Book review: Gone to Earth

Last night I finished reading ‘Gone to Earth’ by Mary Webb, a classic study of good versus evil, light versus darkness, and humanity versus ignorance and destruction. It was written during the First World War, and Webb’s horror of the wanton massacre of human life is what powers this novel. Foxhunting symbolises the abject depths to which human kind can sink. Hazel is the pure and unheard voice that cries out against it.

It was poet friend Candice Daquin who urged me to read this book. In fact, she urged me so much she actually sent me a copy! This, she was certain, was a book I would love. How well she knows me! I’d give the purchase links but I think you’ll have to track down a second hand copy, as it doesn’t seem to be still in print. Not awesome enough, I suppose.

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There are words to describe ‘Gone to Earth’ like beautiful and exquisite, but none of them do justice to the poetry of Mary Webb’s writing. Hazel Woodus is more than simply the untamed young girl caught between the desires of two men and the indifference of another, she is the spirit of nature, innocence and all that we as human beings seem to have lost. She is the earth, one with the trees, the flowers, sister to her beloved Foxy and protector of all things suffering, in pain, or fearful. Reddin, the amoral, insensitive and cruel master of the local big house wants her, and so does the parson, hidebound by his interpretation of good morals but as passionate to have her as Reddin is. Neither understands her, neither even tries, but both exercise a power that pulls her in opposite directions until she breaks.

In this brutal, cruel, man’s world, a girl has no protector but her father and her husband if she is lucky. Hazel’s father is a musician, wrapped up in his own talent, his own creations, and barely notices his daughter. Her mother is dead and her female relatives dislike her and disapprove of her wild ways. Because Hazel is wild. She has been grown like the roses grow and the animals injured by human cruelty that she rescues and cares for. Her God is a distant force that might or might not be there, like the storm might break or pass on the other side of the hills. Her desires are limited to the same desires as Foxy, the cub that survived the jaws of the foxhounds, symbol of death and destruction—to have enough to eat, a warm place to sleep, and the whole of nature to walk in and wonder at.

This portrait of the Shropshire countryside of the end of the era the First World War destroyed, is a contrast between the peace and beauty that Hazel sees and Reddin’s red raging world of blood and death. There is no place for fragile innocence like Hazel’s in the world of men such as Reddin and his cold, calculating manservant, Vessons, nor even of Marston, the clergyman husband whose eyes are only opened to the simple truths of Hazel’s world vision when he renounces his God who is, he finally realises, the God of Reddin, the huntsmen, the soulless farmers, and the killers of all that is beautiful.

I read an author interview recently in which the author was asked who was her favourite female heroine. I now know that Hazel Woodus would be mine.

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Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

30 thoughts on “Book review: Gone to Earth”

  1. Take a guess, do your best, what would I make of this 😉 she writes like you, i thought of her work after reading yours, i adore her work I adore you and your work and am so glad you loved this as i did♡♡♡ superb! Now I need to find another!♡ fun! Love to you golden girl♡

  2. I haven’t read this but have read Mary Webb’s The Precious Bane – truly one of my favourite books. I still own the yellowed copy I bought nearly 30 years ago! She creates such wonderful atmospheres (threat, mystery, magical, loving), truly loves the Shropshire countryside but doesn’t romanticise it or the old way of life she saw slipping away after WWI. She is so very undervalued as a British writer – I hardly know anyone who has heard of her.
    Lovely review, Jane. Just a shame I’m unlikely to find a copy

    1. I think amazon links go to second hand copies. I was reading some of the goodreads reviews of Gone to Earth, and so many of them seemed to have missed the point completely. I’m not surprised writers are told not to read the goodreads reviews.

    1. The writing is beautiful, and if you don’t get bogged down in anachronism, or take it out of the context of WWI, and accept it as a symbol of light against darkness, then you will love it 🙂

      1. Haha, that, I would love to do! I could say pretty close to nature. There’s not a forest or anything, but you can witness lots of paddy fields, which is on the process of being converted in to plots for pure economical purpose which is a sad thing

      2. For starters, I live in tamil Nadu. It’s the southernmost state of India. A culture rich state or Atleast used to be. And on the state, I’m on a region called, delta, which is super famous for its paddy cultivation, but the sad thing is I don’t remember when I saw a paddy field last!

      3. I think that is where many of the Indians here in Bordeaux come from, certainly from the deep south 🙂 I hope, if the fields are being built upon, it’s for something worthwhile.

      4. Oh that’s good. We speak a language called tamil and it’s so different than the language which everyone thinks every Indian speaks (Hindi), so if you want you can spot them easily. And I’m not so sure, they serve any purpose so far, but act as a commodity for those who have much money to be spent on.

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