Mary Webb is a stalwart of the second-hand bookshop. I defy anyone to enter a dusty book emporium and not find a copy of The Golden Arrow, Gone to Earth or Precious Bane. And there they stay. Despite praise from contemporaries such as John Buchan, Rebecca West and Thomas Hardy, Webb's tendency to girlish homilies and prose, which, if not purple, can be deepest lavender, has proved unfashionable. Some of the more effusive descriptions would make Barbara Cartland blanche. A coppice in spring becomes "radiant woods full of pale colour, so delicate and lucent that Beauty seemed a fugitive presence from some other world trapped and panting to be free".
Like that other great mistress of the overwrought sentence, Emily Bronte, Webb is in thrall to her native soil. Shropshire is not so much the background as the fabric of her novels, and Webb's description of rural life at the end of the 19th century is what elevates her stories from the ranks of melodrama. In terms of plot, Gone to Earth is very melodramatic indeed. Hazel Woodus, the half-gypsy heroine, is a ravishing beauty who runs barefoot through fields with a retinue of four-legged friends. Hazel, in turn, is pursued by the virtuous but wet minister, Edward Marston, and by the wicked but manly squire, Jack Reddin. Marston longs to protect her, while Reddin longs to fill her up with tiny squires. Both have a measure of success before it ends tragically with a pack of hounds and an ill-placed stone quarry. (It's no wonder that the great British film director Michael Powell filmed it as a superior bodice-ripper with Jennifer Jones and David Farrar in the lead roles.)
When Webb writes that Hazel has "an almost unnaturally intense craving for everything rich, vivid and vital", she could be describing her own need to describe the world as she sees it. Every kitchen garden, hillside and glade is lavished with painterly detailing of flora and fauna. Webb has a flair, too, for conjuring the suggestive forces that environments have on human motivation. The morally corrosive qualities of Reddin's home, Undern Hall, spring from the very soil its foundations are rooted in. In May, "when the scent of elder blossom, decaying fruit, mud and hot yew brooded there, the place attained one of its most individual moods - narcotic, aphrodisiac". By contrast, the sterile atmosphere of the minister's house at God's Little Mountain is both cause and effect of his impotence. Nobody's libido could be enhanced by a graveyard, "where stones, flat, erect and askew, took the place of a flower garden".
Libido is something that Webb takes a lively interest in. Her prose style may be archaic, but her philosophy is surprisingly modern. As Hazel tries to fathom Reddin's hypnotic appeal, Webb deplores the sexual ignorance that is Hazel's lot. She is equally robust about an artificial value system that damns people for behaving as their nature compels them. Hazel can no more help her strong attraction to Reddin than her tame fox can help stealing ham. When Mrs Marston calls Foxy a "bad dog", Hazel retorts that she is, in fact, a "good fox". And Webb scorns the lot of a young wife at the turn of the 19th century: absorbed into a new family like a piece of furniture, provided for without being consulted, brood mare and future keeper of the ancestral china.
Gone to Earth is Tess of the D'Urbervilles without the moral baggage. Hardy's Tess is defiled by her seduction, becomes a blousey trollop and has to be killed off so that Angel Clare can marry her purer sister. But Hazel Woodus has an innocence that goes much deeper. Webb kills her off because neither Reddin nor Marston deserve her. Furthermore, Hazel is the first martyr of the animal rights movement, sacrificing her life so that her pet Foxy shall not be "cut in two and flung (a living creature, fine of nerve) to the pack and torn to fragments". Every hunt sab should have a copy.
Rowan Pelling is the editor of "Erotic Review"