15 November 2015
I had an important insight into the mind of Mary Webb this weekend, which is really important to the work I am doing at the moment. It has always struck me as odd that Webb never once writes about the First World War in her novels, despite the fact that it was raging all around her when her most famous novels were being written and published. Reading Gone To Earth, one cannot help but be struck by the level of blood imagery in the novel. In addition to Hazel (the protagonist) and her pet Foxy being hunted throughout the story, there are cherry trees that drip with blood when the fruit hangs on the branches, and house windows that reflect the blood red skies at sunset, but no mention of trenches or war, despite the fact that Webb had three brothers who were all fighting out in France. For quite a few years it has been a criticism that is levelled at her, as if you can't be a proper modernist writer without talking of war. I sometimes think that is why she has not remained in the critical spotlight, and has been largely dismissed by academia until more recently.
Andrew Radford (one of my fan-girl favourite academics) has written an amazing book called The Lost Girls, which looks at the Persephone - Demeter myth, as played out in English Literature. Radford really knows his occult writers. He looks at Gone To Earth, and offers the opinion that, far from sticking her head in the sand, Webb was actually offering the curative properties of nature as a form of healing in an otherwise crazy world. I can kind of see what he means. Webb wrote a lot about the healing properties of nature, but it is only this weekend that I have begun to fathom the depth of what he is suggesting. With the terrible events round the world recently and social media and the news awash with horror stories about the depravity of the human race and its cruelty to each other, I have spent most of this weekend battling with my own emotions. On all sides, even on the high street, all I have encountered is horrific racism and bigoted opinions about who is to blame, who should be kept out, who should be held accountable. All I have wanted to do this weekend is run away to the woods and find solace there. Not to mention that hubby is worrying about how the population at large will treat him and other Muslims, and he and other friemds fear that they might be attacked, even though what is being done bears no relation to his religion.
So pondering all of this brings me back full circle to Mary Webb. It is not that she didn't feel the terrible tragedy of the events that were happening all around. It wasn't that she was ignoring the horrors of war, and the tragedy of the returning soldiers that were visible on the streets of every town in the country, and the aftermath of such inhumane behaviour, its that she was feeling it toomuch. She was feeling it too much to be able to process the horrors that she was witnessing. And in a world in which the outer world can reflect what is going on on the inside, her best literary solution was to offer a gift of healing, not of more terror. All I have wanted to do in the last few weeks is escape to the woods, to post positive, loving thoughts, instead of angry ranting. To show the beauty of the trees, and the woods, and the fields, and the parks, and the skies, and the river, and the lakes.
Part of the reason I know I am in the best place doing Creative Writing and not Literary Criticism, is that in a Lit Crit setting this would all be conjecture, even though I know I am right. Because I dont have proof of what she was feeling (no diaries, no journals) this would never be acceptable in Lit Crit. In CW it is part of the process of building a character. I can create what I want because I am writing a novel and not a straight thesis. It seems as if I am finally, at the age of forty-two, growing into my own skin.