Gone To Earth by Mary Webb

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.)

Sunday Salon – Sunday Selection

Recently the weekend is the time when I’ve just finished a book and am deciding what to read next. This weekend is no exception. Yesterday I finished Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth, a book I first read as a young teenager. This is a dramatic romantic tragedy, first written in 1917. It tells the story of Hazel Woodus and her marriage to Edward Marston, the gentle, local church minister. Hazel is an innocent, a child of nature, wild and shy and a protector of all wounded and persecuted things. She becomes the prey of John Reddin, the squire of Undern who is obsessed by her. I’ll write more about it in a later post.

Because I enjoyed Gone to Earth so much it’s hard to find a suitable book to read next.  I have started All Bones and Lies by Anne Fine, which is the choice for my local book club. But so far I’m not sure if I want to finish it. It’s about Colin and his mother, who could complain for Britain. He has a twin sister who is estranged from her mother, making up a unhappy family who don’t get on. It’s about old age and the problems of carers and  up to now I’m not finding it at all uplifting. It paints a sad picture of the frustrations of old age and the problems of everyday life. I’ll give it a few more pages before deciding whether to finish it or not.

Other than that book, I have several library books I could read next.

  • The Beacon by Susan Hill – a short book (154 pages), examining truth, mental health and memory. Maybe that’s not right for me today as it sounds like another family with problems.
  • Missing Link by Joyce Holms – a new author for me, this book is a murder mystery a case for the detective duo Fizz and Buchanan. This one looks promising.
  • The Missing by Andrew O’Hagan – about people who disappear from society, a merging of social history and memoir. Described on the back cover as ‘elegantly written, affecting and intelligent.’

I’ll also look at some of my own books, to reduce the growing pile of to-be-read books. I started A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book a while ago. I think I’ll start that one again, or maybe look at Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, or a shorter book such as The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch.

Although writing posts like this does help a bit to clarify my thoughts, sometimes I just can’t decide what to read next and today is one of those days.

Teaser Tuesdays – Gone To Earth

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be ReadingShare a couple or more sentences from the book you’re currently reading.

I’m currently reading Gone To Earth by Mary Webb. It’s an old book, originally published in 1917. My copy, a sturdy hardback, belonged to my mother and was published in 1935 and has an introduction by John Buchan (who was Lord Tweedsmuir, politician and author – his most famous book being The Thirty Nine Steps, a spy thriller). His introduction is masterly. He describes what he likes about the book, sets the scene, and discusses Mary Webb’s style of writing:

The style as in all Mary Webb’s books, is impregnated with poetry, rising sometimes to the tenuous delicacy of music, but never sinking to ‘poetic prose’. There are moments when it seems to me superheated, when her passion for metaphor makes the writing too high-pitched and strained. But no one of our day has a greater power of evoking natural magic. (page 9)

And here is a passage from the opening chapter of the book:

Between the larch boles and under the thickets of honeysuckle and blackberry came a tawny silent form, wearing with the calm dignity of woodland creatures a beauty of eye and limb, a brilliance of tint, that few women could have worn without self-conciousness. Clear-eyed, lithe, it stood for a moment in the full sunlight – a year-old fox, round headed and velvet-footed. Then it slid into the shadows. (page 11)

Gone To Earth is still in print, in a paperback edition published by Virago Press Ltd in 1992, with a longer introduction by Erika Duncan, including biographical details of Mary Webb’s tragic life.