Friday, October 27, 2017

Celebrating Richard Jefferies early years at Coate

6 November 2017 marks almost 170 years since the day that Richard Jefferies was born on the family farm at Coate (now part of Swindon). The Richard Jefferies Society [1] is celebrating the occasion with a public meeting [2] to be held at Liddington Village Hall on Saturday 4 November starting at 2.30pm and the publication of the first volume of a new biography [3] of Richard Jefferies that covers his early years living in the Coate area – a time that inspired his writing and which provided his first job as a reporter on the local paper. 

Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) is, undoubtedly, the purest and most sensitive, certainly the most passionate, nature writer produced by a country that has always prided itself on the strength of her nature tradition. In his short life he produced an astonishingly rich and varied body of work [4].

Wrote his biographer, the future poet Edward Thomas:

No one English writer before had had such a wide knowledge of labourers, farmers, gamekeepers, poachers, of the fields, and woods, and waters, and the sky above them, by day and night... When he wrote these books—The Amateur Poacher and its companions—he had no rival, nor have they since been equalled in purity, abundance, and rusticity.

Since Thomas’s now classic Richard Jefferies, His Life and Works was published in 1909, a vast amount of material has come to light, and a new biography of Jefferies has been long overdue.  A Peculiarly English Genius: or a Wiltshire Taoist, a Biography of Richard Jefferies, by Andrew Rossabi [5] is the first of three volumes and takes in the years from 1848 to 1867 when such places as Coate Water, Liddington Hill and the Marlborough Downs inspired the young man to write fiction and non-fiction that had a strong autobiographical content. It is also the time when he contracted tuberculosis that killed him at the age of 38.

Andrew Rossabi said

The present biography will extend to three volumes. Whether Jefferies’ is worthy of, or best served by, a book of such length and detail is another matter. I believe he is, although the reader will quickly discover that I am far from being an uncritical admirer.

The hardback book published by the Richard Jefferies Society runs to 800 pages and contains over 30 illustrations. It will be launched at the Liddington Village Hall meeting which is open to the public and free to attend.


 [1] The Richard Jefferies Society (Registered Charity No 1042838) was founded in Swindon in 1950 to promote appreciation and study of the writings of Richard Jefferies.

 [3] A Peculiarly English Genius: or a Wiltshire Taoist, a Biography of Richard Jefferies, Vol I - The Early Years, 1848-1867 by Andrew Rossabi. (Foulsham: Petton Books, 6 November 2017), 800pp. £40. The critic and scholar Q.D. Leavis (1906-1981) was a great admirer of the works of Richard Jefferies. She wrote ‘Jefferies was a many-sided and comprehensive genius, not merely a peculiarly English genius but one whose interests, ideas, and temperament associate him with other peculiarly English geniuses’ (Scrutiny,  March 1938) – hence the main title of the biography. 

[4] Jefferies wrote as much about people as about wild life, and his series of country books, based on the Coate area, The Gamekeeper at Home (1878), Wild Life in a Southern Country (1879), The Amateur Poacher (1879), Round About a Great Estate (1880), which the critic Q.D. Leavis called ‘one of the most delightful books in the English language’, and Hodge and His Masters (1880), are an unrivalled source for the social history of late Victorian rural England.  Jefferies wrote two children’s books that have become classics, Wood Magic (1881) and Bevis (1882), and a short volume of spiritual biography, The Story of My Heart (1883), saluted by William James as 'Jefferies wonderful mystic rhapsody’.   He wrote five novels of permanent worth including The Dewy Morn (1884), which Mrs Leavis described as ‘one of the few real novels between Wuthering Heights and Sons and Lovers’; After London (1885), a futurist romance much admired by William Morris; and Amaryllis at the Fair (1887), to make room for which the critic Edward Garnett said he would turn out several highly-regarded novels by Thomas Hardy. Jefferies’ many gifts perhaps found perfection in his essays, collected in Nature Near London (1883), The Life of the Fields (1884), The Open Air (1885) and Field and Hedgerow (1889).  

[5] Andrew Rossabi is President of the Richard Jefferies Society, and has written introductions to reissues of several works by Jefferies. A resident of London for many years, he has alternated a career in publishing (he edited Cyril Connolly’s last collection of reviews The Evening Colonnade and J.G. Ballard’s controversial novel Crash) with teaching classics part-time at Highgate School.

Andrew Rossabi

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Birthday Lecture 4 November 2017

Roger Ebbatson writes: My talk will endeavour to offer a comparative juxtaposition of selected writings by Jefferies and Hardy dealing both with the social and agrarian issues experienced by the workfolk during the Great Depression and, in a countervailing movement, with the more inward personal experience of spiritual aspiration and an intuitive sense of ‘the Beyond’. The focus will be on The Dewy Morn, set in comparison and contradistinction with Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Whilst Jefferies, in his final essays, moves away from social issues towards a more inward and transcendental mode of thought, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles in a countervailing movement the heroine’s innate spirituality is progressively negated and undermined by her life-experiences, her rape/seduction and subsequent marital abandonment leading her towards the culminating communal immiseration of the field-workers at Flintcomb-Ash, followed by her arrest at Stonehenge and subsequent execution. The social consciousness exhibited, for instance, in Jefferies’ ‘The Wiltshire Labourer’ or ‘After the County Franchise’ is also powerfully articulated in the final tragic stages of Hardy’s novel, both writers’ diagnosis chiming with the Marxian account of change in the Victorian countryside, whilst Jefferies’ more mystical final phase, which is not echoed in Hardy, may be more productively framed by reference to the Heideggerian concept of ‘the Open’.

Roger Ebbatson is Visiting Professor at Lancaster University, a Fellow of the English Association, and a Vice-President of the Tennyson Society. He has written extensively on Richard Jefferies, beginning with Lawrence & the Nature Tradition (1980), and subsequently in An Imaginary England (2005), Heidegger’s Bicycle (2006), Landscape & Literature (2013), and most recently, Landscapes of Eternal Return (2016) that will be reviewed in the next RJS Journal (Summer 2018)