The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Anti-Fox Hunting, Women Novelists, and the First World War

Ellen Turner
Lund University

Fox hunting was, in the years preceding the First World War, a crucial part of rural English life, and a means of promoting a variety of ideologies associated with class, gender and rule. At this time, the anti-hunt movement was virtually nonexistent. Though the First World War was not a catalyst for a mass movement, it did occasion change, both materially in the hunting community and in societal attitudes to blood sports. As anti-cruelty societies, such as the Humanitarian League (marginal though they were), garnered increasing support, so too did the notion that the callous treatment of animals reflects an inherently debased human nature. In this article, literary analysis has been used as a tool to identify this non-mainstream attitude towards the hunt, whereby the savagery of war and the savagery of the chase are linked. Though this stance may not have immediately filtered through to the public consciousness at large, these literary representations were, I argue, ahead of their time. Here I take up three novels—Mary Webb's Gone to Earth (1917), Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936)—which explore the ramifications of fox hunting and are, I suggest, progressive in their impulse to equate cruelty to animals with human cruelty more generally.

Keywords  fox hunting / women’s writing / the Humanitarian League / Englishness / class

It is often said, in attempted justification of "sport," that it is the best training for war. This is true only in the sense that as far as concerns the creation and the perpetuation of a certain aggressive spirit, war and sport are certainly kindred pastimes with a good deal in common. (Salt 149) 



Prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, hunting to hounds was a mainstay of outdoor leisure in rural England.1 As Michael Tichelar asserts in his 2017 monograph, pre-World War One hunting was perceived as a multifaceted social tool supporting deeply entrenched ideologies of monarchy, masculinity and morality and, as such, wholesale opposition to hunting was largely unthinkable. The "insignificant minority of humanitarians and intellectuals" who did campaign against specific types of hunting were pigeonholed as "cranks" (History 9). Though the First World War did not revolutionize the anti-hunt movement to attract the kind of wide-scale popular support that it received from the 1970s onwards (culminating in the 2004 ban), it did occasion change. "Few customs and institutions in England," declared the pro-hunting Country Life magazine in 1921, "have escaped material and lasting injury by the Great War, and fox-hunting is no exception" (Lane Fox 542).2 Though the war meant that resources, and manpower, were diverted away from leisure pursuits such as fox hunting during and immediately after the war, it is my contention that the war initiated a gradual change in attitude which can be distinguished in certain literary works from the post-war era.3 In this article, literary analysis has enabled the detection of an alternative attitude towards the hunt whereby the savagery of war and the savagery of the hunt are affiliated. Though this stance may not have immediately filtered through to the public consciousness, these literary representations were, I argue, ahead of their time in equating cruelty to animals with human cruelty more generally.

The literary works that I explore in this piece—Mary Webb's Gone to Earth (1917), Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936)—tend to be aligned, though not always uncomplicatedly, with the then-minority perspective of the likes of Henry Stephens Salt, founder of the Humanitarian League and campaigner against cruel sport. Salt "coined the phrase 'blood sports' to describe hunting wild animals" in favor of ‘"the less contentious phrase 'field sports'" (Tichelar, History 10), thereby linguistically aligning the practice with its gory realities. Salt was to declare in his 1915 essay that war and bloodsport have much in common. The impulse to hunt down and kill that is bred on the hunting field has historically been seen as a desirable trait on the battlefield. In the preface to the collection in which Salt’s essay appears, George Bernard Shaw expresses his revulsion towards "dehumanising sports,"such as fox hunting, underscoring his repugnance at "sports in which men revert to the excitements of beasts of prey"(xxi). Much of the objection to fox hunting in the early 20th century arose not from responses to animal welfare (as might be the case later), but rather from the fear that engaging in blood sports was potentially dehumanizing; the popularity of such sports was seen by some as representative of a moral decline in which men were reverting back to a savage blood-lust.

That men (and women) could revel in the cruelty of the hunt was taken as evidence of the persistence of debased and primitive instincts of the kind which paved the way for war. In his manifesto, Salt urges the reader to recognize "the sportsman and the soldier," as akin. "The tiger that lurks in all of us," so claims Salt, "will not be easily tamed, so long as the deliberate murder of harmless creatures for 'sport' is a recognized amusement in every 'civilized' country"(150).

The connection between hunting for sport and the development of attributes considered desirable for warfare has a long-established history. The Boer Wars (1880–1881; 1899–1902) bred the notion of the "hunter-warrior" as integral to the imperial project. In doing so they drew on a much earlier association of hunting with warfare. According to J.A. Mangan and Callum McKenzie, the celebrated "masculine virtues" of "courage, endurance, confidence and 'self-sacrifice'" were those that were ideally cultivated through hazardous pastimes such as hunting (115). William Somerville, in his preface to the poem "The Chase" (1735), speaks of the 18th-century certainty "that hunting was the exercise of the greatest heroes of antiquity" whose "exploits against wild beasts were a prelude to their future victories" on the battlefield (xviii–xix). Hunting, announces "The Chase," is "the sport of kings"; it is the "Image of war, without its guilt" (5–6). On the whole, this image of hunting as a noble endeavor persisted up until the end of the 19th century when the beginnings of the rumblings of war that were to shake the foundations of western civilization were heard. Literary representations of the hunt in the first decade of the 20th century had already begun to heed the whisperings of change, and as Allyson May postulates, acted as "literary shorthand" for "an anachronistic social world and social structure" (85).

Writing about fox hunting remained, at least up until the start of the 20th century,a particularly masculine pursuit.4 However, in the wake of the First World War, fox hunting in the pages of novels came to symbolize the twin conflicting impulses which, on the one hand, and with nostalgic longing, sought a return to traditions of the past; and on the other, reviled the inhumanity of such customs. For instance, May points to the Robert Smith Surtees revival in the aftermath of the First World War: “The initial twentieth-century resurgence of interest in his novels came from men who had survived the First World War and looked back with wonder at a lost world” (91). The fact that Surtees’s comic sporting gentleman, Jorrocks, has been the subject of much parody and even finds his way into Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) attests to this dual inclination to both venerate and challenge such customs. Siegfried Sassoon’s now-canonical autobiographical novel Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) is perhaps the prototypical interwar fox-hunting novel and it too draws heavily on a sense of nostalgia for Surtees’s prewar world. In his early years of fox-hunting, George Sherston (the fictionalized Sassoon), relies on these novels for his knowledge of the hunt (132).

Sassoon’s novel, though not the subject of analysis in this present essay, is worthy of note since it offers one of the most famous literary representations of fox hunting from the interwar era and, furthermore, makes overt connections between horse sports and World War One. Christine Berberich, for one, notes the novel’s "binary vision" which juxtaposes "such quintessential country pursuits as cricket and foxhunting" with "Flanders and the trenches" (53). Likewise, Paul Fussell, in his analysis of Memoirs, points to the "rigorously selected" vignettes which are "arranged to indicate the ways both fox-hunting and cricket constitute forms of mimic war" (96). Though Sassoon’s novel might, at times, sentimentalize hunting and country life, it also contains implicit critique of such. Pointedly, Sassoon’s narrator ties this critique of war to the aforementioned notion that hunting and war bred the same “type” of man. Sherston is horrified by the thought of army conscription, but realizes retrospectively that his views differ significantly from those of his fox-hunting compatriots: "I should have been astonished if I’d been told that socialists opposed conscription as violently as many fox-hunting men supported the convention of soldiering" (227). Impossible to ignore in relation to any research on fox hunting in literature about the First World War, Sassoon’s novel serves as a point of reference at various points in this article.

Though studies of fox hunting in literature do exist, the connection between fox hunting and war (and the First World War in particular), has yet to receive adequate attention. The argument expounded in this present piece builds on the work of Tichelar and May, who make use of literary analysis in their broader cultural investigations of hunting. Both contain chapters on the representation of hunting in English literature, and Tichelar argues that poetry and prose serve as reflections of social attitudes, but also function to instigate change. Tichelar concludes that such "representations have reinforced the long-term trend of public opinion, and they have made a significant contribution to strengthening the opposition to blood sports towards the end of the twentieth century" (History 108). This article can be seen as contributing to Tichelar’s general argument by providing a more in-depth analysis of three specific novels.

The aim of this essay is to explore the relationship between representations of war and representations of fox hunting through the analysis of three interwar novels by women writers. The fact that I explore women writers only is no coincidence. In her essay Three Guineas, Woolf writes that "[s]carcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman’s rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you [men], not by us [women]" (158). In the novels that I explore, fox hunting is inextricably bound with a wrong-headed male-dominated society of the kind that Woolf criticizes. The three texts which constitute my subject are all united in their condemnation of fox hunting and all, implicitly or explicitly, associate the bloodthirstiness of the hunt with the cruelty of the First World War battlefield. Chronologically speaking, as well as by virtue of its dominating structural theme of the hunt, Gone to Earth serves as a springboard for my discussion of the latter two novels. It was first published during wartime, and the connection between fox hunting and the First World War is only made explicit in the later texts by Hall and Holtby, as opposed to the more subtly rendered connection in Webb’s text. In the tripartite analysis that follows, I explore how all three texts bear witness to the barbarism of the battlefield and the hunting field alike.

Gone to Earth (1917): The Death Pack

As Gail Pool affirms, "Hunting, with all it represents, is the main theme of Mary Webb’s 1917 novel, Gone to Earth" (279). According to Webb’s biographer, Dorothy P.H. Wrenn, on her death in 1927 "few people outside of her own immediate circle had heard of her or read her books" (i). It was not, as Wrenn points out, until after her death when the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, drew attention to her talents that Webb's modest reputation was cemented. Since then, although still not widely read, Webb has remained "a stalwart of the second-hand bookshop" (Pelling). Webb's second novel relates the story of eighteen-year-old Hazel Woodus. Living according to folklore myths and superstitions, Hazel has an unflinching sympathy for all living creatures, particularly those that suffer at the hands of humankind. Hazel and her pet fox, Foxy, are killed by hounds from whom they seem to be incessantly fleeing.

In a 1918 review of Gone to Earth the New York Tribune Review noted what they described as a "curious tendency toward an identification with nature" that apparently was characteristic of fiction and poetry of the spring of that year. The reviewer of Webb's novel writes that "[t]here is manifest a kind of hankering after a brotherhood of the wide universe—possibly induced by the partial collapse of what had been called the brotherhood of man" (4). Written during 1916, and published in 1917, Gone to Earth is inexorably bound to its bloody historical moment. Though war is not once mentioned directly in the novel, its presence is everywhere, its absence from the page only heightening the poignancy of the pacifist message that the novel carries. Wrenn affirms the unavoidable connection between Webb’s anti-cruelty message and the First World War: "Her cry against cruelty, which she set down in Gone to Earth, was doubtless inspired by the cruelty of war" (60). Andrew D. Radford’s assessment of Webb’s novel substantiates such a reading, pointing out the use of war imagery—for instance, the "loud reports of gunfire" and "gravestones...creeping as if they would dominate the world"—at various points in the novel (qtd. in Radford 140).

Coles’s 1990 biography of Webb reaffirms this association, writing that Gone to Earth is "most intimately related to the sad period in which it was conceived and written, the First World War, specifically 1916, when the tragedy of war was intensifying, the carnage appalling in the Battle of the Somme" (70). The great losses of the Somme (with the total casualties for all sides estimated at 1,000,000) proved that human slaughter on an almost unimaginable scale was possible. For Britain, it was the bloodiest battle of the war, with 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities on the first day alone (Philpott 8). However, as William Philpott’s essential history of the Somme explains, the much-mythologized first day of the battle has somewhat eclipsed the reality of the long and drawn-out nature of the conflict, and that from our present-day perspective, it is easy to forget that "[i]n the second decade of the twentieth century nations accepted, understood and even welcomed such a blood sacrifice" (Philpott 9). The antiwar attitude expressed between the lines in Gone to Earthwent against popular support for the war, in which the "anti-war left was a small proportion of the left, and only a tiny minority when compared to the population as a whole" (Ward 126).

Hazel Woodus, to whom it seems like "the earth's all bloody" and "the world's nought but a snare" (208, 274), echoes Webb's own sentiment in fearing for the lives of her brothers on the front line, as well as for humanity in general. That the war remains largely a subtext to the novel is on the one hand surprising given that Webb was undoubtedly affected by the conflict; however, its temporal proximity may have occasioned the need to sublimate the horrifying realities of her present. Hazel and Foxy are the two creatures upon whom these realities are sublimated; ostensibly, they serve the function of sacrificial objects. From the outset Hazel and Foxy are marked as the hunted. Hazel, as a child of nature, cares little for social rules and conventions; her charm and appeal to men is that she is unselfconscious, naïve and ruled by her naturally generous emotions. Hazel "identified herself with Foxy, and so with all things hunted and snared and destroyed" (17). Hazel and Foxy are marked from the start as victims, having about them "a look as of those predestined in grief, almost an air of martyrdom" (14). This aura of sorrow which the two carry with them could easily be said to echo the misery and anguish of the nation at war. Hazel and Foxy spend their lives in flight from their eventual fate and face their destiny "with pathetic courage" (14), again, a sentiment which could easily apply to those both in the trenches and back on the home front. As Foxy's guardian, Hazel constantly fears the hounds, and the mythical "death pack," whom she imagines galloping through the night in search of their quarry. To Hazel, the "[h]ounds symbolized everything she hated" (17). The hounds, bred to tear apart the fox for human entertainment, belong to another order of beings. They are, in Gone to Earth, representative of those who are more powerful and who exert their force over the weak, killing for fun rather than for necessity.

Gone to Earth’s Hazel is trapped between the nets of two men; the quiet country parson Edward Marston and his opposite, Jack Reddin, a carnally-minded fox-hunting squire. Reddin simultaneously repels her with his cruelty and awakens in her a previously unknown sexuality that draws her magnetically and fatally towards him. Jack Reddin is the embodiment of human cruelty, and "[f]ox-hunting, horse-breeding, and kennel lore were his vocation" (30). As Hazel states in disgust: "You'm got the blood of a many little foxes on you" (124). Reddin is masculine, powerful, domineering and brutal. Galloping his horse towards Hazel he is, in her eyes "the embodiment of the destructive principle, of cruelty, of the greater part of human society—voracious and carnivorous—with its curious callousness towards the nerves of the rest of the world" (169). Reddin’s callousness reflects a general callousness of a world at war. Though she is drawn to him by sexual forces beyond her comprehension, Reddin represents all that Hazel bravely attempts to resist. According to Coles, "Hazel and Foxy are the ultimate prey and symbolic victims; while the hunt, the Black Huntsman and the death-pack are symbolic of universal savagery and slaughter" (76).

Coles also points out that, in Hazel's mind, there is no separation between the actual hunt at whose hounds' snarling mouths she meets her death, and the imaginary hunt of legend of which she also lives in mortal fear. The hunt, real or imaginary, is symbolic of the generalized cruelty and suffering she sees all around her. The legend of the death-pack functions more explicitly in the novel as a manifestation of human nature. In Gone to Earth, Webb's narrator suggests that there is a deeper underlying truth at the heart of Hazel's superstitious fears. The death-pack "is no pale phantom of dreams." Instead, the death-pack consists of "our fellows, all that have strength without pity. Sometimes our kith and kin, our nearest intimates" (185). In Gone to Earth "it is mankind’s lack of pity, mankind's fatal propensity for torture, that is the nightmare" (185). Gone to Earth’s message is overwhelmingly one of dismay at the current state of affairs in wartime Europe, a state which seems inevitable given the view of human nature that the novel expounds.

As Hazel and Foxy await their destiny at the mouths of the hounds, the hunt is described as ineffably fiendish and terrible: "Coming, as they did, from the deep gloom, fiery-faced, and fiery-coated, with eyes frenzied by excitement, and open, cavernous mouths, they were like devils emerging from hell on a foraging expedition" (285). This is, as Tichelar declares, a "warlike image" which strengthens the claim that Webb’s text makes "a connection between nature and the animal world and the death and destruction wrought by war and hunters alike" (History 116). The hunt, who pursue Hazel’s and Foxy’s innocence and youth, are equated with greater forces of evil and destruction. Gone to Earth reverberates with a similar revulsion to "dehumanizing sports" as that expressed by George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Killing for Sport.

Despite the horrors of war in which Europe was engulfed (and which were sublimated in the metaphor of the hunt), Webb did however recognize the possibility of redemption for humankind:

We have left behind us the bloodshot centuries when killing was the only sport, and we have come to slightly more reputable times when lovers of killing are conscious that a distinct effort is necessary in order to keep up “the good old English sports.” Better things are in store for us. (163–64)

In a glimpse towards a less bloodthirsty society, Webb's narrator sees blood-sports as vestiges of a redundant past. As Salt professes in Killing for Sport,in a civilized society in which hunting is no longer a necessity for survival, "blood-sports are simply an anachronism, a relic of savagery which time will gradually remove" (vii). It is worth noting though that in the passage from Gone to Earth above, hunting and conceptions of Englishness are inextricably bound. The conception of war as noble and glorious is, along with fox hunting, a relic of the past. Indeed, by the outbreak of the First World War fox hunting and the image of the fox-hunting squire had largely become symbols of the "decadent old order of rural life," and the "moral bankruptcy of the rural elite" (Steinhart 66–67). In the following section which deals with Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), published approximately a decade after Gone to Earth, the representation of the conflict between the cruelty of the hunt and the longing for a long-lost English past is brought to the fore and explored in greater depth.

The Well of Loneliness (1928): The Hunter and the Hunted

Despite providing early 20th-century authors with a convenient shorthand for an outdated and patriarchal England (May 85), the symbolism of the hunt was never, for writers, entirely uncomplicated. Firstly, it cannot be forgotten that the object of the hunt, the fox, are themselves predators. In acknowledging the tendency of women authors in the early 20th century to associate the female figure and the fox, one must also acknowledge the twofold nature of the fox as both predator and prey—not only a victim, but a cunning, stealthy, and instinctual killer in their own right.5 In addition to the perplexity that an association with the fox implies, women’s participation in field sports entailed a further double bind; at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century, the hunting field was one of the few places where a woman could ride alongside men, if not as equals, at least on a relatively even playing field. In fact, the losses of young men in the First World War offered women access to a previously restricted sphere. As a Country Life magazine article from 1921 proclaims: "In many cases women took the place of men in the common determination to see the sport through somehow" (see Figure 1). 

In her study of hunting manuals, Erica Munkwitz has examined the role that fox hunting played in the emancipation of women, "and the wider recognition of their freedoms and abilities" (75), around the turn of the century. Competent horse(wo)manship relied not on brute physical strength, but on a subtler mastery of which women were (of course) more than capable. Yet, notwithstanding this emancipatory capacity, fox hunting, explains Munkwitz, implicated women in the perpetuation of a very British, and very masculine, tradition.

Of all the texts I explore in this essay, nowhere else is this paradox more overt than in Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Perhaps not unexpectedly, The Well, subject to trial for obscenity, has tended to draw most of its critical attention from the direction of gender and sexuality studies and inevitably, most scholarly discussions of the text are indebted to this tradition.6 The Well is a bildungsroman narrating the coming of age of the upper-class lesbian (or in Hall’s terms "invert"), Stephen Gordon. Stephen, named after the son her wealthy father never had, is initiated into the British fox-hunting scene as a young child on her first pony, Collins. Stephen, who insists on "riding astride" like a boy (35), possesses a seemingly natural horsemanship along with well-developed "riding muscles" and "that rare gift, perfect hands on a horse" (37).7 As well as providing a young Stephen with an outlet for her supposedly innate masculine nature, hunting is filled with a certain splendor.

Even from the early pages of The Well, before the advent of the First World War, metaphors of war are used to describe the hunting field. For instance, the hounds, with "tails waving" "looked like an army with banners" (38). The horse on which Stephen hunts apparently has an innate knowledge of the connection between war and the hunt:

He was wise with the age-old wisdom of the beasts, it is true, but that wisdom was not guiltless of slaying, and deep in his gentle and faithful mind lurked a memory bequeathed him by some wild forebear. A memory of vast and unpeopled spaces, of fierce open nostrils and teeth bared in battle, of hooves that struck death with every sure blow, of a great untamed mane that streamed out like a banner, of the shrill and incredibly savage war-cry that accompanied that gallant banner. (134)

However much she is later repelled by its savagery, Stephen, like her horse, has fox hunting in her blood.8

Stephen glows with pride the day that she is presented "with her first hunting trophy—the rather pathetic, bedraggled little brush, that had weathered so many hard miles"(39). Nevertheless, even in this early moment of triumph, Stephen feels a tinge of unease which prefigures her change in attitude to come: "Just for an instant the child’s heart misgave her, as she looked at the soft furry thing in her hand; but the joy of attainment was still hot upon her, and that incomparable feeling of elation that comes from the knowledge of personal courage, so that she forgot the woes of the fox in remembering the prowess of Stephen" (39). The unease felt by Stephen strikingly mirrors that felt on occasion by Sherston in Sassoon’s Memoirs. Sherston as a young boy on his first forays on the hunting field shares, like Stephen, an innate sympathy for the fox, recognizing in the hunted creature a "human alertness" which recalls some distant kinship between child and animal. When the rest of the field was alerted with a "Huick-holler" to the fox’s presence, Sherston "felt spontaneously alarmed for the future of the fox." He embarrasses himself by impulsively exclaiming: "Don’t do that; They’ll catch him!" (48). This internal conflict whereby he both adores the hunt but has a level of repellence at the kill, follows Sherston through into young adulthood where he continues to feel "unconfessed sympathy" for those creatures he hunts (218). Though onlookers to the hunt may see "a kindly country scene," Sherston recognizes its purpose as "inhumane" (198).

Both Sassoon’s Memoirs and Hall’s The Well approach the theme of fox hunting from a similarly dual aspect. In Hall’s novel, hunting offers Stephen acceptance into a conservative and traditional England that she loves but which in other spheres of life shuns her for her failure to fit neatly into gender norms. Though hunting seems to initially provide some sort of respite from a society from which she is alienated, extending as it does both a physical outlet and a proximity to the natural world she holds dear, Stephen feels an escalating sense of disquiet on the field.9 Her masculinity precludes her from identifying with nature coded as feminine and therefore, as Gillian Whitlock suggests, she must instead turn uncomfortably to a masculine version of the natural world, a world which emphasizes mastery over harmony. The hunt, and equestrian competence, represent, according to Mortimer-Sandilands, an "equation of nature mastery with masculinity" (44). The "male ritual [of the hunt] that is all speed, 'bruised herbage,' and, ultimately, a killing" (565) is, in the end, not one to which Stephen can reconcile herself.

After the death of her father, Stephen finds that not only does the hunt "cease…to give her pleasure" (131), it actually awakens in her a sense of disgust. Venturing reluctantly onto the field once more in order to please the aging groom, Stephen finds that "because this day was so vibrant with living it was difficult for [her] to tolerate the idea of death, even for a little red fox" (131). As the field detects the scent of a fox and the hounds begin their pursuit Stephen imagines that it is she who is the hunted:

She fancied that she was being pursued, that the hounds were behind her instead of ahead, that the flushed, bright-eyed people were hunting her down, ruthless, implacable, untiring people—they were many and she was one solitary creature with every man’s hand against her.…The whole world was hunting her down with hatred, with a fierce, remorseless will to destruction—the world against one insignificant creature who had nowhere to turn for pity of protection. (132)

The plight of the wretched fox is hopeless even though Stephen dismounts her horse to offer it what miserably little defense she can summon up. Like Hazel who tries to protect Foxy in Gone to Earth, she is no match for the pack, however. As the fox creeps back in distrust of Stephen there is a "deathly and awful silence [as] the hounds swept past her [Stephen], their muzzles to the ground" (133). This is followed by "a savage clamour" at the moment when "the hounds gave tongue in their wild jubilation, and Stephen well knew that that sound meant death" (133). Like Stephen, for Sassoon’s Sherston too, proximity to human death detracts from his affection for fox hunting. Sherston, when on the frontlines in France, uses thoughts of hunting to distract himself from his wartime realities: "After an imaginary fox had been found, away we’d scuttle, looking in vain for a fence to jump, making imaginary casts after an imaginary check, losing our fox when the horses had done enough galloping." However, Sherston writes that amidst the precariousness of life, "[a]n imaginary kill didn’t appeal to me, somehow" (284). Stephen and Sherston alike cannot forget the plight of the hunted when they themselves are confronted with their own mortality.

In The Well, not only does Stephen identify with the "hopelessly pursued" fox (132), but like Hazel in Gone to Earth, this involvement is universalized. Her experience, together with that of the fox, is extended to encompass the plight of all others like her, all those who find themselves victims of suffering at the hands of others. In "a sudden illumination of vision" Stephen understands her own anguish and that of the fox as part of one and the same phenomenon: "She perceived that all life is only one life, that all joy and all sorrow are indeed only one, that all death is only one dying" (133). And with this revelation Stephen makes the decision that never again will she "inflict wanton destruction or pain upon any poor, hapless creature" (133). This decision of Stephen’s serves as a pivotal point in her own development, but also in the broader connection of fox hunting with human cruelty on a more global scale, which is realized at the key historical moment in The Well, the outbreak of the First World War. The time that Stephen spends in the Breakspeare Unit, ferrying casualties from the front line in France as an ambulance driver, serves as a crucial structural break in the novel, and in the realization of human cruelty and violence on an almost unimaginable scale. The women of the Breakspeare Unit are described as "foxes creeping out of their holes" (314), as they emerge from their inadequate rest for another long shift of the dangerous and gruesome task of retrieving maimed and dying soldiers.

As previously discussed, Stephen’s attitude to the fox is complicated by her adulation of tradition and ceremony. The reading of a similar conflict is also applicable to Stephen’s attitude to war. Before Stephen witnesses the grim realities of the frontline casualties for herself, "she sought to disguise" its realities with "the paraphernalia and pageantry of glory" (291). The Well relates how the declaration of war was met not only "with a sense of disaster," but for some, the young in particular, "with a strange excitement" as "the bitter and ruthless potion of war...spurned and lashed at their manhood" (291). The "manhood" and "mastery" which was cultivated on the hunting field—and which was capable of restoring the "anaemic manhood" of the hunt master, a usually "ineffectual hen-pecked little fellow" (114)—was echoed in the anticipation of combat. Even after the realization that the war would be "a sterner game than cricket" (294), war, much like the hunting field, offers Stephen previously unobtainable opportunities in which her true "nature" can thrive alongside other women like herself. As Hall relates, "A battalion was formed in those terrible years that would never again be completely disbanded. War and death had given them a right to life" (299). Though Stephen perceives herself and "her kind" to be the hunted, the chances—or "abrupt revenges"—afforded by the First World War meant that "never again would such women submit themselves, to being driven back to their holes and corners" (299). Though Stephen still likens the plight of the legion of lesbian women like her to that of the fox, the First World War reinforces the conviction that "[t]he fear of one is a spur to the many, for the primitive hunting instinct dies hard—it is better to face a hostile world than turn one’s back for a moment" (131). In her recognition that she and her kind are, like the fox, the hunted, there is also the implicit recognition of their own predatory strengths. In his late 20th-century pro-hunting tract, philosopher Roger Scruton similarly articulates something of the paradox inherent in the fact that a human being might find pleasure in the hunt because "[w]e began as prey" and our redemption lay in our ability to ourselves become hunters, and in doing so procuring a "blood-filling joy in the chase" (65). Though Hall’s Stephen shares nothing of Scruton’s delight in the kill, she is able to recognize how her predatory instincts might be productively channeled elsewhere.

Hall’s Stephen offers a perspective on women’s postwar liberation that does not necessarily reflect the evidence of social history. Such histories challenge the popular conception that the First World War enabled freedoms such as those prophesied by Stephen. Deborah Thom, for instance, contends that the "causal relationship" between the end of the war and "the entry of women into citizenship through the parliamentary franchise" (201) has been oftentimes mistakenly assumed, and that the changes to women’s roles elicited by war "did not endure" once the war ended (207). This claim was made earlier in Gail Braydon’s 1981 social history in which she affirms the temporary nature of women’s wartime roles. Though women might have "been offered a broader experience by wartime conditions," the postwar years would see them resume the "return to their 'true sphere' once no longer needed in 'men’s jobs'" (Braydon 210). Though Hall, like Webb before her, was optimistic for the postwar future, it seems as if their more positive visions remained largely fiction.

South Riding (1936): "Wire, wire!"

Though Winifred Holtby only spent a relatively short time on the Western Front in France, and was in comparative safety "on the fringes of the war" (M. Shaw), she was nevertheless compelled to record her reflections some decades later. In Holtby’s haunting 1931 poem, "Trains in France," the speaker recounts the sense of horror at hearing the wartime trains carrying soldiers to their death on the Western Front.10 The "fire eyed" and "savage, shrieking trains" which travel through the night are described as "beasts, / After their prey." It was, according to the speaker of the poem, the business of these beasts "to capture and devour / Flesh of our flesh, bone of our very bone" ("Trains" 56). The metaphor of the savage beasts roaring through the hills of France is an unequivocal condemnation of the machinery of war. Though the imagery of this particular poem is on beasts of prey in general, and not fox hunting in particular, in her novel, South Riding, Holtby makes use of a more subtly rendered imagery in order to make the connection between war and the hunt. It is this novel that I shall explore in the present section.

South Riding is well known for its particularly strong depiction of class consciousness. The novel’s two protagonists, Sarah Burton, the socialist headmistress, and Robert Carne, the landowner and struggling farmer whose way of life as a member of the landed gentry is crumbling around him under the financial and social pressure of interwar England, are, ideologically speaking, adversaries: "I dislike, I oppose everything he stands for, [Sarah] told herself—feudalism, patronage, chivalry, exploitation" (175). Though Sarah thus recognizes that she and Carne "are natural and inevitable enemies" (175), she is nevertheless drawn sexually to her ideological rival in a manner which closely resembles Gone to Earth’s Hazel, with her alternating impulses of attraction and repulsion toward her lover, Reddin. Furthermore, Carne, much like Reddin, is also demonstrative of the now-disintegrating hierarchical social system in Britain. Carne, we are told, "worshipped the God of order who had created farmers’ lords of their labourers, the county and the gentry lords over the farmers, and the King lord above all his subjects under God" (404). In the case of both Gone to Earth and South Riding, Reddin and Carne, as fox-hunting gentlemen, are malign relics of an obsolete class system. Carne, described in Sarah’s words as "a sporting farmer, pseudo-county, with a big pale face rather like Mussolini’s" (174), embodies all that is wrong with British society.11

The specter of war in South Riding is ever present. As Sarah tells herself, the First World War left in its wake a "world [that] did ill" deprived of the "[t]en million men…who should now have been between forty and fifty-five—our scientists, our rulers, our philosophers, the foremen in our workshops, the head masters in our schools" (71). She is, we are told, "haunted by the menace of another war" (71), a menace that cast its shadow over the whole of Europe (and indeed the world) in the 1930s with the inevitability of the coming of the Second World War. It is significant that Robert Carne, who served in France, "knew all about death" (404), not only from his wartime experiences, but also from his hunting days, which, it would seem, had prepared him well to serve his country. Carne is well acquainted with the gruesome realities of violent death: "He had seen it on the hunting field and on the race-course, he had seen it during air-raids on the remount depot where he had served in France. He had risked death a hundred times as a sportsman and as a soldier" (404–45). The hunting field has not only equipped Carne for the brutalities of war, but has also propelled him on towards it with a certain sense of inevitability:

Carne had lived; he had been rooted deep in the soil; he had loved and hated and begotten and feared and dared. He had never shrunk back from life; he had done everything that struck his limited imagination as worth doing.…When his country went to war, he put on uniform. When his hounds hunted he rode after them. (424).

Fox hunting here is more than merely sport, it is one cog in the dangerous machinery of patriarchy that eventually, for Holtby, culminated in the First World War, and, in the 1930s, was gathering speed again for the second such event. Fox hunting in South Riding can thus be seen as one of the multitude of interconnected parts that makes up the unrelenting drive towards destruction.

The controversial nature of fox hunting is explicitly addressed in South Riding. Huggins, the local minister, reflects that he had "once preached a first-rate sermon against fox-hunting," against what he sees as the "hounds of the devil" (85). But for all the moralizing, treatment of fox hunting is, as is the case in The Well of Loneliness, not treated as uncomplicated. For Hicks, Carne’s head groom, the hunt acts as a kind of social glue: "This was the life—this was the life undoubtedly. Farmers, county, villagers, yes, and even townsfolk, all drawn together by one common interest. And then some fools said fox-hunting was immoral" (77).12 Even Sarah Burton, who abhors this "life" which such sports cement, cannot help but be sexually drawn to the Rochester-like figure of Carne.13 On one occasion, as Sarah is out in the snow having organized a game of chase for her schoolgirl charges, she is startled by Carne’s horseback approach: "For a moment she could say nothing, aware only of the tossing black neck of the horse, flecked by white foam, its white, rolling eyeballs, its black, gleaming, powerful flanks, and the dark eyes challenging her from the white face of the rider" (119). Much like the dark huntsman, Reddin, in Gone to Earth, it is the brooding violence inherent in Carne that draws Sarah to him: "It was as though some romantic sinister aspect of the snow-scene had taken heroic shape" (119). Though the brutality and injustice of the "old" way of life embodied in Carne is in no way lost on Sarah, she cannot help but be erotically drawn to this man.14

In South Riding, fox hunting and all it represents is outwardly ascribed a negative value. The connection between fox hunting and the First World War is strengthened by the use of war imagery and allusions to augment descriptions of the hunting field. It is during an accident on the hunting field that one of Carne’s prize hunters breaks her back and has to be shot at the scene:

She rose lightly, beautifully. Carne, holding his breath, lost no line of that proud and lovely movement. Then, as though checked in mid-air, she seemed to falter. Hicks screamed, “Wire, wire!” Carne saw a flurry of tossing hoofs, a somersaulting belly, and knew that the mare was down on the other side. (80)

In the immediate aftermath of the accident Carne curses the "blank, blanketty blank of a fool who put up that wire without marking it" (81), and a discussion ensues as to the ethics of withholding such information from the hunt. To Carne’s understandable frustration, Snaith breaks into a homily on the immorality of the hunt, exhorting that "if fifty grown-up men will amuse themselves by riding after one little animal to watch it torn to pieces by dogs, on other people’s property, they must accept the consequences" (82).

Regardless of the particular rights and wrongs of the hunt, the resounding cry of "Wire, wire!" as Carne’s groom, Hicks, notices too late the wire that will cost the mare her life, evokes the horrific scenes from the Battle of the Somme in which soldiers were given the order to march towards enemy lines in the faith that the German barbed wire had been breached, only to find, in many cases, that the wire remained intact and impassable. Military historian John Keegan testifies that "to advance across no-man’s-land under heavy fire only to find the enemy’s wire uncut" was "the worst of First World War experiences" (246). Keegan quotes Private Tomlinson’s astonishment on reaching the German wire: "I was absolutely amazed to see it intact, after what we had been told" (258). The analogy between the hunting field scene in South Riding and First World War accounts, particularly those from the Somme, is evident and resounds deeply in Carne’s lament at the wire that kills his mare: "It’s not marked," he exclaims (81).

This scene is also a possible allusion to Sassoon’s Memoirs, where barbed wire on the hunting field is frequently mentioned and is described as "the most dangerous enemy of the hunting-man" (106). The warning of ‘‘ware wire" (148) by one member of the field on approach to a fence resonates particularly with the "wire, wire!" cry in South Riding. It is on a military training exercise, before Sherston is posted to France, that the protagonist has his own close encounter with barbed wire, when he fails to observe "a strand of wire " in the fence at which he points his horse, resulting in entanglement and serious injury for his mount (252). Fussell reminds us of the importance of barbed wire in the hunting scenes in the novel: "We finally understand why all this barbed wire is here when we learn that it was on a wiring party" that one of the central characters is killed (Fussell 96; Sassoon 303). Barbed wire was as ubiquitous as it was terrible in the First World War.15 The First World War came at a high cost to equine as well as human life, barbed wire being a snare for both man and beast.16 That hunting, like war, is a dangerous pursuit for horse and rider alike is taken for granted; hunting is, as South Riding’s Snaith suggests, "a risky game, even for others beside the fox" (81).

As the above reading suggests, Holtby’s astute social realism captures something of the horrors of the battlefield and the war in a way which is more literal than metaphorical; the bloody realities of both hunting and war speak for themselves. In the novel fox hunting retains its symbolism as representative of a damaging and unthinking conservatism in which the landed gentry participate with their stereotypical nonchalance. Furthermore, fox hunting in the novel, like many of its precursor texts, corroborates claims that fox hunting and war are, in the words of Salt, "kindred pastimes" which propagate the assiduous "aggressive spirit" (149).


The three novels that I have examined here can only offer a limited snapshot of possible connections between the hunting field and the battlefield in the wake of the First World War. Gone to Earth has invited a reading which connects the brutality of the field with the brutality of war, without needing to make overt reference to the war; because of the proximity of the war, such reference is unnecessary for any historically aware reading of the novel. Webb’s novel wholeheartedly condemns the cruelty of the fox hunt, and by extension, war. In contrast, The Well of Loneliness complicates this outright denunciation in its recognition that the hunted can use their position to their advantage; the fox, too, of course, has its own predatory instinct. Reading with the grain, South Riding’s largely anti-hunting stance is echoed in its pacifist message. Nevertheless, the novel’s protagonist has to come to terms with reconciling her socialist principles with her attraction to a man whose ideologies differ greatly from her own: pacifism versus patriotism; anti-hunt versus pro-hunt. In the course of the analysis various other associations and subtleties have surfaced, most explicitly, the liberating potentials of both war and fox hunting on women's emancipation, and the connection between hunting, war, and nationalism. Though all three texts explored here decry the cruelty of both war and the hunt, not one of them does so without ambivalence. The reasons for this equivocation might be multifaceted, but what each novel shares in common is a sense that the predatory urge is within us all,(wo)man, hound, and fox alike.


1 Influential histories of fox hunting include Raymond Carr’s English Foxhunting: A History (1976) and David Itzkowitz, Peculiar Privilege (1977). These texts remain of continued relevance in relation to the history of the sport along with Richard H. Thomas’s The Politics of Hunting (1983), and more recently, Emma Griffin’s Blood Sport (2007).

2 Lieutenant-Colonel, G. R. Lane Fox nevertheless remains adamant that fox hunting will endure even after the devastating effects of the First World War. For instance, in an article from November 1921 such a declaration of continued devotion is made: “But that this nation is going to forego readily a sport to which they have been devoted for so many generations is inconceivable, and that fox-hunting in some form will continue for many years to come is the firm and convinced belief of the writer” (“II” 577).

3 Michael Tichelar affirms this writing that “during the war the opponents of blood sports, and in particular fox hunting, complained about its extravagant cost as an economic drain on the war effort” (“Pink” 97).

4 Edith Somerville and Violet Florence Martin (who went by the pseudonym Martin Ross), co-authored a series of fox-hunting stories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and are the most famous exception to the claim that fox-hunting writing is a predominantly male tradition.

5 And it is no coincidence that the equation of woman and fox in much interwar literature emphasizes a transgressive and "dangerous" animalistic sexuality. See, for example, David Garnett’s Lady into Fox (1922), which narrates the gradual transition of Sylvia Tebrick from, as the title suggests, woman to vixen. Sylvia is eventually released by her husband into the wild and is killed by the hunt. Furthermore, as observed by Gay Wachman, in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Summer Will Show (1936), Sophia Willoughby’s association with the fox is aligned with the position of both as “sexual and social outlaw[s]” (174).

6 One reading of the novel which diverges from queer criticism to incorporate an ecocritical approach is Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands’s 2008 article. Mortimer-Sandilands writes that, “[t]o say the least, it is not especially common to read The Well as a work of English landscape representation, let alone environmental history or eco-criticism” (36).

7 In fact, in all “masculine” physical pursuits the young Stephen surpasses her male counterpart, a neighboring male child (who incidentally later becomes a love rival): “She could bowl at cricket much straighter than he could; she climbed trees with astonishing speed and prowess” (44).

8 The philosopher Roger Scruton articulates this impulse to hunt which humans have inherited from their ancestors: “Planted in us, too deep for memory, are the instincts of the hunter-gatherer, who differs from his civilized descendants not only in making no distinction between the natural and artificial order, but also in relating to his own and other species in a herd-like way” (65).

9 Part of this apprehension could be attributed to the notion that Stephen, in the words of Gillian Whitlock “disrupts the natural order and has done so from the moment she was born, ‘a narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered tadpole of a baby’” and is thus “threatened and excluded by ‘pregnant’ slopes and ‘mothering’ trees” in which she seeks solace (564).

10 First published in Time and Tide.

11 Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Sarah’s description of Carne as Mussolini-like recurs towards the end of the novel: “She saw his solid body, his dark brown tweed suit, his bowler hat (who can feel romantic about a man who wears a bowler hat? she asked herself), the obstinate lines of his big handsome face. She thought, what a fool he is! She thought, he’s just like Mussolini” (399). The emotional personal toil of the war which meant that Carne had to leave his pregnant and mentally ill wife to serve in France, coupled with the wider economic collapse, wrecks Carne’s health and leads to his untimely death.  Carne, and his like, cannot weather the storm. The First World War, despite its catastrophic costs, has forced about social reform.

12 Likewise, Hicks believes that Carne’s wife could have been spared from mental collapse had she not been forced to stop hunting on becoming pregnant.

13 Frequent comparisons have been made between South Riding and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (Stoneman, 2009; Julien 2007).

14 Perhaps also, it is no coincidence that Carne encounters Sarah during an extracurricular tracking game in which several of the students act as hares laying a trail for the other girls to hunt.

15 This discussion is also taken up by Andrew J. Kunka’s contribution to Patricia Rae’s edited collection, Modernism and Mourning (79–80). The viciousness of barbed wire on the front is a theme that has been taken up by other First World War poets such as Ivor Gurney in “The Silent One” (1917) and Robert William Service’s “On the Wire” (1916). As George Coppard reports in his memoirs: “Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as though they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. From the way the dead were equally spread out, whether on the wire or lying in front of it, it was clear that there were no gaps in the wire at the time of the attack” (82). Barbed wire was also abundant on the hunting field back in Britain as the cheapest form of fencing at a time when resources were scarce. It is interesting to note the connection between agricultural uses and war uses of wire. Reviel Netz argues that “[b]ecause barbed wire became widely available as a tool for controlling agricultural space, it also came to be used by armies” (59).

16 Horses were used for “transport of soldiers and equipment and even for the occasional cavalry charge—barbed wire and trenches notwithstanding” (Alger and Alger 77). Michael Morpurgo’s famed 1982 novel War Horse was inspired by “an old painting of a cavalry charge in the First World War,” in which “[t]he British cavalry were charging up a hill towards the German position, one or two horses already caught up on the barbed wire” (Morpurgo).

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