The Life of Richard Jefferies
with discussion of his main books
by Simon Coleman
(John) Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) is best known for his prolific and sensitive writing on natural history, rural life and agriculture in late Victorian England. However, a closer examination of his career reveals a many-sided author who was something of an enigma. To some people he is more familiar as the author of the children’s classic Bevis or the strange futuristic fantasy After London , while he also has some reputation as a mystic worthy of serious study. Since his death his books have enjoyed intermittent spells of popularity, but today he is unknown to the greater part of the reading public. Jefferies, however, has been an inspiration to a number of more prominent writers and W.H. Hudson, Edward Thomas, Henry Williamson and John Fowles are among those who have acknowledged their debt to him. In my view his greatest achievement lies in his expression, aesthetically and spiritually, of the human encounter with the natural world – something that became almost an obsession for him in his last years.
He was born at Coate in the north Wiltshire countryside - now on the outskirts of Swindon - where his family farmed a smallholding of about forty acres. His father was a thoughtful man with a passionate love of nature but was unsuccessful as a farmer, with the result that the later years of Jefferies' childhood were spent in a household increasingly threatened by poverty. There were also, it seems, other tensions in the family. Richard’s mother, who had been brought up in London, never settled into a life in the country and the portrait of her as Mrs Iden - usually regarded as an accurate one - in his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair , is anything but flattering. Remarks made in some of Jefferies’ childhood letters to his aunt also strongly suggest an absence of mutual affection and understanding between mother and son. A combination of an unsettled home life and an early romantic desire for adventure led him at the age of sixteen to leave home with the intention of traversing Europe as far as Moscow. In this escapade he was accompanied by a cousin, but the journey was abandoned soon after they reached France. On their return to England they attempted to board a ship for the United States but this plan also came to nothing when they found themselves without sufficient money to pay for food.
A self-absorbed and independent youth, Jefferies spent much of his time walking through the countryside around Coate and along the wide chalk expanses of the Marlborough Downs. He regularly visited Burderop woods and Liddington Hill near his home and on longer trips explored Savernake Forest and the stretch of the downs to the east, where the famous white horse is engraved in the hillside above Uffington. His favourite haunt was Liddington Hill, a height crowned with an ancient fort commanding superb views of the north Wiltshire plain and the downs. It was on the summit of Liddington at the age of about eighteen, as he relates in The Story of My Heart, that his unusual sensitivity to nature began to induce in him a powerful inner awakening - a desire for a larger existence or reality which he termed 'soul life'. Wherever he went in the countryside he found himself in awe of the beauty and tranquillity of the natural world; not only the trees, flowers and animals, but also the sun, the stars and the entire cosmos seemed to him to be filled with an inexpressible sense of magic and meaning.
Jefferies succeeded in befriending the gamekeeper of the local estate and regularly accompanied him on his rounds. He became skilled at shooting game, though, after a while, the sense of wonder he experienced in observing the wildlife often prevented him from pulling the trigger. His scruffy appearance and apparent idleness at this time aroused derision among the locals and gave his family cause for concern. However, the knowledge he was acquiring of natural history and the workings of a large estate was to prove valuable when he embarked on his writing career. He was also a voracious reader of literature and developed a particular liking for Shakespeare, Scott, Byron and the Greek and Roman classics. In 1866, at the age of seventeen, he succeeded in obtaining a reporter's job on the North Wiltshire Herald, based in Swindon. A mysterious illness the following year interrupted his journalistic career, but he had already gained many valuable insights into the agricultural economy and rural society in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. He joined the Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Standard in 1868 and also started to write articles and pamphlets on various agricultural issues and local history topics. He achieved little success as a freelance writer until 1872 when The Times published three letters by him on the condition of the rural labourers of Wiltshire. This was in response to the controversy surrounding Joseph Arch's attempt to form a trade union for agricultural workers. He was unable, however, to follow up this success and several difficult years followed.
It seems that from quite an early age Jefferies dreamed of becoming a great writer of fiction, and in 1874 he produced his first published novel The Scarlet Shawl . The book was a complete failure – his nineteenth century biographer Walter Besant remarked that ‘...the book affords not the slightest indication of genius, insight, descriptive or dramatic power, or indeed of any power, especially of that kind with which he was destined to make his name’. The next two novels, Restless Human Hearts (1875) and World's End (1877) showed some improvement but brought him no money whatsoever. By 1875 he was married and living in Swindon and gradually finding openings for his agricultural articles. In late 1876 or early 1877 he moved to Surbiton in south London to try to establish himself as a writer on agriculture and the countryside, contributing articles to The Live Stock Journal, Fraser's Magazine and other publications. Soon other opportunities began to appear. Drawing on his experience of gamekeeping and his knowledge of natural history, he wrote a series of articles for the Pall Mall Gazette which were reprinted in 1878 as The Gamekeeper at Home by Smith, Elder & Co. The book sold well, as did a second collection of Pall Mall Gazette articles, Wild Life in a Southern County (1879).
These two books contain many fine and vivid sketches of the countryside around his former home at Coate and show Jefferies' remarkably keen eye for observing the activities of living creatures and the subtle workings of nature. They were written in a direct and simple style with a freshness that showed his complete immersion in the scenes and activities he describes. After a decade of unproductive writing he had now finally found his subjects and his market. Further collected-article books soon followed: The Amateur Poacher (1879), Hodge and His Masters and Round About a Great Estate (both 1880). He now displayed the full range of his knowledge of life in the agricultural villages and country towns of his native Wiltshire, creating some thoroughly believable characters, some of them based on people he knew. Hodge and His Masters, collected from his Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Standard articles, pictures the rapidly changing rural life at the start of the great agricultural depression of the late 19th century. Jefferies had an affection for the traditional practices and customs of the communities he knew but wrote without sentimentality on these subjects and saw that ‘the new’ could often exist harmoniously alongside ‘the old’.
In the 1880s, the last decade of his life, Jefferies often departed radically from the style of writing and the material that had brought him his success. A return to fiction produced some novels of striking imaginative power and, in a highly individual way, he found expression for the esoteric feelings and aspirations which had been with him from his teenage years. However, in late 1881 he contracted fistula, a painful disease of the bowels which necessitated four operations in a year, during which time he could do no work at all. After an apparent recovery which lasted only a few months his health declined again, and during the remaining years of his life he was afflicted with a chain of illnesses which became increasingly serious. In these years, however, Jefferies wrote some of his best and most original work, including his extraordinary autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883). He had been planning this work for seventeen years and, in his words, it was 'absolutely and unflinchingly true'. It was not an autobiography of the events of his life, but an outpouring of his deepest thoughts and feelings, beginning with his first 'soul experiences' on Liddington Hill, expressed in prose poetry that is often impassioned, sensuous and evocative. He describes his mystical communion with nature and his yearning for the fullest 'soul life'. Within him burned a desire to grasp the great truths which he felt were all around him - 'to have from all green things and from the sunlight the inner meaning which was not known to them, that I might be full of light as the woods of the sun's rays'.
Claiming to have erased from his mind all learning and traditions passed down through the ages, Jefferies rejected ideas of God, suggesting instead that there exists something 'infinitely higher than deity'. Later in the book he describes the thoughts that came to him in the heart of Victorian London. In some striking passages he wonders at the rushing crowds of people whose labours, it seemed to him, were destined to bring no benefit to mankind and were therefore futile. Having felt so deeply into the life of the hills and the woods, he seems able to see human life, as it were, through nature’s eyes. He despairs at the relentless pursuit of wealth and position as well as the seemingly endless burden of labour imposed on mankind. The book contains, in places, some rather naive idealism but leaves the reader with the impression that a simpler and more sensitive approach to life can reveal much more than we would normally dare imagine.
Such a book was not likely to be much appreciated by the rigid society of the 1880s, and it received almost universally hostile reviews. The Story of My Heart has since run into numerous editions and, although some readers have disliked its intensely personal revelations or found its views unacceptable, few could deny that it is an utterance of great power and individuality.
During much of the time he was writing The Story of My Heart Jefferies was seriously ill and in April 1885 his health completely broke down with ulceration of the intestines. From then on he was virtually an invalid. The most likely explanation was tuberculosis, though his symptoms were so numerous and varied that it is perhaps not surprising his doctors were baffled.
During an earlier period he wrote two children's books, Wood Magic and Bevis, published in 1881 and 1882. Wood Magic is an intricate allegorical tale which reveals the depth of Jefferies’ emotional attachment to his childhood and his keen sense of irony in viewing the complexities of adult life. A young boy, Bevis, wanders into a world of talking nature where all the creatures of the fields and woods have their stories to tell. The brook and the wind, though more difficult to communicate with, have more profound messages to deliver. The animals and birds, it transpires, are living under the autocratic rule of an evil magpie whose regime is threatened by rebellion and conspiracy. Bevis becomes caught up in the bewildering intrigues of the various factions but, along the way, learns from the brook and the wind about the timeless nature of reality and the true possibilities for life. Bevis has been widely regarded as a classic boys' book and, based on Jefferies' own childhood at Coate, it continues the adventures of the eponymous character, now a few years older, and his friend Mark. They first 'discover' a large lake close to their home which they imagine to be a vast inland sea surrounded by a jungle inhabited by savages and wild beasts. After re-fighting the Battle of Pharsalia (between Julius Caesar and Pompey) with their friends, Bevis and Mark build a raft and cross to an island in the lake. Equipped with a few provisions and their own home-made shotgun, they live among nature for several days, learning the arts of survival and much about themselves in the process. Bevis is a celebration of the vigour and freedom of a childhood spent in the countryside, 'where there was magic in everything, blades of grass and stars, the sun and the stones upon the ground.'
In the summer of 1882, during a short period in which his health appeared to recover, Jefferies spent a few weeks in Somerset, studying the wildlife of Exmoor in detail and searching for its famous herds of red deer. The resulting book Red Deer (1884) was a well organised and thorough study of the wild deer and the methods of hunting them which greatly fascinated him.
The diversity of output during this period was maintained by the publication of the novels Greene Ferne Farm (1880), The Dewy Morn (1884), After London (1885) and Amaryllis at the Fair (1887). The Dewy Morn has touches of melodrama but has an outstanding character in the heroine, Felise, Jefferies' idealized 'child of nature', and some beautifully written bucolic scenes. The book also gives voice to Jefferies’ belief in human beauty, of body and mind, as the highest and purest ‘idea’ from which love inevitably flows – a belief which grew from his youthful delight in the works of Ancient Greece. After London, thought by some to be his best book, depicts a futuristic England which has relapsed into barbarism with only a few outposts of civilization remaining. The ruins of London, the city he grew to hate, lie deep under poisonous swamps, while much of southern England is covered by a large lake, along the shore of which are city states ruled by petty tyrants and their corrupt courts. Against this bleak background a young nobleman Felix Aquila, with an inquisitive mind and brooding temperament, sets out to discover the unknown limits of the great lake. Amaryllis at the Fair is hardly a novel at all, but a succession of scenes from a rural life centred around the home of a 16 year-old girl, Amaryllis. Like After London it is a pessimistic book, but it possesses a unique charm and contains the magnificent tragic portrait of Jefferies' father in the character Iden - a countryman of learning condemned to failure by his preference for beauty over money and worldly affairs. By means of digressions which at first appear puzzling, Jefferies links the Iden household to the wider world and the family’s problems are seen to be inseparable from those of mankind as a whole. However, Iden’s philosophy and Amaryllis’ ‘naturalness’ and youthful spirit sustain a powerful strand of hope as the book drifts to a dreamy, beautiful and inconclusive end.
Much of Jefferies' best work in the years after 1880 was in the form of essays and articles published in magazines and journals such as Longman's Magazine. A number of these were collected and re-printed in the books Nature Near London (1883), The Life of the Fields (1884) and The Open Air (1885). Field and Hedgerow appeared soon after his death, and in the 20th century Edward Thomas and Samuel J. Looker (especially the latter) brought out new books of previously unpublished or uncollected material covering all periods of his career. The topics of the later essays are quite diverse, including pure natural history, London, rural life and the nature mysticism and philosophy that inspired The Story of My Heart. Some of the finest examples of the last category of essays are 'The Pageant of Summer' (The Life of the Fields), 'Wildflowers' (The Open Air), 'On the Downs' (The Hills and the Vale) and 'Meadow Thoughts' (The Life of the Fields).
In the last five years of his life Jefferies lived for short periods in several places in the south east, including Brighton, in an attempt to find a climate that might help him recover from illness. By the time he moved to Goring-on-Sea near Worthing in 1886 all his savings had been used up on medical bills and he was almost entirely dependent on the charity of a few friends. Jefferies died there on 14 August 1887 at the age of thirty-eight and was buried at Broadwater cemetery. He left a widow, Jessie, and two children, Harold and Phyllis.
Jefferies remains unsurpassed as a descriptive writer on the landscapes and natural history of the south of England and as a chronicler of its rural life. He was invariably a well-informed and perceptive commentator on the agricultural issues of his day and part of his vast output of articles also explored the whole gamut of rural society, from the aristocracy to the labouring class. As a naturalist he possessed the ability to convey a sense of never-ending discovery in nature: unexpected things could be found at any time of the year if one took a footpath into a field or a copse. He had an equal love for the familiar and commonplace flowers and wildlife and would regularly repeat walks. He saw everything as new - nothing ever lost its freshness to him. He says in ‘Wildflowers’: 'Every day the grass painted anew, and its green seen for the first time; not the old green, but a novel hue and spectacle, like the first view of the sea.’ An unexpected discovery of a flower would leave the place where it was found, however unremarkable, impressed on his memory. The following quote from ‘Locality and Nature’ (Field and Hedgerow) typifies this approach: ‘To anyone who takes a delight in wild flowers some spot or other of the earth is always becoming consecrated.’
Often classed simply as a 'country writer' by those unaware of the range of his writing, he possessed a vision of life which was far outside the religious conventions of his time. While there was a romantic side to his character, which had a strong presence in his novels, his mystical writings were usually of a philosophical and earthy variety. Jefferies’ nature worship cannot be explained simply by a desire to escape the difficulties and frustrations of his youth spent at Coate. The wonders of nature and the timelessness of the earth, sun and stars compelled him to seek a ‘human ideal’ as a counterpart to the ideal he saw in nature. Life was both mysterious and sacred to Jefferies and he felt that nature possessed an ‘ancient papyrus roll’ of secrets to be unravelled. Through his reverent and imaginative contact with the natural world, he became aware of something infinite that lies outside all religious beliefs, philosophical thought and scientific laws. Jefferies was also interested in many scientific matters, in particular the flight of birds and insects and the possibility of man's development of flying machines. He rejected the Darwinian theory of evolution, denouncing it as 'a modern superstition'.
His later novels showed vast improvements in the portrayal of the central characters compared with his first attempts but his plots on the whole remained less than convincing. He never had a real flair for storytelling. By the time he wrote Amaryllis at the Fair he had almost given up on constructing plots – they had become an unnecessary encumbrance when he was trying to convey the realities of life as he saw them. He did not spare the reader the often harsh realities of rural living and showed a broad understanding of the social problems and antagonisms of his time, most memorably in The Dewy Morn and essays such as 'One of the New Voters' (The Open Air). He did not always hate London, finding the throb of the street life of the world's greatest city a powerful stimulus to his imagination. Although pessimism took its hold towards the end of his life, he genuinely believed in man's capacity to reach higher levels of thought and, perhaps, to discover some of the great truths which he felt were expressed everywhere in nature. A reserved and sensitive man, he lived life in his own way and, despite many difficulties and misfortunes, produced works of passion, purity and inspiration to the very end of his life.