[Adapted by the author from Chapter 3 of her book, Literary Surrey (Headley Down: John Owen Smith, 2005)]
Along with Gilbert White (1720-1793), William Cobbett (1763-1835), W.H. Hudson (1841-1922) and others, Richard Jefferies is often classed as a "country writer," or commentator on nature and rural life in England. How would the growth of scientific curiosity, and the changes in the fabric of English society, have encouraged such writing? Does it differ from, tie in with, or parallel the romantic appreciation of wild nature?
Gilbert White a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, was a genial Hampshire curate who never married but enjoyed being an uncle to his numerous nephews and nieces and was popular with his parishioners. Although his close study of the wildlife in his parish could involve "procuring specimens," he responded keenly to the rhythms of the natural world, and respected it for its own sake. His Natural History of Selborne (1788-9) was based on letters to two important naturalists of the day, but has endeared itself to generations of English people as much for its familiar style and anecdotal approach as for its meticulous observations. Read, for example, Letter XLIII on the language of "the winged tribes" (birds). What other qualities can you find in it to account for White's popularity? How do you feel about the degree of anthropomorphism here?
Although Cobbett became a great fan of White's, he differed greatly from him both in temperament and aims. A farmer at heart, he was a man of action as well as an observer, and rode through the English countryside, particularly the southern counties, gleaning first-hand information for political and economic reform. He too saw wildlife and scenery with a countryman's eye. However, his greatest sympathies lay with the country folk themselves, and he raged against the changes being imposed on them. Search out some of his "rants." What sort of things upset him most?
Cobbett was called "The Poor Man's Champion" because of his outspokenness in print and parliament. A robust, practical and adventurous man, he led a colourful life (enduring two spells in jail and spending some important years as an exile in America), published books on a variety of topics from English grammar to gardening, and was the original name behind Hansard, the long-running official record of parliamentary debates. Hansard was the printer to whom he sold his Weekly Political Register, where Rural Rides first appeared. Largely alienated from his family and generally disaffected, Cobbett died on his farm in Ash, Surrey, in 1835. As befits a man of action, his best memorial may be the Surrey countryside. His biographer George Spater concludes his two-volume account of him by saying, "Trees were grown, crops were cultivated, lives were shaped, by Cobbett's enthusiasms."
Jefferies regretted that White had had little to say about the human inhabitants of his parish, and, like Cobbett, expressed sympathy with the poor: "That any human being should dare to apply to another the epithet 'pauper' is, to me, the greatest, the vilest, the most unpardonable crime that could be committed" (The Story of My Heart, Chapter 10). But Jefferies himself was no campaigner. Rather, he was an introvert who was unwilling to engage with the contemporary (Victorian) world:
I want to be always in company with these, with earth, and sun, and sea, and stars by night. The pettiness of house-life-chairs and tables-and the pettiness of observances, the petty necessity of useless labour, useless because productive of nothing, chafe me the year through. I want to be always in company with the sun, and sea, and earth. These, and the stars by night, are my natural companions. [The Story of My Heart, Chapter 7]
Far from being physically robust, he was increasingly dogged by ill-health, and became more spiritual than spirited-a mystic, even a prophet. Look at his apocalyptic vision of the future, After London (1885). How does nature triumph over urban development here? How convincing is the scenario he paints?
Jefferies' longing to be at one with nature strikes a chord with modern readers, and he has a cult following even today. In this, he seems to have fared better than his close contemporary, W.H. Hudson. One reason for Hudson's comparative neglect might be the view that he stood a little outside his subject. W.J. Keith, for instance, has described him as "a sensitive and sympathetic stranger" (66, emphasis added). It is a natural assumption. Younger than Jefferies, Hudson was born in Argentina and only immigrated to England in 1874 when he was thirty-two, not becoming a naturalised British citizen until 1900. It took him many years to get established here. The first of his popular ornithological books, Birds in a Village (later revised to Birds in Towns and Villages), was published in 1893. This was followed in 1898 by Birds in London, and in 1900 by Nature in Downland. Hudson, another tall, bearded rambler through the English countryside, wrote several other works about it, culminating in the posthumously published A Hind in Richmond Park (1922). Look at the title essay, in which he describes the behaviour of a deer that leaps over a child wearing a red coat. What do you think of his comments on the "mind-life in animals"? Does it bear out his own claim that he brought his observations of human life (and self-knowledge) to his field naturalism? Is it fair to see him as an outsider, however sensitive and sympathetic? If not, what other reasons can you find for his current neglect?
Like Jefferies, Hudson found his religion in nature, and had a poetic sensibility. In fact, he wrote some poetry, including a touching tribute to "The London Sparrow" — "O blithe heart in a house so melancholy." (The scarcity of sparrows in London now would have amazed him.) However, his poetry has none of the depth or singularity of his close friend Edward Thomas's. His novels, on the other hand, were far more successful than Jefferies'. The most influential was probably his animistic fantasy Green Mansions (1904), featuring the tropical bird-maiden Rima.
Hudson was buried beside his wife Emily in the same cemetery as Jefferies: Broadwater Cemetery, Worthing. The Sussex Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have put up a plaque to both writers at the entrance to the cemetery. The bird sanctuary of London's Hyde Park has a more striking monument to Hudson, with a relief of his character Rima, sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein. Not far from this memorial is Canning House, the headquarters of the Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council, which has a fine collection of primary and secondary sources for Hudson in its library (see www.canninghouse.com/hudson.htm).
Keith, W.J. The Rural Tradition: William Cobbett, Gilbert White, and Other Non-Fiction Writers of the English Countryside. Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester, 1975. This book has a useful bibliography.
Spater, George. William Cobbett: The Poor Man's Friend. 2 Vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.
Last modified 11 November 2005