Very definitely Gone to Earth

From the 1950 film (photo source)

I don’t give up on books very often, although I do it more now than I would have done before I started blogging.  I still feel a bit ungrateful towards the author, who has put months or years into writing a book, if I can’t be bothered to spend a week on it – but I’m coming round to the too-many-books-too-little-time argument.  (Giving up is distinct from putting it to one side and forgetting about it – it has to be a decisive action.)

When I do give up, it’s usually because I think the writing is too bad, or (occasionally) too confusing.  It’s rarely related to subject matter or character – although if I started a gory crime novel, I’m sure I’d stop reading that pretty smartish.

But I’ve never given up on a novel quite so quickly as I did on Tuesday morning.  Because I now have a 40 minute walk into work, I tend to read a book whilst I’m walking.  (Yes, I’m that guy.  Surprised?)   And I was a page and half – yes, 1.5pp. – into Mary Webb’s Gone To Earth before I concluded that I could not read any further.

I’ve read and re-read, and loved and re-loved, Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, but I’ve not read any of the authors she was parodying.  Well, I’ve read some Lawrence and Hardy, and they’re on the peripheries of her satire, but I’ve steered clear of that peculiar vogue for rural novels which seized British literature in the early years of the 20th century.  Here is the opening of Gone To Earth, with my thoughts interpolated:

Small, feckless [oh, wasn’t that one of the cows in Cold Comfort Farm?] clouds were hurried across the vast untroubled sky [always cross out the adjectives first when editing, love] – shepherdless, futile, imponderable [oh… never mind.] – and were torn to fragments on the fangs of the mountains, so ending their ephemeral adventures with nothing of their fugitive existence left but a few tears. [oh sweet mercy.]
[So, what have we established?  It was a cloudy day.  Right-o.]
It was cold in the Callow [oh, sorry, we’re not done with the weather – as you were] – a spinney of silver birches and larches that topped a round hill.  A purple mist hinted of buds in the tree-tops, and a fainter purple haunted the vistas between the silver and brown boles. [Of course it did.  Purple is a very haunting, hinting colour.  Now, for the love of all that is pure, can we move on?]
Only the crudeness of youth was here as yet, and not its triumph [anyone else feel we’re wandering into heavy-handed metaphor territory?] – only the sharp calyx-point, the pricking tip of the bud, like spears, and not the paten of the leaf, the chalice of the flower.

[Is there an editor in the world who wouldn’t have rejected this novel by now?]
For as yet spring had no flight, no song, but went like a half-fledged bird, hopping tentatively through the undergrowth. [To summarise: it’s early March.] The bright springing mercury that carpeted the open spaces had only just hung out its pale flowers, and honeysuckle leaves were still tongues of fire.  [I think you’ve made your point, Mary.] Between the larch boles [oh good, more boles] and under the thickets of honeysuckle and blackberry came a tawny silent form, wearing with the calm dignity of woodland creatures a beauty of eye and limb [can one wear a beautiful eye?], a brilliance of tint, that few women could have worn without self-consciousness.  Clear-eyed, lithe, it stood for a moment in the full sunlight – a year-old fox, round-headed and velvet-footed.  Then it slid into the shadows.  [A sentence without adjectives or adverbs!  Mary, my dear, are you feeling quite yourself?] A shrill whistle came from the interior of the wood, and the fox bounded towards it.
“Where you bin? [oh, Heaven preserve us.]  You’m stray and lose yourself, certain sure!” [“certain sure?”  REALLY?] said a girl’s voice [or, indeed, ‘said a girl‘], chidingly motherly.  “And if you’m alost [oh no…], I’m alost; so come you whome. [no, ‘whome’ isn’t a typo.  In case you were wondering.  I wish it were.]  The sun’s undering [I wonder if Mary Webb had ever spoken to someone from the countryside?], and there’s bones for supper!” [YUM.]

[I finished off the dialogue spoken by the girl’s voice, but – truth be told – it was at that ‘You’m’ that I made my decision not to read on.  Isn’t this simply everything appalling you ever thought the rural novel might be?  Perhaps it gets better, perhaps I am doing Ms. Webb an injustice.  I, for one, certainly shan’t be finding out.]

91 thoughts on “Very definitely Gone to Earth

  • August 16, 2012 at 11:46 pm
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    Yikes. This one is on my Century list, and I just bought a second copy of it with a really funny cover, which is to art as the book seems to be to literature.

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  • August 17, 2012 at 1:06 am
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    I loved this! Thanks for giving me a good laugh Simon!

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  • August 17, 2012 at 4:16 am
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    Seriously, Simon — I would pay to read a copy of this book with your asides through the whole thing. Hilarious! But the book itself? Yikes.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 9:55 am
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      Haha! Maybe I should market that? But that would mean I had to read it, and I can't bring myself to do that…

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  • August 17, 2012 at 5:01 am
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    This so made me smile!! Many many years ago I was required to read Precious Bane as a prerequisite for attempting a course in honours level English Lit for our school finals. Apparently if you could persevere with that then you would be allowed to join the course!! Strong motivation helped me over the line.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 9:56 am
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      Brilliant test of resistance! I wonder if I'd have passed… This book might be useful for my DPhil, but I still can't force my way through.

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  • August 17, 2012 at 6:53 am
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    Thank you! I was never tempted to read any of the books that Gibbons (I think you've made her lose her "s" haven't you ;-) ) was parodying but your quotes are fantastic. I can quite see why you gave up so quickly. Bones for supper – what a treat.

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  • August 17, 2012 at 7:00 am
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    Simon, that's the funniest review of anything I've ever read. The book doesn't get any better. This was one of those novels where I read it, and felt I must embark on another by the same author to see if it really was that dreadful,or whether I was missing something. So I struggled through Precious Bane, and decided it was, and I wasn't.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 9:56 am
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      Thank you so much, Christine! And well done for finishing PB – although people do seem to think it's better than GtE.

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  • August 17, 2012 at 7:13 am
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    Hee, I really enjoyed reading that, thank you! I did read Precious Bane years ago but can't remember anything about it. They must have had stronger stomachs for purple prose in those days, because I'm sure I've read that Mary Webb was Stanley Baldwin's favourite novelist.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 9:57 am
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      Rebecca West chose this as her novel of the year, according to Cornflower's post the other day! Very surprising…

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  • August 17, 2012 at 7:42 am
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    Hilarious, Simon – that was exactly my experience. I made the mistake of reading it at lunchtime in the office, and had to go outside and lean against a wall to recover myself for quite a few minutes.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 9:57 am
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      Heehee! Wonderful :) I think reading it out loud with friends would be brilliant…

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  • August 17, 2012 at 7:48 am
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    Could it be that there was a time when people actually liked reading this kind of thing? It's hard to imagine.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 9:58 am
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      Apparently so! I do wonder quite how this vogue for rural novels overtook the nation – maybe imitators of Hardy?

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  • August 17, 2012 at 8:39 am
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    This is utterly brilliant! I laughed out loud. I too would give up on a novel with the line "the sun's undering, and there's bones for supper".

    I hate giving up on books, but just occasionally something like this comes along and there's nothing to be done but stop.

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  • August 17, 2012 at 8:52 am
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    I begin to see why the rural novel has been swiftly forgotten. I have to read this next year for a project, might be one to read while the wine is flowing and the sarcasm is unleashed. :)

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    • August 21, 2012 at 9:59 am
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      Wine! That's what I should have tried. Maybe not whilst walking into work… ;)

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  • August 17, 2012 at 9:05 am
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    But where was 'it was a dark and stormy night'??
    I attempted this author years ago when I worked in HIghgate Library as a teenager and wanted to know why they languished on the shelves. Two pages in and I knew why!

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    • August 21, 2012 at 9:59 am
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      This was one of those times when youthful scorn was well placed!

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  • August 17, 2012 at 9:29 am
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    Oh, tremendous! Love it. That's another author firmly crossed off my list, then – I'd been wondering if my prejudice against Precious Bane was simply that and if I ought to make an effort. Though I'm thinking that "bones for supper" is too good to let go of, and I'll try it on the dogs this evening.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 10:00 am
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      :D When I bought Gone To Earth there were three other Webbs on the shelf, and I considered buying all four – thank goodness I restrained myself.

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  • August 17, 2012 at 9:38 am
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    Hilarious! Though funnier still is the fact I once read this book yes all of it I believe. I had bread and rather loved Precious Bane and so read this soon after. It perhaps less surprising that I have no memory of it at all. Though I wonder what impression such writing had on my much younger more impressionable self. I now rather fear for the Mary Webb book I have TBR which I think is called Armour in which he trusted. It's going to be bad isn't it?

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  • August 17, 2012 at 9:44 am
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    The contents are really good…
    saadepunjab.com

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  • August 17, 2012 at 10:05 am
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    Hi, I read your review of Cold Comfort Farm the other day as I am struggling with it at the moment and wanted to know what other people thought. Felt a bit as if I had lost my sense of humour, but having just read this review I've got a better idea of what Stella Gibbons was making fun of! Thanks for the transcript (and your hilarious asides), it has been an eye opener and may make the last 3rd of Cold Comfort Farm slightly easier for me to read and understand. Mary Webb is officially going into my mental Room 101 of writers/books to avoid!

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    • August 21, 2012 at 10:58 am
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      I want to re-read Cold Comfort Farm now, in the wake of having read these pages – I loved CCF already, but I would love it even more now!

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  • August 17, 2012 at 10:37 am
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    Hilarious! One more author I am no longer curious about – why did people used to read this tripe?!

    Also don't you worry about falling over when you read and walk? I tried it once but I was so busy scanning the horizon for hazards that I couldn't really concentrate. Plus people were staring and laughing at me. Though saying that, walking while reading in Oxford is probably marginally more acceptable than in South East London. The pain of my childhood!

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:00 am
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      I've discovered that it's a little less acceptable in Headington than it is in central Oxford! I have decided not to care about what people think now ;) I do look up to cross roads though…

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    • August 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm
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      I have seen someone reading while cycling in Oxford. Reading while walking is standard.

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  • August 17, 2012 at 10:42 am
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    So I was right to chuck out my late Mum's tatty ex-library copy of this book then – did it just this week – what timing! Should 'Precious Bane' go the same way?

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:00 am
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      Sounds like you were wise! I haven't tried PB – it seems to have a little bit better press…

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  • August 17, 2012 at 11:48 am
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    Oh, this made me laugh! (Was she getting paid by the word to have added all those adjectives?) I shan't be a-seeking her a-out. :)

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:01 am
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      Maybe that explains it! It really does get quite absurd in those paragraphs…

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  • August 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm
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    I have actually read Gone to Earth all the way through and after that 1.5 pages it picks up no end! I remember those pages vividly because they were, as you point out so beautifully, laughably bad. Having said that, it is a bit Thomas Hardyesque and heavy on the adjectives all the way through and that is not my thing, so I have never reread it. I'd rather read Cold Comfort Farm any day!

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:01 am
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      I will take your word for it, Catherine! Not sure I can make myself read more.

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  • August 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm
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    Oh dear! The first three paras were so painful to trudge through

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  • August 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm
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    You're not alone! There have been some good adaptations of Mary Webb – I enjoyed the film of 'Gone to Earth' and the tv series of 'Precious Bane.' But I find her unreadable and like you always give up.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:01 am
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      I've heard good things about the 1950 film… but if they speak in dialect, then I'm out.

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  • August 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm
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    Thanks for taking one for the team Simon :) I thought Cold Comfort Farm was very funny, but I didn’t know exactly what Gibbons was parodying (with the exception of Seth perhaps…he did remind me a bit of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights).

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  • August 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm
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    Very funny – but I don't see how you can mock this but not mock Orlando.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:02 am
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      I think it might be because she uses so many adjectives and adverbs to describe something simply, like the time of year, whereas Woolf gets at the more complex world of psychology and communication etc… plus she's brilliant, no?

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  • August 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm
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    Okay, okay, Simon, point taken. But leave us not misremember that Then isn't Now, and starting a book with the weather and deploying plethoras–can that be pluralised or is it already?–of fulsome adjectives weren't always taboo.

    D. E. Stevenson (no, not to be compared) often started books with a touch of weather and a glimpse of the land or city street. A very light touch. A trace of scene setting, along with the character's reaction to it. Now that I think of it, there was some hint of mockery of Country Novels in Miss Buncle's Book, with reference to books replete with "steaming manure". I'd look it up, but I'm not at home (babysitting the grandkids).

    Still….dialect. Oh god! And apparantly some new writers need to be told to get rid of it, and why.

    But "…there's bones for supper." Oh, I love that bit.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:05 am
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      I was one of those people who couldn't stand the first pages of Return of the Native, which are largely loved, so… I recognise that it was always unlikely that I'd like a rural novel!

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  • August 17, 2012 at 6:16 pm
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    Simon, like Rachel, I was a bit concerned that you might meet with an accident trying to walk and read at the same time. It must slow your pace, both of reading and walking. If you walked twice as fast, you could get a better exercise burst and still have time left to read the same amount on reaching your destination. Take care.

    I loathed "Cold Comfort Farm". I often struggle with books that are meant to be funny or humorous, so this is perhaps not surprising. Your friend and Bodelian colleague Verity said that some of Gibbons's other books are far better, though I have not tried them as yet.

    As I type this, I am listening to an edition of Radio 3's Composer of the Week on the subject of what they are calling the "English Pastoralist" composers of the early twentieth century. It struck me that the enthusiasm for England's green and pleasant land that produced some appealing music and painting in the twenties and thirties, was perhaps less fruitful in the fiction it inspired.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:06 am
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      Oddly, I seem to walk faster while I'm reading – what this says about my safety, I don't know, but it did surprise me rather!

      Good point about the music and art. I suppose there must be some good rural novels too (well, Hardy I suppose) but it's a shame that it came hand-in-hand with dialect and adjectives a-plenty…

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  • August 17, 2012 at 10:18 pm
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    Thanks for a wonderful laugh this evening – I shall be sure to avoid Mary Webb at all costs!

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  • August 18, 2012 at 9:15 am
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    Your review read like a scene from a P.G.Wodehouse novel! Especially like that scene where a guy recently returned from the military (major Plank, I think ?) tries to 'establish the environment' for the story he's going to say by giving loads of unnecessary details, and the lead character listens on with a glazed expression. Its a rare Jeeves novel, because there's Jeeves but his employer is not Wooster. You've made my day by reminding me of Wodehouse, have to grab his book one of these days.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:07 am
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      Thanks so much, Cheru!
      I hadn't realised that there was a Woosterless Jeeves novel – how intriguing.

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  • August 18, 2012 at 3:18 pm
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    Oh Simon, you have made me genuinely laugh out loud. I hadn't realised that now I live in the country I must refer to my house as a whome.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:07 am
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      Oh you must, Meg, or the poor village folk won't know what you mean!

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:08 am
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      Thanks so much for this, Karen! I'm still shocked at Rebecca West, though…

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  • August 19, 2012 at 2:54 am
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    Thank you for supporting the right to stop reading a book.
    We who have read English literature as our field of study often find it difficult to do! We're like victims of the Stockholm Syndrome who come to identify with their captors instead of opposing them. (Drama queenspeaking, I know.)

    It took a lonnnngggg time for me to master the practice of saying "no thanks" to a book I wasn't enjoying.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:09 am
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      It is tough, and I love the Stockholm Syndrome image – but it feels great sometimes! I recently gave up on The Finkler Question when I'd read two-thirds of it – very freeing!

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  • August 19, 2012 at 5:33 pm
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    My friend Spangle recommended your blog to me, which is why I am here visiting.
    I loved your ruthless and brilliantly entertaining edit of the opening of this book. I am still laughing.
    Had I picked up this book, my thoughts would have been similar to your own, but my comments probably not as hilarious. I certainly would not have read much further.
    My next thoughts were … what would you do to my own book??? I might find the courage to email you one day. I shall certainly continue to follow your blog.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:09 am
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      Thank you so much for your kind comment aduja!
      I don't bring out my vicious side very often, but since it was so appreciated, I might try again ;)

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  • August 19, 2012 at 8:14 pm
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    Simon, I laughted until my sides ached! Thank you.
    Definitely the sort of tosh spouted by weird women in PG Wodehouse and dreadful females in Crompton's 'William' books.
    Oh goodness, I need a glass of water!

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:10 am
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      Thanks Mum! I did have such fun writing it :) I would love to see Mary Webb in Crompton's hands – well, there probably is a rural novelist in there somewhere…

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  • August 19, 2012 at 11:24 pm
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    I am a person who really enjoys adjectives as it rounds out the pictures in my head and I feel as if I am directly in the location. I also think if I had read this book at the time it was written, before TV, Internet, the noise filled world, the visual over stimulation, simply reading this book in a quiet place it would have an entirely different meaning. Animals often had bones for dinner as that was all that was available and people didn't have the stimulation of the senses they have now. Perhaps a different view of the book should be taken before everyone just bags it off as useless. Just a point from the other side.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:10 am
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      More power to you, Pam! She obviously has her fans, but I destined not to be one of them.

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  • August 20, 2012 at 7:00 am
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    Hello, Simon! Oh dear, you're right, of course, Mary Webb did go in for 'purple passages' and to a modern reader, it can seem very over-blown (as can the writing of Sheila Kaye-Smith, the other rural novelist whok my beloved Stella Gibbons parodied in CCF!) But I am, nevertheless, going to defend Mary Webb, who I regard as more unfashionable than bad. I have very happy memories of taking 'Gone to Earth' to Shropshire on holiday many years ago, reasding the book in the area that Mary knew and loved, and I love 'Precious Bane', which I'd say is her best novel.

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:11 am
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      I am sad that Sheila K-S is in the same stable, as I have loved her books on Jane Austen and recently read her autobiography – I shall steer clear of her novels!

      Perhaps it is fashion more than anything… but I still think there is no excuse for 'said a girl's voice'…

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    • August 21, 2012 at 6:56 pm
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      Oh dear, me, don't avoid all of Sheila Kaye-Smith just because Stella Gibbons parodied her! At least try 'Joanna Godden', her very best novel!

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  • August 20, 2012 at 11:01 am
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    Mary Webb is one of my *favourite* authors. Still, wot can yer expect from a man who admits that he's never read "Lord of the Rings" !!!! :)

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  • August 21, 2012 at 8:17 am
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    hahahahahahaha! Yes, I don't think I could bear this either. Ridiculously over the top descriptions PLUS transcription of a 'rural' accent? Double whammy of pain.
    (I always think the use of the words 'ephemeral' or 'ethereal' is a bad sign.)

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    • August 21, 2012 at 11:11 am
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      This would be the most fun book to read aloud, after Dewey – what I shame I didn't discover it in time!

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    • August 23, 2012 at 1:47 pm
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      Speaking of which, where's your review of Dewey?? I do insist!! If you don't, I will, but I think you need to have the book in hand to quote from… Do it.

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  • August 23, 2012 at 4:21 am
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    I read all of Webb's works in college and liked them. I'm rather embarrassed.

    Then again, i read while walking all the time, too. I just can't stop myself!

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  • December 22, 2012 at 5:08 pm
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    Precious Bane – have had this in my hands numerous times – it seems the only Mary Webb which reliably shows up in the 2nd hand bookshops in this part of the world. I've given it the dip-into test more than once – it always seems like something I *should* be keen on – and have always reshelved it with a "Wow – heavy going!" shudder.

    I think maybe next time I see it (which might be today – I am heading to town with the full intention of ducking into the local used stuff emporium for a small bookish respite from the long shopping list I will be carrying) I will actually purchase said book and read it with your (imaginary) voice helping me through it. A personal challenge, shall we call it? ;-)

    And I'm sure the book is still on the shelf at said shop – I've been pulling it out & replacing it quickly for several years now. Several vintage novels I've read refer glowingly to the wonders of Mary Webb, so when I first saw it I was all "Oh, boy! Let me at it!" Tastes and trends change, oh yes they do!

    So Simon, you've just guaranteed a humble shop owner a minor sale, because for sure if I don't buy it today, it will only be because someone else has snagged it in the interim between my last visit & now, just because I formed this intention. ;-)

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  • August 24, 2013 at 8:09 pm
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    You probably weren't worthy of reading it anyway

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  • October 30, 2014 at 10:36 am
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    The language is of it's time; Mary Webb was a nature poet working in prose, but 'Gone To Earth' tells a stark story, all the same, elemental and violent.

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