“She had so deep a kinship with the trees, so intuitive a sympathy with leaf and flower, that it seemed as if the blood in her veins was not slow-moving human blood, but volatile sap.” ― Mary Webb, Gone to Earth
March has been a pretty bad month for reading for me, effectively I only finished one book and that was the strange and compelling Gone to Earth by Mary Webb. Afraid I let all the bad news get the better of me and I wasted time on the internet reading the news or watching reports via YouTube, a pointless and unhealthy thing to do, so for April I am limiting myself to checking the news just once a day and aiming to get back on track with reading.
Work also seemed to eat up more time with some technical issues with setting up to work from home. At work I used to go off and hide in the morning and lunch time to read, by hiding I could avoid interruption but I have discovered that working from home, interruption is just as prevalent and if anything more intrusive.
Gone to Earth is not an easy book to describe, there is an element of melodrama that dates the book a little and the prose is inclined to the purple end of the spectrum but despite that it is a gripping tale that draws you in, largely due to the captivating character of Hazel Woodhus, fey, pagan, untamed, innocent denizen of the natural world. Hazel’s innocence lets her see through the pretense and bluster of life with a clear eyed clarity that does not endear her to society and yet despite that she is the object of male desire. To that desire she brings a surprising naivety and innocence. On seeing religious images, particularly the crucifixion, Hazel reacts with horror at the violence that is at the heart of western civilisation:
… “What’m they doing to ‘im? Oh, they’m great beasts!’ Perhaps she had seen in her dim and childish way 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. ‘What is it, my dear?’ Mrs. Marston looked over her spectacles, and her eyes were like half moons peering over full moons. ‘That here picture! ‘They’m hurting Him so cruel. And him fast and all.’ ‘oh!’ said Mrs Marston wonderingly, ‘that’s nothing to get vexed about. Why don’t you know that’s Jesus Christ dying for us?’ ‘Not for me! flashed Hazel. ‘My dear!’ ‘No. What for should he? There shall none die along of me,much less be tormented.’ ‘Needs be that on Man die for the people,’ quoted Mrs Marston easily. ‘Only through blood can sin be washed white.’ ‘Blood makes things raddled, not white; and if so be any’s got to die, I’ll die for myself.’ The old gabled houses, dark and solemn with heavy carved oak, the smart plate-glass windows of the modern shops , the square dogmatic church towers and the pointed insinuating spires, all seemed to listen in surprise to this being who was not content to let another suffer for her. For civilization as it now stands is based solely on this one thing – vicarious suffering. From the central doctrine of its chief creed to the system of its trade; from the vivisection-table to the consumptive genius dying so that crowds of fat folk may get his soul in a cheap form, it is all built up on sacrifice of other creatures.” (p.115-116)
Desired by two very different men; Edward Marston, gentle clergy man, and the fox hunting squire John Reddin, neither man understands or deserves her, but they certainly desire her. The book has an interesting feminist undercurrent in the way that it portrays the objectification of women and society’s inability to respect the independent female who challenges the authority of cruelty with independence, kindness and empathy. Society no more accepts Hazel than it does her rescued cub Foxie. There is something profound when Hazel responds to Mrs Marston’s claim that Foxie is a bad dog when she steals a leg of mutton, with the claim that: “…she inna a bad dog … She’s a good fox.” (p.200).
There is much of Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte in Mary Webb’s style of story telling. In a way Hazel is a character with similarities to Hardy’s Tess and Bronte’s Cathy but for me, a more likeable and even more memorable character than either of those heroines. I feel a distinct affinity for Hazel, with her love of the natural world and all creatures. Her defence of Foxie makes her a role model for hunt saboteurs every where and I have some sympathy with that. Webb’s prose while leaning towards purple is poetic and eloquently evokes the natural setting of her novels with detailed descriptions of flora, fauna and weather, it ticks the boxes for the Gaia nature reading challenge, as it is definitely a nature themed read:
…Hazel had gone to the shop, and, coming back, she had lingered a little to watch with a sense of old comradeship the swallows wheeling in hundreds about the quarry cliffs. Their breasts were dazzling in the clear hot air. They had no thought for her, being so filled with a rage of joy, dashing up and down the smooth white sides of the quarry, multiplied by their blue shadows. They would nestle in crevices, like bits of thistledown caught in a grass-tuft, and would there sun themselves and chirrup. So many hundreds were there, and their shadows so multiplied them, that they seemed less like birds than like some dream of a bird heaven—essential birdhood. They were so quick with life, so warm, with their red-splashed breasts and blue flashing bodies; they wove such a tireless, mazy pattern, like bobbins weaving invisible lace, that they put winter far off. They comforted Hazel inexpressibly. Yet to-morrow they would, in all likelihood, be gone, not even a shadow left. Hazel wished she could catch them as they swept by, their shining breasts brushing the grasses. She knew they were sacred birds, ‘birds with forkit tails and fire on ’em.’ If sacredness is in proportion to vitality and joy, Hazel and the swallow tribe should be red-letter saints. (p.302).
Gone to Earth may not appeal to every reader, it is melodramatic and contrived but it is also poetic and eloquent. It is a title that has had successive re-issues, it is still commonly found in librarys, (I know USQ library has a copy), and can often be picked up in second hand books shops. It is one of those quietly enduring classics and I can see why, to be honest I think I would rather read Mary Webb than Thomas Hardy and the creation of Hazel Woodus will endure in my memory as a great literary heroine.
So how was everyone else’s reading for the month of March, did the pandemic intrude into your thoughts and distract from the more productive activity of reading? If you read anything for the Gaia challenge, please leave a link in the comments.