Literature November 21, 2017
“Grouse Shooting”, c.1825, by Henry Thomas Alken;
Yale Center for British Art. Licensed under Creative Commons

Waterfall in the sky


To read Richard Jefferies is to step instantly into England’s past. The Victorian nature writer was an acute observer of detail, and his books and articles are full of scenes that have largely vanished, now, from rural life. He describes sitting behind a haywain in the setting sun, waiting for rabbits to surface; a farmstead with only a mud track leading to its candlelit windows; workers scything the crops.

The world that he conjures up was largely unchanged for centuries, but was rapidly disappearing even as he wrote. Like Elizabeth Gaskell or Thomas Hardy, he enshrines a vanishing way of life. His rural vignettes would not be out of place in Thomas Gray’s poems, so full are they of ploughmen wearily plodding homeward. But they also feature scenes that would be familiar to Marvell or even Chaucer: untamed woodlands, messengers on horseback and butterfly-filled meadows abound. It was perhaps his consciousness of living on the edge of a dwindling world that inspired the broad themes of Jefferies’s work, particularly his great novel, After London; or, Wild England.

Born in 1848 to James and Betsy Jefferies, Richard was raised in Wiltshire on his family’s small farm. Coate Farm was his idyll – perhaps the more so because he was sent away to live with an uncle and aunt between the ages of four and nine. Holidays back at Coate involved forays in the local countryside, sometimes shooting rabbits with his father, sometimes building canoes to sail in the reservoir, sometimes trailing around after local gamekeepers as they poached. He was shy; he would later write that, in childhood, “I had a dislike to being seen, feeling that I should be despised if I was noticed”. He was uninterested in helping with farm work, but loved to go for long, solitary walks – and to read. Aged sixteen, he ran away to France, intending to walk to Russia. But his schoolboy French proved insufficient and he returned home somewhat dejected. In 1866 he started writing for his local newspaper, the North Wiltshire Herald, and his career was born. It wasn’t until he moved to Surbiton in 1877, however, that he found a London readership, publishing regularly in the Pall Mall Gazette and producing books of essays and articles. Surbiton was then at the furthest reaches of London’s sprawl, and Jefferies’s beloved countryside was easily accessible. As his renown grew, he ventured into novels, writing Wood Magic: A fable in 1881 and After London in 1885. During this time he also wrote The Story of My Heart (1883), an extraordinary autobiography that deals not in events but in feelings, exploring what Jefferies calls “my inner existence, that consciousness which is called the soul”. Tragically for one who so loved the natural world, the last years of his life were ones of increasingly immobility owing to tuberculosis. He died in 1887, aged thirty-eight.

For the confirmed Jefferies aficionado, it is good to hear that there is a new biography in the works, by Andrew Rossabi, in three hefty volumes. In the meantime, two new publications should help to remind general readers of the finer qualities of a writer who has fallen into neglect in recent times yet deserves a place in the Victorian canon: Mark Frost’s new edition of After London and Sport in the Fields and Woods, a collection of sporting articles and essays compiled by Rebecca Welshman.

After London is an immensely peculiar novel. Set after some unspecified disaster has flooded most of England, leaving the capital deep underwater and the rest of the country split into feuding regions and abandoned islets, it is in one sense futuristic in its proto-science fiction scope. But the flood has also taken England back in time, to a feudal system in which only the nobility can read and write, slavery is rife, and local warlords constantly crusade against one another. The setting and the mindset are both decidedly medieval, with a dystopian bent; the constant, senseless battling could have inspired Nineteen Eighty-four’s perpetual wars.

The first half of the book painstakingly details the changes that have come about since the flood; we learn not only that there are wild dogs, but exactly what colour they are, where they live, which domesticated dogs they are thought to be descended from, their threat level to humans and livestock, and their populations. This is repeated through horses, cattle and men. Habitations are minutely described, the “great forest” explored in what feels like real time, and the geography of the landscape as a whole chronicled in exhaustive specifics. And the sense of apocalyptic anxiety could not be clearer: “There were said to be places where the earth was on fire and belched forth sulphurous fumes, supposed to be from the combustion of enormous stores of strange and unknown chemicals collected by the wonderful people of those times”.

Although it feels like an extended exercise in categorization, the detached tone and surreal description of a country both familiar and utterly remote set the tone for the story proper. Jefferies obliterates everything we know, turning England into a tabula rasa from which the story emerges like Sleeping Beauty’s castle from its thorny briar. The main plot takes the form of a medieval-style quest. Sir Felix, its protagonist, is a younger son of the Aquila family. Hopelessly in love with the virtuous Aurora, Felix decides to set out into the world to make his fortune so that he can return and marry her. So (like the young Jefferies) he builds a canoe and sets out onto the great lake. He becomes embroiled in wars, sails over the poisonous vapours that cover sunken London, and accidentally becomes the hero to a race of wild shepherds. The narrative ends somewhat abruptly, and we never see Felix reach home. This, and the strangeness of the setting, conspire to make the story linger in the mind far longer than such a feeble plot has any right to.

The story is partly autobiographical – Felix’s father Baron Aquila is based on Jefferies’s own, particularly his love of gardening – and partly boyish wish fulfilment. But it is also a reminder of how fragile modern life is, how quickly nature can reassert her dominion. “For this marvellous city, of which such legends are related, was after all only of brick”, writes Jefferies of London. Within a few years of the flood, the country has become re-wilded.

While Jefferies is clearly somewhat attracted by the idea of an untamed landscape, his sporting essays demonstrate his enthusiasm for cultivation. These essays, gathered in Sport in the Fields and Woods, are paeans to England and to a rural, genteel way of life centred on the seasons. While some of them are frankly interminable – an account of buying a gun had this reader dropping off – there are beautiful, transcendent moments, as in early summer: “When young June opens, the various greens of . . . a woodland meadow are lovely beyond compare. There is the light green of the ash, the sober green of the elm, the sheeny green of the willow, the quivering pale green of the aspen . . .”. Or in late autumn: “No doubt there is an air of melancholy about a beautiful November day. Its very silence, broken only by an occasional leaf or acorn pattering to the ground, is touching”.

There is generally too much praise of blood sports to make this collection appealing to the modern reader: seldom a page goes by without a fish being caught, a rabbit shot or a fox chased. But indoor-reared millennials could learn something from Jefferies’s straightforward enthusiasm for the great outdoors, where a man “becomes himself; the layers of interest, self, and prejudice which circumstances have placed around him disappear”. He talks vividly about the spiritual experience of the countryside, both in these essays and in The Story of My Heart. “Let us get out of these indoor narrow modern days”, he urges us, “into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.”

Jefferies’s language is terribly florid by today’s standards, his views necessarily outmoded and his storytelling skills sorely lacking. Yet he somehow manages to overcome these obstacles to be a mesmeric descriptive writer. An arrow flies “in a steady swift flight like a line of gossamer drawn through the air”. The lark’s song is “a waterfall in the sky”. Corn turns “from its sappy green to summer’s noon of gold”.

As for the mysticism, while it may seem trying to the modern reader, it is extraordinarily prescient for the late Victorians. No wonder Richard Jefferies has become something of a mascot for the branch of environmentalists who espouse the Gaia movement. His love of the natural world is palpable and infectious; one cannot read of “the loveliness of sunshine and green leaf, of flowers, pure water, and sweet air” without wanting immediately to stride outside. His love of the countryside is transferred onto the reader: with him, we feel the sun on our skin and the earth beneath our feet. It is like stepping into a Constable painting; you can almost smell the hay and hear the cuckoo’s call from the nearby copse. And his abiding lesson is a simple one. “Lose not a moment’s chance of contemplating beauty”, he says. “Each of these seconds while the day changes into night is precious; in this is life.”