Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Jefferies, Richard

1399021Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 29 — Jefferies, Richard1892Richard Garnett

JEFFERIES, RICHARD (1848–1887), novelist and naturalist, was born at Coate Farm, near Swindon in Wiltshire, on 6 Nov. 1848. His father, the son of a miller and confectioner, was a small farmer, and appears to have possessed the independence of character and keenness of observation so remarkable in his son. He was educated partly at Sydenham, Kent, partly at a school in his neighbourhood, and at sixteen justified the character he had obtained of a restless, unsettled lad, by running away to France with a friend, with the intention of walking to Moscow. The difficulties they naturally encountered made them change their destination to America, where they would at least understand the language of the inhabitants; but although they proceeded to Liverpool, and expended all their money in securing berths, the discovery that they had no funds left to pay the expenses of living during the voyage sent them back to Swindon. Jefferies remained for a time at home, and read widely, especially delighting in ‘Faust.’ His remarkable traits of character attracted the notice of Mr. William Morris, proprietor of the ‘North Wilts Advertiser,’ who encouraged him to write descriptive sketches for his journal. Under the auspices either of Mr. Morris or of Mr. Piper, editor of the ‘North Wilts Herald,’ Jefferies learned shorthand. He became a regular reporter on the ‘Herald,’ and local correspondent for a Gloucestershire paper. He planned and partly wrote novels and tragedies, and, notwithstanding severe illnesses in 1867 and 1868, had by 1870 saved sufficient money to undertake a trip to Belgium, addressing verses by the way to the Prince Imperial, then a refugee at Hastings. He found himself out of employment on his return, and was temporarily estranged from his family. But the remuneration he received for a piece of local family history, ‘The Goddards of North Wilts,’ published in 1873, seems to have enabled him to marry in 1874, and to publish, partly at his own expense, his first novel, ‘The Scarlet Shawl.’ Like its successors, ‘Restless Human Hearts’ (1875) and ‘The World's End’ (1877), it proved a failure. His next novel, ‘The Dewy Morn,’ though greatly superior to its predecessors, could at the time find no publisher. He had, however, gained access to influential magazines and newspapers, to which he contributed excellent papers on rural life and scenery. A letter of his to the ‘Times’ on the circumstances of the agricultural labourer also attracted great attention; it is reprinted in Mr. Besant's biography of him. About 1876 he removed to London. In 1877 he definitively took rank as a popular author by his ‘Gamekeeper at Home,’ a reprint of a series of remarkable papers originally contributed to the ‘Pall Mall Gazette.’ He had, indeed, while interpreting nature as a poet, studied her as a naturalist, not only accumulating facts with minute observation, but registering them with almost painful accuracy in the diaries of which Mr. Besant has given specimens. His love of details and his power of eliciting poetic beauty from them are even more strikingly exhibited in his next book, ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ (1879), which also originally appeared in the form of articles in the ‘Pall Mall.’ Here, returning to his native Wiltshire, he establishes himself on the summit of a down, and works from this centre in ever widening circles until the whole rural life of the district, animal and human, and all the local features of inanimate nature, and the new world created by the interfusion of the two, are depicted in an exquisitely tinted and infinitely varied landscape with figures, provided by the unity of its plan with a definite and appropriate frame. This coherence renders ‘Wild Life’ greatly superior to his later works of the same description, such as ‘Round about a Great Estate,’ ‘The Life of the Fields,’ ‘The Open Air,’ &c. With the exception of ‘Red Deer,’ 1884, a description of Exmoor, where unity of locality again conduces to unity of interest, these are too desultory, although the individual descriptions are as beautiful and accurate as ever. Fortunately he felt a call to combine the novelist with the naturalist, and, compressed in the mould of fiction, the profusion of his observations and imagination acquired something like artistic unity. ‘Bevis’ (1882) is the idealisation of his own childhood. It is a beautiful book, but is greatly surpassed in creative originality by its predecessor, ‘Wood Magic’ (1881), which is founded on the idea of a world of animals speaking and reasoning, displaying in their ways and works all the passions of mankind, among whom a boy, the sole human personage, moves somewhat like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. The last chapter, the ‘Dialogue of Bevis and the Wind,’ is one of the finest prose poems in the language. The conception of ‘After London’ (1885) is no less striking. England, forsaken by most of her inhabitants, has in great measure relapsed into a primitive wilderness. London is a poisonous swamp; the Thames a vast lake; forests, infested by wild beasts and a malign and dwarfish race, overspread most of the country; the remnants of the ancient people, though practising the virtues of hunters and warriors, yet dwell in ignorance and fear; and amid all this darkness new light dawns by the inspiration of a youth of genius. As ‘Bevis’ idealises the scenes and incidents of Jefferies' infancy, so ‘The Story of my Heart’ (1883) idealises the feelings and yearnings of his youth; it is hardly what the lad really thought, but embodies all he was to think when he should have intellectually come to man's estate. The one fixed point in it is its intense pantheism. These four books, with ‘Wild Life,’ give Jefferies his abiding place in English literature. The novels of country life which he produced during the same period, ‘Greene Ferne Farm’ (1880), ‘Amaryllis at the Fair’ (1887), though full of admirable descriptions and shrewd observation, are deficient in character and construction.

In 1881 Jefferies was attacked by a painful malady, necessitating four operations within the twelvemonth. Unable to write during the whole of this time, and compelled to maintain his family and defray medical expenses out of his savings, he found himself on his recovery almost reduced to destitution. Scarcely did his circumstances appear to be improving, when he became the victim of a wasting and painful disease. An overstrained feeling of independence prevented his resorting to the Literary Fund, and he was compelled to maintain his family by incessant writing, chiefly on the scenes and pleasures of country life, for, though he declared that he knew London quite as well and cared for it quite as much, this work paid best and was the intellectual capital readiest to his hand. For the last two years he was unable to hold the pen, and his productions were dictated to his wife. He died at Goring in Sussex, where he had fixed himself after short residences at Brighton and Crowborough, on 14 Aug. 1887. The sympathy aroused when the circumstances of his death became known found expression in the bestowal of a pension upon his wife, and in the erection of a monument to his memory in Salisbury Cathedral. A bust was also placed in the Shire-hall, Taunton. Like George Borrow, with whom he has much in common, Jefferies is a writer of a perfectly original type, and at the same time intensely English. Much of his best work may be rivalled or surpassed, but he is unparalleled, unless by Shelley, for the fusion of the utmost intensity of passion with its utmost purity, and for the eloquent expression of the mere rapture of living, of the joy of existence in fresh air and clear light amid lovely landscape. His reasoning power was not great, and he shows at times traces of the wilfulness and narrowness of the merely self-educated man. While in good health he was a man of splendid presence, with something of the gamekeeper and the poet combined. His reserve and the fewness of his personal intimacies are to be attributed partly to a taint of distrustfulness inherited from his peasant ancestors, partly to his constant preoccupation with his own thoughts and his tenacious struggle for existence.

[Besant's Eulogy of Richard Jefferies, 1888; Richard Jefferies, a study, by H. S. Salt, 1894; Lord Lymington in National Rev. 1887; Edward Garnett in Universal Rev. 1888.]

R. G.