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.
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.