Richard Jefferies: a naturalist under the microscope

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

Alan Bennett once defined a classic as ‘a book everyone is assumed to have read and forgets if they have or not’. The Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies 1848–1887 is in the peculiarly unfortunate position of having produced a whole library that falls pretty much into this category. His novels such as Bevis (1882) or the apocalyptic After London (1885) have cult status for some who, almost 70 years ago, had cohered into an active Richard Jefferies’ Society.

New anthologies of his work appear almost every decade and many of the original titles are in print — both Wild Life in a Southern County and Nature Near London were only recently reissued — but fhor many people Jefferies is little more than a name in a lineage of writers that runs from Gilbert White right through to the likes of Ronald Blythe or Richard Mabey.

Yet it is partly because of a later generation of kindred spirits that Jefferies survives at all. Henry Williamson and Edward Thomas particularly acknowledged the older man’s central inspiration for their own literary output. Their work thus served as a conduit guiding an audience back to their Victorian predecessor. Thomas’s biography, entitled Richard Jefferies: His Life and Work (which was reissued last month in an imprint called Forgotten Books), remains a key source on his hero, but the book is now more than 100 years old.

It is partly to update the story and to gather in a single place the vast quantity of new historical material on Jefferies that the scholar Andrew Rossabi has produced this extraordinary critical study and biography. It is only the first instalment, and two companion volumes are promised, which is remarkable, given that he has already devoted 800 pages to the teenage Jefferies. At this rate the entire work will be more than 2,000 pages for a person who lived for just 38 years.

Yet as if constantly aware of his own mortality, Jefferies wasted not a moment of his time. In little more than a decade of intense creativity he produced nearly 20 books of essays, novels and non-fictional accounts of nature and country life. His final years were wracked by an excruciating form of tuberculosis, and several of the last titles were dictated to his wife from what was in effect his deathbed.

It was a sequence of early auto-biographical recollections of farm life in Wiltshire that secured Jefferies’s reputation, in particular The Gamekeeper at Home (1878) and The Amateur Poacher (1879). Yet herein lies something of Jefferies’s problem, because while those books established him as a national figure and a trusted voice on rural matters, it corralled public understanding of the scope of his work. For Jefferies was neither a naturalist like Gilbert White, nor was he a political commentator in the style of William Cobbett.

‘Nature writer’ is a handy tag, in the sense that almost everything Jefferies wrote dwelt upon the impact of other life forms on the human imagination in the very broadest sense. Yet his books examine human relations not just with other species — birds and flowers etc — but with all the cosmic elements: the sky, the stars and the sun. It was in the far less successful novels, especially Bevis and in his autobiographical The Story of My Heart (1883) where Jefferies articulated the fullness of this mature response.

As Rossabi notes, the first of these books is akin to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, but the second is really an unclassifiable expression of exalted mystical feeling for the totality of life. It has few precedents in English literature, but in its triumphant assertion of Jefferies’s own authority for his vision it resembles Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’. It is in this more exalted company of Wordsworth and Whitman that his supporters would wish to locate Jefferies. Unfortunately he still dwells more with W.H. Hudson or the likes of old-style country writers such as Adrian Bell.

Rossabi is deeply anxious that Jefferies has not been given his full public due. At all turns his subject is compared favourably with others. He was apparently more broadly knowledgeable of country life than Thomas Hardy; possessed greater intellectual subtlety than William Cobbett; was far more imaginative than Gilbert White; and if his prose is plain then it is ‘among the purest examples of plain English’.

But the key problem with the book is the sheer scale of its author’s devotional research. We are 217 pages in before Jefferies is even born. Ten pages are devoted to the history and construction of a London building in which Jefferies’s grandfather worked briefly as a young man. Every incidental relationship which has a bearing upon the man has been analysed in the minutest detail. The thoroughness of the research is indisputable, but also overwhelming.

But at least the record is now absolutely straight: the materials exist for an appraisal of Jefferies’s true importance as a writer. Yet if Rossabi’s goal was to guarantee his subject’s rightful place in history, then what is required is a mining of all this research to produce an edited, much shorter biography.

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