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Special Collections & University Archives

Mary Webb: Neglected Genius

Exhibit celebrates work of British nature mystic, novelist, and poet

Mary Webb: Neglected Genius, an exhibition of books and original manuscripts, will open Monday, May 17, in the Peterson Gallery and Munger Rotunda of Green Library, Stanford University. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

The exhibition illuminates the dramatic and tragic life of this early twentieth-century British novelist and poet, whose lyrical writing focuses on her native Shropshire. On display are literary manuscripts, typescripts, personal letters, and important association copies originally owned by Webb and her associates, which now make up the private collection of bibliophile Mary Crawford (AB '77). Among them is the manuscript of Webb's last unfinished novel, Armour Wherein He Trusted, the only of Webb's full-length novels to survive in manuscript form, the others having been burned by necessity for fuel in the Webb household fireplace. Also on display will be Webb's copy of Precious Bane into which is tucked the letter of appreciation that Prime Minister Baldwin wrote to her in the year before her death, and Thomas Hardy's copy of Webb's novel Seven for a Secret, dedicated and inscribed to him by the author. Evocative illustrations by Bay Area artist William Bishop accompany the show.

Webb (1881–1927) was afflicted at the age of twenty with an incurable thyroid disorder that marred her physical appearance. She struggled against sickness and fatigue the rest of her life, and died an early death in 1927 at the age of forty-six. A champion of the non-conformist and the underdog, she defended the right of the individual against societal pressures, and expressed an intuitive awareness of the collective unconscious of humanity. She was admired in her lifetime by a small but distinguished group of literary men and women, including Dame Rebecca West, J. M. Barrie, John Buchan, Arthur St. John Adcock and G. K. Chesterton. She won the coveted Prix Femina Vie Heureuse literary prize in 1925 for Precious Bane. But her books sold in small numbers.

Recognition and acclaim came to Mary Webb six months after her death. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin praised her writing in 1928 at a Royal Literary Fund dinner and chastised the press and public for not recognizing Webb's genius. After seeing the Prime Minister's speech under newspaper headlines proclaiming Webb's "Neglected Genius," the reading public rushed to buy her books. Jonathan Cape quickly published a seven-volume Collected Edition of Mary Webb(each volume of which became a best seller). Biographies were written, and dramatizations and movies made of her work. Her first editions were collected by some of England and America's most discerning collectors. Jonathan Cape and Webb's widower reaped rich rewards. By the late 1940s, the popularity and visibility of Webb's fiction had waned. Mary Webb: Neglected Geniusshowcases the remarkable life and legacy of this modern writer, and chronicles her uneven ride from obscurity to fame and back again.

Before going on display at Stanford, the Mary Webb collection was shown at the Grolier Club in New York City, where it was written up in the January 28, 2010 issue of The New York Times:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/arts/design/29antiques.html

A web site created for the exhibition in both venues may be viewed at http://marywebb.org/exhibition/

A deluxe two-volume catalogue, published by The Grolier Club, NYC, accompanies the exhibition. Visitors to Green Library can purchase it on site in the Special Collections Reading Room (Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). It can also be ordered through the mail by downloading and mailing in a publications order form at https://library.stanford.edu/spc/exhibitspublications/catalogs.

Mary Webb: Neglected Genius will be on display from May 17 through August 29, 2010. Exhibit cases are illuminated Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. The gallery is accessible whenever Green Library is open and hours vary with the academic schedule. For Library hours, call 650-723-0931.

NOTE: first-time visitors must register at the south entrance portal to Green Library's East Wing to gain access to the exhibition in the Bing (west) Wing. For a map of campus and transportation information, go to http://www.stanford.edu/dept/visitorinfo/plan/maps.html.

Images available upon request.