Review by John S:
The initial chapters of Mary Webb’s ‘The House in Dormer Forest’ are mildly entertaining. The novel is set in melancholy surroundings in rural Shropshire. Most of the leading characters are members of an extended family (and their servants), cooped up in a spooky old house. The grandmother and the loopy, ingratiating curate are particularly funny. Amber, the heroine, however, is dull and dreamy. The illustrator highlights the menacing aspects of several characters, including Enoch the handyman, together with the brooding atmosphere of house and forest.
Half way through the novel the tone switches from the Adams Family to Gossip Girl. One of the young men of the family starts carrying on with a servant girl. This scandalous behaviour releases a tide of suppressed passion, as others in the house, including Amber, begin their own search for love and fulfilment. I gave up shortly afterwards (at p. 203), finding the sentiments of the lovers, as described by Mary Webb, to be cloying in the extreme. The novel might have returned to the rails later, but I could not steel myself to find out. In his foreword, H.R.L. Sheppard praises Mary Webb’s nature mysticism. The action is interspersed with ethereal descriptions of the countryside. Amber and the morose handyman have a strong spiritual connection to the forest. I imagine it to be raining all the time. Mary Webb’s indigestible account of the loves and hates of a group of unbalanced, possibly inbred individuals, trapped in a claustrophobic rural hell, cannot have done much for Shropshire tourism.
It is very hard to read Mary Webb now, except through the prism of Cold Comfort Farm. I read several of her books as a way of understanding what Stella Gibbons was parodying, and actually became rather absorbed in Webb’s melodramas, I enjoyed The House in Dormer Forest, despite the rain and sentiment, and I certainly could not have abandoned the story half way through. I think you have to be in the right mood for them – and since you describe them as ‘indigestible’, I’d agree that it’s best not to try to swallow a whole one … FayeH
Several other members of the reading group read Mary Webb, so it will be interesting to see if they share John’s response. Certainly someone else who took two Mary Webb novels emailed to say she is approaching the second with some dread!
I managed one and a half pages of Gone To Earth before I gave up. It was just so horrendously written, especially after having read Cold Comfort Farm.
Living here in the area of Shropshire where they are set – the south western corner – down the years I have read all of Mary Webb’s completed novels. At the end of each, and here employing a farming metaphor, I have found myself feeling very much how I imagine a farm labourer, who has just completed ploughing a field of heavy clay soil, might feel: exhausted!
All bar perhaps one of the novels are exceptionally hard going and by today’s standards, they are all very dated. One wonders if they were ever anything else., Most of the characters are completely unbelievable and the plots utterly ridiculous. The best is undoubtedly “Precious Bane” which I have read several times; all the others but once.