Gone to Earth by Mary Webb was a favourite book when I was a young teenager. I was reminded of it when I was reading Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls recently and I wondered whether I would still enjoy it. My memory was that it was a beautiful book about a young woman and her seduction by an older man.
Reading it now I was struck by the lyrical, poetic quality of Mary Webb’s writing. I’m pleased that I still enjoyed this book despite its melodrama and occasional moralising and philosophical comments. I particularly liked the descriptions of the Shropshire countryside and its recreation of a rural community in the early years of the 20th century.
As John Buchan wrote in the introduction:
The book is partly allegory; that is to say, there is a story of mortal passion, and a second story behind it of an immortal conflict, in which human misdeeds have no place. Hazel Woodus suffers because she is involved in the clash of common lusts and petty jealousies, but she is predestined to suffer because she can never adjust herself to the strait orbit of human life. (page 7)
It’s the story of Hazel Woodus, torn between two men, Edward Marston, the gentle country minister she marries and John Reddin, the hard-living, fox-hunting squire of Undern. She is drawn to Edward, attracted by his gentleness and the security she finds with him and attracted to Reddin by his passion and sensuality. ‘Edward appealed to her emotions, while Reddin stirred her instincts.’ (page 187)
But, despite her fascination with these two men she wanted neither:
Her passion, no less intense, was for freedom, for the wood-track, for green places where soft feet scudded and eager eyes peered out and adventurous lives were lived up in the tree-tops, down in the moss.
She was fascinated by Reddin; she was drawn to confide in Edward; but she wanted neither of them. Whether or not in years to come she would find room in her heart for human passion, she had no room for it now. She had only room for the little creatures she befriended and for her eager, quickly growing self. (page 88)
She’s superstitious, her world is that of ancient legends, of the Black Huntsman and the death-pack hunting over Hunter’s Spinney, a world of magic and beauty too, of the woods, birds and animals. She’s naive identifying with her pet foxcub, Foxy, predestined to be hunted and the victim of man’s cruel nature.
The landscape of the remote Shropshire countryside is brought to life, its beauty and tranquility contrasting with the old, musty dark haunted corridors and rooms of Undern. Undern was the place where the magic was not good, a place of deep sadness, that drew Hazel in within its walls. The weather and the seasons too reflect the growing tension and suspense as the winter storm raged around Undern and across the countryside:
A tortured dawn crept up the sky. Vast black clouds, shaped like anvils for some terrific smithy-work, were ranged around the horizon, and, later, the east glowed like a forge. The gale had not abated, but was rising in a series of gusts, each one a blizzard. … From every field and covert, from garden and orchard, came the wail of the vanquished. (page 258)
One of the main themes throughout the book is the cruelty of humans, the savagery of civilised man and the sacrifice of the innocent. Hazel is horrified by the domination of the strong over the weak:
… the everlasting tyranny of the material over the abstract; of bluster over nerves; strength over beauty; States over individuals; churches over souls; and fox-hunting squires over the creatures they honour with their attention. (page 99)
Civilisation, Mary Webb maintained was based on vicarious suffering, all built up on the sacrifice of other creatures. It reminds me a little of Thomas Hardy’s novels with its romantic melodrama and poetic intensity. There is the same sense of impending and inevitable tragedy, without hope of relief and like Hardy there is that love of nature and pity for the weak that pervades the story.
(Note: page references are to my 1935 hardback copy of the book.)