Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

In her richly imagined biography of Mary Webb, Gladys Mary Coles notes the similarity of Webb’s mystical love to that of the Sufi poets. To compare Webb’s rapturous animism with the God-centered esotericism of the Sufi tradition might at first seem incongruous, but I think that Dr. Coles’ perception of a resemblance deserves serious consideration.

In her richly imagined biography of Mary Webb, Gladys Mary Coles notes the similarity of Webb’s mystical love to that of the Sufi poets.1 To compare Webb’s rapturous animism with the God-centered esotericism of the Sufi tradition might at first seem incongruous, but I think that Dr. Coles’ perception of a resemblance deserves serious consideration.

We know that Mary Webb was familiar with Sufism to some degree. In The Spring of Joy she writes: “Blue is a holy colour; the Sufis wore it with this significance.”2 We also know that contemporary English adherents to Sufism followed Mary Webb’s work with keen interest. After her death The Sufi Quarterly eulogized her as a mystic of the first order: “she was more than a novelist and a poet—she was a great mystic: one of the greatest produced by the West in modern times.”3

The Sufi Quarterly was a publication of the Sufi Order founded in London by Hazrat Inayat Khan. Inayat Khan died in 1927, the same year as Mary Webb. One wonders whether Webb Gone to Earth by Mary Webbmight have had contact with Inayat Khan’s circle while living in London during the last six years of her life.

Whether or not such contact existed, there is good reason to regard Mary Webb as a Sufi in spirit. The setting of her novels, essays, and poems is not the disenchanted world of rational materialism, but a visionary Shropshire, “half in Faery.” Like the Sufis, Webb worshipped at the shrine of Nature and searchingly probed the inner recesses of the human heart.

A thorough analysis of Mary Webb’s oeuvre in the light of the theology, psychology and metaphysics of Sufism would be a large undertaking. The intention of this article is much more modest—namely, to put forward the outline of a Sufi interpretation of one of Webb’s books, her 1917 novel Gone to Earth.

Gone to Earth tells the story of Hazel Woodus, a young woman of little education who lives in a forest cottage with her eccentric father and a menagerie of animals she has rescued, chief among which is a semi-domesticated fox. Her simple life becomes complicated when she encounters Jack Reddin, a hot-tempered squire who resolves to make her his own. Hazel is at once drawn by his animal magnetism and repulsed by his cruelty. Soon after, she meets Edward Marston, a soft-spoken pastor who likewise becomes smitten with her. Edward marries Hazel, but his excessive deference makes him worship her from a distance rather than possess her as his mate. As Reddin continues to pursue her, Hazel is torn between the squire’s appeal to her physical instincts and the pastor’s appeal to her subtler emotions. At the core of her being, she wishes to belong to no one but herself. When Reddin finally has his way with her, she feels that she must now submit to him, and leaves Edward’s house. Eventually she returns to Edward, bearing in her womb Reddin’s child. Edward is moved by pity to take her in, though his mother and housekeeper abandon him. Confronted by his parishioners, Edward renounces the Church and the couple dream of a new life together. The dream is tragically shattered, however, when a pack of hunting hounds chase Hazel and her fox over a precipice.

Gone to Earth has the imaginative resonance of a myth, and its protagonists are mythic figures, personifications of three fundamental aspects of the human psyche. Sufism identifies these three faces of the human condition as the commanding self (nafs al-ammara), the critical self (nafs al-lawwama) and the tranquil self (nafs al-mutma’inna).   

The commanding self appears in the Qur’an in the chapter “Joseph” (12:53), when the prophet Joseph says, “I do not hold my self innocent; the self certainly prompts evil.” The commanding self has as its motive force the drive to expand its dominion and maximize its pleasure. Constitutionally incapable of sympathy, if it thinks at all of the pain it inflicts on others it does so with malicious glee. At its best the commanding self manifests a healthy self-confidence and lust for life. At its worse it is a monstrous tyrant.

The critical self is invoked in the Qur’an in “The Resurrection” (75:2): “And I call to witness the critical self.” The critical self is the aspect of the psyche that hesitates, considers consequences, and questions its own motives. In a word, it is the conscience. Though on the whole the critical self exhibits greater wisdom than the commanding self, it too can veer into excess. When out of balance, the critical self becomes a carping naysayer.   

The Qur’an introduces the tranquil self in the culminating verses of “The Dawn” (89:27-30):

    “O tranquil self
    Return to the One to whom you belong, well-pleased and well-pleasing.
    Enter among My devoted ones
    And enter My garden.”

The tranquil self is motivated neither by concupiscence nor shame. Being wholly natural, the tranquil self has as its proper setting the garden, the terraqueous habitat of animals, plants, and elements. As a “child of the moment” (ibn al-waqt), the tranquil self resides in the eternal now, bearing compassionate witness to all that transpires.

In Gone to Earth, Mary Webb has crafted a compelling portrait of these three fundamental facets of the human psyche and their interactions. Jack Reddin is the commanding self, Edward Marston is the critical self, and Hazel Woodus is the tranquil self.

For all that his bearing marks him as a gentleman, Reddin’s physiognomy betrays a cruel nature; he has a “merciless mouth.”4 Reddin lives for the hunt, whether his quarry is a fox or a woman. Ill at ease with rational discussion, he settles differences by brute force. Webb sums up Reddin’s beastliness, and reveals her despairing assessment of humankind generally, when she writes, “he was the embodiment of the destructive principle, of cruelty, of the greater part of human society—voracious and carnivorous—with its curious callousness toward the nerves of the rest of the world.”5 This is the very definition of the commanding self. Webb specifically uses the word “commanding” when describing Reddin’s gaze: “And his eyes said strange, terrific things to her, things for which she had no words, wakening vitality, flattering, commanding, stirring a new curiosity, robbing her of breath.”6

Edward is Reddin’s temperamental opposite. He has “an instinctive pleasure in clean and healthy things.”7 Edward’s devout nature has drawn him to his vocation, but in the end his conscience takes precedence over his faith in the Church. “Always accustomed to think more of giving than receiving,” Edward is caught on the horns of a dilemma in relation to Hazel.8 Though he is intensely attracted to her, he feels obligated to protect her as a “little sister” rather than consummate their marriage.9 Edward’s dilemma, however, is a false one. He is mistaken in supposing that Hazel is unready to be more than a sister to him: “if he had … told Hazel what his love meant, by the irony of things she would have loved him and spent on him the hidden passion of her nature.”10 In his self-denial, at once noble and pathetic, Edward represents the light and shadow of the critical self.

Hazel is the beau ideal of Mary Webb’s creed of fervid empathy. Raised in the woods, she is oblivious to the expectations and prejudices of the society surrounding her. In this she stands in sharp contrast to her mother-in-law, Mrs. Marston, who is the very picture of drowsy middle-class respectability. Hazel’s spirit belongs to the wild existence of the forest. She has an “almost unnaturally intense craving for everything rich, vivid, and vital.”11 Yet her zeal for life is untainted by selfishness. Her egoism is “more selfless than most people’s altruism—the divine egoism that is genius.”12 Her master passion is a fierce, visceral pity. She allies herself resolutely with all hunted and tormented creatures, unconsciously anticipating or prefiguring her own dire fate. Her heart is alive to the deep vein of tragedy that runs through the world, the “keening—wild and universal—of life for the perishing matter it inhabits.”13  In her guileless simplicity, in her love of light and beauty, and in her limitless capacity for empathy, Hazel personifies the tranquil self. For Mary Webb, Hazel’s selflessness is the horizon toward which human evolution is gradually, if falteringly, progressing: “She was of a race that will come in the far future, when we shall have outgrown our egoism.”14

The foregoing correspondences evince an intriguing nexus of ideas between Webb’s art and the psychology of Sufism. Many more parallels could be drawn, and it is hoped that students of Sufism and of Mary Webb will build on these preliminary observations in the future—a future in which, we may also hope, the “race” of the tranquil self will have gained ground, thanks in some measure to both.


1Gladys Mary Coles, Flower of Light (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1978), p. 207.
2Mary Webb, Poems and The Spring of Joy (London: Jonathan Cape, 1928), p. 207. Webb’s source for this information was probably H. Wilberforce Clarke’s translation of the Awarif al-ma‘arif of Shaykh Shihab al-Din ‘Umar Suhrawardi, published in 1891.
3The Sufi Quarterly, vol. VII no. 1 (June, 1931), p. 7.
4Mary Webb, Gone to Earth (New York: The Dial Press, 1979), p. 157.
5Ibid, p. 169.
6Ibid, p. 172.
7Ibid, p. 56.
8Ibid, p. 69.
9Edward’s position is reminiscent of the words of the great Sufi metaphysician Ibn al-‘Arabi in his Interpreter of Desires: “Lovers are perplexed between two opposite things, for the lover wishes to be in accord with the Beloved and also wishes to be united with Him, so that if the Beloved wishes to be separated from the lover, the lover is in a dilemma.” Muhyi’ddin Ibn al-‘Arabi, The Tarjuman al-Ashwaq: A Collection of Mystic Odes, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson (London: Theosophical Publishing House Ltd, 1978), p. 48.
10Webb, Gone to Earth, p. 135.
11Ibid, p. 19.
12Ibid, p. 88.
13Ibid, p. 62.
14Ibid, p. 163.