was born at Cleeve, near Ivybridge. Well educated, she attended Plymouth High School for Girls and a Young Ladies’ College, before qualifying as a schoolmistress and working in Jersey, Edinburgh and Leamington Spa. In the evenings she wrote, but she was over thirty before her first novel, Widdicombe, was published in 1905 by John Lane’s Bodley Head. She would eventually publish twenty-four books, many based around the area of her birth and she was a contemporary of D.H. Lawrence, with whom she corresponded. As well as novels she wrote biographies, essays and translations.
After the success of her second novel she gave up teaching and moved to Exeter where she remained for the rest of her life, although she also travelled widely throughout Europe.
Apart from being a successful romantic novelist, Mary’s ideas were advanced for her time and she was a feminist, socialist and pacifist and a formidable lecturer and debater. She was interested in child health, the treatment of widows and orphans and industrial protectionism of women and was a supporter of education in prisons.
She was a founder member of both the Exeter NUWSS and Exeter’s Worker’s Educational Association (WEA) and a regular speaker on the suffrage circuit. In June 1913 she joined hundreds of West Country women in the suffragist march from Penzance to London, later describing how they were ‘stoned in Totnes’. In 1918 she stood for the Labour Party in the Exeter City Council Elections.
In March 1919 Mary belonged to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), the new name for the NUWSS. This had close links with the Labour Party. It adopted a six-point reform programme and was finally disbanded after the passing of the Equal Franchise Act in 1928.
Dr Julia Neville, University of Exeter ‘Learned Lady Activists in Exeter’ April 2018.
1869 – 1952
Devon’s forgotten feminist