Shortly after I bought Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth to go with Precious Bane, which I’d picked up at the fall library sale but hadn’t read yet, I came across Simon’s hilariously scathing commentary. He had tried Gone to Earth, but frustrated by the excessively flowery prose of the rural novel, abandoned the book after only a page and a half. This made me nervous, of course! But because I’d just paid good money for my copy, I decided to give it a go before giving it away.
Simon, I’m pleased to tell you that these crazy descriptions are not typical of the entire novel. Every few chapters begins with a page or two of unbearably purple prose describing nature, but if you just get through them, the story itself was quite engaging. I ended up staying awake far past my bedtime one night because I just couldn’t put the book down.
Hazel Woodus, the nymph-like daughter of a crazy musical bee-keeper, is an innocent, highly attuned to nature but ignorant of the ways of society or sexuality. By far the most important person in her life is her constant companion Foxy:
‘Who is Foxy?’
‘Oh! Fancy you not knowing Foxy! Her’s my little cub. Pretty! you ne’er saw anything so pretty.’
Edward thought he had.
‘But she canna get used to folks’ ways.’ (This was a new point of view to Edward.) ‘She’m a fox, and she can’t be no other. And I’d liefer she’d be a fox.’
‘Foxes are very mischievous,’ Edward said mildly.
‘Mischievous!’ Hazel flamed on him like a little thunderstorm. ‘Mischievous! And who made ‘em mischievous, I’d like to know? They didna make themselves.’
‘God made them,’ Edward said simply.
‘What for did He, if He didna like ‘em when they were done?’ (68)
Hazel grows up into beautiful young woman and attracts not one suitor, but two, and these two men represent the complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Jack Reddin is an older man, voracious in his desires, known to have seduced several of the local women, who becomes obsessed with his need to possess Hazel. Because of her own wild nature, Hazel finds herself attracted to these dark desires, which causes real problems because in the meantime, the girl has become engaged to the caring and upright local minister, Edward Marston. Recognizing that Hazel is like a child, Edward is determined to marry her but decides to treat Hazel like a sister until she asks him to do otherwise. As much as Hazel is grateful for the new life Edward offers her, Reddin’s desire proves irresistible and the path to tragedy is begun. It’s not hard to guess the ending; I picked up on the foreshadowing only a few pages into the book, but since I didn’t know exactly how Hazel’s actions and circumstances would lead to that point, I wasn’t bored.
What I found really interesting about this novel was how Webb treated Christian theology. Edward is a minister, so he contemplates his faith a great deal. Hazel is not Christian, so she often grows bewildered when Edward tries to explain a few of the beliefs of Christianity. Christian allusions saturate the novel, though in far more subtle ways than, for example, Charlotte Brontë’s constant quoting of Scripture. In Gone to Earth, Hazel doesn’t believe the Bible is real, but the narrator does; nor does she believe that Christ died for her. Instead, Hazel is presented as representative of an alternate Christian faith. This book tentatively suggests that Hazel’s paganism is more Christian (more loving, more forgiving, more righteous) than Christianity itself.
“But when she ran into the night to comfort the little fox, she was living up to her faith as few do; when she gathered flowers and lay in the sun, she was dwelling in a metaphysical atmosphere as vivid as that of the saints; when she recoiled from cruelty, she was trampling evil underfoot, perhaps more surely than those great divines who destroyed one another in their zeal for their Maker.” (17)
She equates the tyranny of churches over souls to the murderousness of “fox-hunting squires over the creatures they honour with their attention.” (99) To Hazel, wild mushrooms are akin to the Lord’s Supper, as are fairy tulips and honey. Hazel herself is described as a Christ figure: “She, in her inexpressive, childish way, shared with the love-martyr of Galilee the heartrending capacity for imaginative sympathy. In common with Him and others of her kind, she was not only acquainted with grief, but reviled and rejected.” (55)
Perhaps one of the reasons Hazel and Edward fail is because he refuses to recognize the truth in her paganism, “resolv[ing] to combat these superstitions and replace them by a sane religion. He had not yet fathomed the ancient, cruel and mighty power of these exhalations of the soil.” (71) But even he, the devout minister, finds that he has more need of God in the wilds, and in the end, Hazel’s actions cause in him a crisis of faith.
And yet, the narrative refutes Hazel’s pagan religion, explaining away all of her signs and symbols. What are readers supposed to believe? Is Hazel the representative of God, or is the world God’s and she foreign to it and to Him?
“While she struggled to wrench herself free [to stop the rabbit-killing of reaping], two rabbits bolted, and hell broke loose. One would not have thought that the great calm evening under its stooping sky, the peaceful, omniscient trees, the grave, contented colours, could have tolerated such hideousness. The women and children shrieked with the best, and Hazel stood alone – the single representative, in a callous world, of God. Or was the world His representative, and she something alien, a dissentient voice to be silenced?” (253)
So Simon, perhaps this will whet your interest. I truly enjoyed this book, in spite of my initial trepidation – perhaps I even loved it more out of surprise when it turned out not to be a dud after all!