‘Face to face with nature’: Richard Jefferies

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(Richard Jefferies/Edward Thomas, © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS via Times Literary Supplement)

(‘By standing face to face with nature, and not from books, I have convinced myself that there is no design and no evolution. What there is, what was the cause, how and why, is not yet known; certainly it was neither of these.’—The Story of My Heart)

Noticing that it is Richard Jefferies’ birthday (1848-1887), I was reminded of an essay I wrote for an intellectual history module, on the utopian ideas of Jefferies, William Morris and Samuel Butler, the specific books mentioned being Morris’s News From Nowhere, Butler’s Erewhon and After London by Jefferies. I must have been, certainly became, extraordinarily enthusiastic about it because I consumed an absurd amount of reading matter, given the significance of the essay in the context of the whole course: and the bulk of that extra reading was of Jefferies.

He published around twenty books in his lifetime—he died at the age of thirty-eight, so living no longer than Guillaume Apollinaire, Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin or Federico García Lorca. He wrote a great deal about rural life, the changing countryside and farming practices: The Amateur Poacher, The Gamekeeper at Home, Hodge and His Masters; also novels, the children’s classic, Bevis: The Story of a Boy, and a remarkable autobiographical work, The Story of My Heart, perhaps the most marked example of Jefferies’ mystical or pantheistic strain

‘How strange that condition of mind’, he wrote there, ‘which cannot accept anything but the earth, the sea, the tangible universe!’ And, ‘There is an immense ocean over which the mind can sail, upon which the vessel of thought has not yet been launched.’ Asserting that, ‘Now, today, as I write, I stand in exactly the same position as the Caveman. Written tradition, systems of culture, modes of thought, have for me no existence’, he would repeat that ‘the divine beauty of flesh is life itself to me’.[1]

Coate-Farm

(Coate Farm: https://richardjefferies.wordpress.com/ )

In 1909, Edward Thomas published his biography of Jefferies, mentioning in his preface that he had known Jefferies’ part of Wiltshire (he was born at Coate Farm, near Swindon) for twenty years, ‘and I hope that I have got most of what the country people had to tell about him and his family.’ It’s a thorough, informed and sympathetic portrait. Thomas remarks that ‘Jefferies’ thinking was symptomatic of the age rather than original; it is stimulating because it is personal.’[2] It’s certainly that.

In an 1877 essay (in which I see he mentions ‘Fung-shuy’ – Feng Shui), Jefferies writes: ‘Wherever you can find a single blade of grass, however small, there you stand face to face with the mystery of life, and all the possibilities of existence.’ And, ‘If you should chance to find a blade of grass withering in a rocky place, carry it a little water for the sake of the thoughts that spring from it.’ And in a period when many people were still coming to terms with the evolutionary ideas of Darwin and others: ‘I think that bees, birds and animals would change their apparently immutable habits without hesitation if they found an advantage in doing so.’[3]

In his first chapter, ‘The Country of Richard Jefferies’, Thomas remarks that the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal which, roughly speaking, was Jefferies’ northern boundary, ‘has now relapsed into barbarism; its stiffened and weedy waters are stirred only by the moorhen, who walks more than she swims across them’ (Richard Jefferies 2). The first part of Jefferies’ After London or Wild England is entitled ‘The Relapse into Barbarism’ and opens with a statement of oral tradition: ‘The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.’ A little later, the narrator remarks: ‘Now the mark of a noble is that he can read and write.’ There is a brief ‘Appendix’, ‘The Great Snow’, the headnote describing it as ‘An alternative catastrophe, probably written before 1875’. This edition has an introduction by John Fowles, whose The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published a decade earlier, offered multiple alternative endings. Fowles writes of the several strangenesses of Jefferies’ novel: ‘And strangest of all is the fact that it should be the supposedly “sensitive” nature writer, author in 1883 of a passionate explosion, The Story of My Heart, against machine thinking and machine society, who two years later portrays the miseries of a future world bereft of higher knowledge and technology.’[4]

William_Henry_Hudson

(W. H. Hudson)

Edward Thomas’s biography of Jefferies was dedicated to W. H. Hudson. They had met in 1906 and when Thomas began work on the book in the following year, he asked Hudson to accept the dedication. Towards the end of his life, Hudson would remark that in Thomas ‘he had seen the son he wanted’. There were other curious connections. On 2 November 1900, ‘by a happy chance’, Hudson had lodged in the house at Hurstbourne Tarrant where William Cobbett had begun to write his Rural Rides – on 2 November 1821. In March 1921, when Hudson’s wife Emily died, she was buried in Broadwater cemetery at Worthing, where Richard Jefferies lies.[5]

In 1909, in the course of an appreciation of Hudson, Ford Madox Ford quoted from ‘Thistle-Down’, the opening chapter of Nature in Downland, ‘the first passage of Mr Hudson’s work that we ever read’, Ford noted.[6] He would recur to it several times in his later writings.

Charles, James, 1851-1906; Sussex Downs

(James Charles, Sussex Downs: The Council House, Chichester)

‘When, lying on my back, I gazed up into the blue sky, the air as far as I could see was still peopled with the flying down; and beyond all that was visible to the naked eye, far from the earth still more down was revealed by my glasses—innumerable, faintly seen silvery stars moving athwart the immeasurable blue expanse of heaven.’

A little later in that chapter, Hudson writes of Jefferies, of how, although he was so closely associated with Wiltshire, ‘the Sussex coast country where he found a home powerfully attracted and held him’. He added: ‘Jefferies was much in my mind just now because by chance I happen to be writing this introductory chapter in the last house he inhabited, and where he died, in the small village of Goring, between the sea and the West Sussex Downs.’[7]

‘By chance’. Wonderful. I must reread, at least, After London.

 
Notes

[1] Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart (1883; London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1922), 46, 54, 56, 88, 89.

[2] Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies (1909; London: Faber and Faber, 1978), ix, 294.

[3] Richard Jefferies, ‘Village Hunting’ and ‘Butterfly Corner’, 1887, collected in Landscape and Labour, edited by John Pearson (Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker Press, 1979), 47, 53.

[4] Richard Jefferies, After London or Wild England (1885; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1, 32, 243, vii.

[5] Ruth Tomalin, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 182, 179, 230.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, ‘The Work of W. H. Hudson’, English Review, II, i (April 1909), 160.

[7] W. H. Hudson, Nature in Downland (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1900), 14, 16.

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