Richard Jefferies, in the almost 500 published essays and articles he is known to have written, discusses topics as various as sculpture, powered flight, the intelligence of fish, the etymology of dialect, shipping on the Thames, bathing at Brighton, and the dehumanizing effect of London streets. Nevertheless, it is the rural world, in all its aspects, with which Jefferies is mainly concerned.
Jefferies targeted more than one audience in a career which began in journalism. The articles he wrote for the Live Stock Journal in the late 1870s, such as “America and the Meat Market” (1877) and “Haymaking by Artificial Heat” (1878), were obviously intended for agriculturalists, and have largely been forgotten. The essays he wrote for publications such as the Globe, the Pall Mall Gazette, and the Graphic, however, were suited to a more general urban or suburban audience to whom the countryside offered an actual or imaginative escape. These essays, ranging from descriptive accounts of rural rambles to excursions into natural mysticism, from reactionary dismissals of farm workers’ appeals for improvements in their lot, have been an influence on writers such as Kenneth Grahame, Edward Thomas, W.H.Hudson, and Henry Williamson.
His formal education over by his 15th year, Jefferies makes few demands on his reader in terms of historical or cultural knowledge. Although he might mention the sculptor/engraver Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography (“A Defence of Sport,” 1883), his allusions are usually to culturally familiar places such as the Louvre (“The Bathing Season,” 1884) or to wellknown figures like Ruskin (“Outside London,” 1885).
Nature permeates Jefferies’ writing, and even, in a sense, influences the structure and style of his work. Often using, in his descriptive pieces, a narrator who situates himself in, or adjacent to, the landscape he is describing, Jefferies steers the essay on what seems to be a perfectly natural progress as the narrator relates what he sees to the reader, and then muses upon it. Although an essay may therefore seem to be somewhat rambling, the effect is deliberate; John Fowles has said in his 1987 introduction to Jefferies’ Round About a Great Estate (1880) that his “prose is like nature itself.” In pieces such as “January in the Sussex Woods” (1884), this device enables Jefferies to achieve a natural closure; the last paragraph, beginning with “the gloom of the short January evening … settling down fast,” ends with “the wood is silent, and it is suddenly night.” As the day closes, so does the essay.
Jefferies was aware of the limitations of language; in “Wild Flowers” (1885), he compares the difficulty he found in rendering visual impressions in words to that encountered by early photographers in their efforts to “fix the scene upon the plate.” He wrote “I can see [the images], but how shall I fix them for you? By no process can that be accomplished.” Nevertheless, it is a limitation he overcame better than most. To Jefferies”…the beauty of English woodland and country is in its detail” (“An English Deer-Park,” 1888), and it is through a careful and intricate layering of detail that Jefferies attempts to convey his perceptions, be they of beauty or otherwise. This detail could be applied to the broad expanse of a rural scene, or to the particularity of a flower. In “Notes on Landscape-Painting” (1882), a beam of sunshine briefly penetrates a cloudy sky and sweeps across an autumnal scene of men and women threshing wheat. In the almost epiphanic “second of its presence” the shaft of light renders the ordinary extraordinary, brilliantly illuminating farmworkers, threshing machine, horse and straw. Then “…it is gone, and lights up the backs of the sheep yonder as it runs up the hill swifter than a hare.” Elsewhere in the essay his attention turns from panoramic scenes to a single buttercup; describing the effect of scraping off the outer “enamel” of a petal, he compares the pollen on his fingers to “dust…from the wing of a butterfly.”
His observations of the intricacies within the spatial immensity of Nature, the sense of collapsed time he felt when contemplating the Iron Age earthworks visible in the Wiltshire landscape, and his awe at the temporal infinity of the universe, led him toward a natural mysticism, expressed at length in his spiritual autobiography, The Story of My Heart (1883), but apparent in much of his later writing. In his essay “The Pageant of Summer” (1883) he wrote that the “exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal,” and he expressed his hope that eventually Nature itself would “become, as it were, interwoven into man’s existence.”
Jefferies’ mysticism did not blind him to the more pragmatic aspects of rural life, however. In “Notes on Landscape Painting” he states his belief that the countryside absorbs innovation, so that what once seemed dramatically new soon becomes “a part of the life of the country.” Eventually “the old and the new…shade and blend together.”
Elsewhere, in Round About a Great Estate he states “my sympathies are with the light of the future.” This acceptance of, and belief in, gradual change as natural to rural life is evident also in much of his social commentary. While Jefferies’ philosophy was always somewhat class-biased, distrustful of organized labor, and opposed to rapid change, he was able to view the disadvantaged with some compassion, often documenting the hardship and drudgery of laboring life in the form of vignettes; the eponymous and dullwitted protagonist of “John Smith’s Shanty” (1874) is imprisoned for domestic assault, but the narrator comments on the need for an improvement in education and gradual change of the “whole social system.” In “One of the New Voters” (1885), characteristically emphasizing that he is “describing the realities of rural life,” Jefferies notes that behind “the beautiful aspects” of a golden wheat field is “the reality of human
labour—hours upon hours of heat and strain.”
This social analysis in Jefferies’ essays, as opposed to some of his more philosophical work, has assured him, if not a place in history, then at least some space in history texts.
Historians of Victorian rural England, such as Howard Newby and Pamela Horn, have often used Jefferies as a source. He remains relegated to the margins of the canon, however, and a literary reappraisal of Jefferies awaits “the light of the future.”
See also Nature Essay
John Richard Jefferies. Born 6 November 1848 at Coate Farm, near Swindon, Wiltshire.
Studied until age 15 at schools in Sydenham, Kent, and Swindon. Lived in Swindon, 1866–77, Surbiton, Surrey, 1877–81, and Sussex, 1882–87. Reporter, North Wilts Herald and Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, 1866–70; contributor to various journals, from 1873, including Fraser’s Magazine, Fortnightly Review, New Quarterly Magazine, New Monthly Magazine, the World, Live Stock Journal, the Pall Mall Gazette, and the
Standard. Married Jessie Badon, 1874: three children. Had four operations for tubercular fistula, 1882. Died (of chronic fibroid phthisis) in Goring, Sussex, 14 August 1887.
Essays and Related Prose
The Gamekeeper at Home: Sketches of Natural History and Rural Life, 1878
The Amateur Poacher, 1879
Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879; as An English Village, 1903
Round About a Great Estate, 1880
Hodge and His Masters, 2 vols., 1880
Nature near London, 1883
The Life of the Fields, 1884
Red Deer, 1884
The Open Air, 1885
Field and Hedgerow, Being the Last Essays, edited by Jessie Jefferies, 1889
The Toilers of the Field, 1892
Nature and Eternity, with Other Uncollected Papers, 1902
The hills and the Vale, 1909
Beauty Is Immortal (“Felise of the Dewy Morn”) with Some Hitherto Uncollected Essays and Manuscripts, edited by Samuel J.Looker, 1948
The Essential Richard Jefferies, edited by Malcolm Elwin, 1948
The Old House at Coate, and Other Hitherto Unprinted Essays, edited by Samuel J.Looker, 1948
Chronicles of the Hedges, and Other Essays, edited by Samuel J.Looker, 1948
Field and Farm: Essays Now First Collected, edited by Samuel J.Looker, 1957
Landscape and Labour: Essays and Letters, edited by John Pearson, 1979
Landscape with Figures: An Anthology of Richard Jefferies’ Prose, edited by Richard Mabey, 1983
Other writings: nine novels, the autobiography The Story of My Heart (1883), and nature diaries.
Collected works edition: Works, edited by C.Henry Warren, 6 vols., 1948–49.
Miller, George, and Hugoe Matthews, Richard Jefferies: A Bibliographical Study, Aldershot, Hampshire: Scolar Press, and Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1993
Blench, J.W., “The Influence of Richard Jefferies upon Henry Williamson,” Durham University Journal 69 (1986):79–89; (1987):327–47
Ebbatson, Roger, “Richard Jefferies,” in Lawrence and the Nature Tradition: A Theme in English Fiction 1859–1914, Brighton: Harvester, 1980:127–64
Fowles, John, Introduction to Round About a Great Estate by Jefferies, Bradford-on- Avon: Ex Libris, 1987:9–14
Keith, W.J., Richard Jefferies: A Critical Study, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965
Keith, W.J., The Rural Tradition: A Study of the Non-Fiction Prose Writers of the English Countryside, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974
Leavis, Q.D., “Lives and Works of Richard Jefferies,” Scrutiny 6 (1938):435–46
Looker, Samuel J., and Crichton Porteous, Richard Jefferies, Man of the Fields: A Biography and Letters, London: Baker, 1965
Mabey, Richard, Introduction to Landscape with Figures by Jefferies, edited by Mabey, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983:7–24
Manning, Edna, Richard Jefferies: A Modern Appraisal, Windsor: Goldscheider, 1984
Matthews, Hugoe, and Phyllis Treitel, The Forward Life of Richard Jefferies: A Chronological Study, Oxford: Petton Books, 1994
Pearson, John, Introduction to Landscape and Labour by Jefferies, edited by Pearson, Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker, 1979:7–18
Richard Jefferies Society Journal, 1992–
Rossabi, Andrew, Introduction to Hodge and His Masters by Jefferies, London: Quartet, 1979:vi-xxiii
Taylor, Brian, Richard Jefferies, Boston: Twayne, 1982
Thomas, Edward, Richard Jefferies: His Life and Work, London: Hutchinson, and Boston: Little Brown, 1909
Williams, Merryn, Thomas Hardy and Rural England, London: Macmillan, and New York: Columbia University Press, 1972
Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973; London: Hogarth Press, 1985:191–96
Wilson, Keith, “Richard Jefferies,” in Modern British Essayists: First Series, edited by Robert Beum, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 98, Detroit: Gale Research,
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