. That may well have been the case, and it’s a hurdle the  present-day reader must leap to appreciate the intensity and energy of Webb. Approach it as if it were an undiscovered Brontë, and it will reward your attention.

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Mary Webb, Seven for a Secret (Michael Walmer, 2022), 978-0645244045, 256/pp., paperback.

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