The poet Henry Moult, in his biography of Mary Webb, describes her nature mysticism as ‘pagan’. I feel ‘Franciscan’ would be better; certainly she was Franciscan in her generosity. Moult shares the testimony of relatives:
‘Her charity often did more credit to her heart than her head, for she gave extravagantly, with an abandon which sometimes left her own real necessities unsupplied … A friend of Mary’s said: ‘She might have twenty pounds in the morning, and hardly ten shillings at night.’ (Ten shillings became 50p)
‘Whatever was asked of her by those who sought her help she joyously supplied.’
Moult quotes a friend telling how she asked the Shropshire village children what they would like for Christmas, and a farm labourer’s daughter ‘ambitious as well as presumptuous’ and no doubt unaware of the monetary value, asked for a piano, and received it. Let’s hope she learnt to play! Another time a windfall came her way, which she used to send a sick child and his family out of their single room in London’s East End to the coast in Essex.
Any attempt, says Moult, to explain her ‘chivalrous actions’ would be ‘as futile as to seek an explanation why St Francis devoted so much of his affection to the birds.’
I suggest that the actions of Mary Webb, like those of Saint Francis, were not chivalrous. Francis, after all, renounced his ambition to become a knight, he embraced poverty. Mary Webb’s generosity was not a matter of noblesse oblige, but stemmed from the sympathy with poor people that pervades her novels. Both of them loved Creation and the Creator; both loved their fellow human beings. There is the explanation for their generosity and their mysticism.
Mary Webb died this day in 1927.