Magazine article The Spectator

'A Peculiarly English Genius, or a Wiltshire Taoist: A Biography of Richard Jefferies, the Early Years,1848-1867', by Andrew Rossabi - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'A Peculiarly English Genius, or a Wiltshire Taoist: A Biography of Richard Jefferies, the Early Years,1848-1867', by Andrew Rossabi - Review

Article excerpt

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. …

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