Friday, 17 May 2013

The Tranquil Tome of the Cultivated Clergyman

                 Another English naturalist, of an entirely different sort to Charles Waterton, was the Reverend Gilbert White, author of just one book that has remained in print, through over 300 editions, since it was first published in 1789 (it is said to be the fourth most-published book in English, after the Bible, the works of Shakespeare and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, although this claim is questionable). 

Gilbert White

White was born in Selborne, Hampshire, in 1720, raised in Selborne, lived there, worked there, died there and was buried there. His father, John, was the vicar of Selborne, (as had been his father), and after attending Oxford University, Gilbert was ordained in 1749, and held various curacies in Hampshire and Wiltshire, including that of Selborne on four occasions. 

Selborne Parish Church

He lived the life of the archetypical English country parson, untroubled by change or incident, with his time divided between his pastoral duties, quiet country walks, tending to his garden and letter-writing. 

A Hanging Lane

In White’s day, Selborne was an isolated backwater, reached only by rough country tracks or the fearsome ‘hanging lanes’, cut-off by snows in winter and floods in bad weather, and a place that bears little relation to modern Selborne, which even now can hardly be described as a sizzling urban hub. 

Gilbert White - The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne - 1738

White’s book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, is written as a series of letters to his friends, Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington, with a phenological Garden Kalendar and a series of Observations in Various Branches of Natural History. It is the letters that are best remembered, particularly those regarding natural history (the letters on the antiquities of Selborne parish, although interesting in themselves, are either included as a second volume or totally omitted – similarly, the Kalendar has value but is hardly riveting reading). 

Daines Barrington

The epistolary nature of the form employed by White lends itself well to a series of observations made over a period of time and allows him to return to his subjects time and again, but it is a literary conceit and many of the letters were not actually sent to their supposed recipients. White’s method was revolutionary, as he was writing about direct observations of the birds and their habits that he described, rather than merely repeating what others had thought (quite often with no observation taking place at all). 

White's Garden Kalendar

This had grown out of White’s Garden Kalendar, which he began in 1751, recording the various jobs he carried out on a daily basis, listing the seeds he planted and with notes on the weather. From 1766, he expanded this into what he called his 
Flora Selborniensis - with some coincidences of the coming and departure of birds of passage and insects; and the appearing of Reptiles for the year 1766.’ 
This was the germ from which the Natural History grew, as the following year White began his correspondence with Thomas Pennant, in a letter dated August 10th 1767, although the letter was re-dated to August 4th in the Natural History, appearing as Letter X, with the preceding nine, which describe the location of Selborne and its geography, statistics about the numbers of its inhabitants and their baptisms and burials, what agriculture was carried on in the parish, the climate and weather conditions and other scene setting information, specially written in letter form for the purpose of the book. 

Map of the Parish of Selborne

The letters themselves, whether written for the book or actually sent, are fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in British natural history, as records of what White was seeing at the various times of the year, or as an historical document from which we can see changes in the species he saw, their comings and goings, and his speculations on their behaviours. 

Thomas Pennant

It is all as gentle as you would expect from an English divine in his comfortable rural parish, but that is not to say that it is boring; White’s faculty with the language sees to that. Instead, it is light and conversational, as the author shares his finds and his thoughts, almost conspiratorially, with an utterly infectious enthusiasm that is childlike with being childish. 

Gilbert White and his Sundial

He reveals his treasures carefully, allowing you to share his joy and wonder in the beauties of nature, he gives you tiny insights into his wisdom, he takes you into his world and brings forth its secrets. He is charming, witty, sophisticated and very, very engrossing. 

White's Garden, Selborne

But do not be fooled into thinking that it is an Olde English idyll, a bygone golden age, for White’s nature is very much red in tooth and claw. He tells, for example, of a neighbour who finds a pair of albino rooklings in a nest but these are killed and nailed to the wall-end of barn before White can see them. Things live and things die; that is nature’s way. 


White was not the first Englishman to write about birds – Francis Willughby and John Ray had both published ornithological works a century before him, but he took their empiricism and widened its scope, personalising it but without sentimentalising it. 

Yew Tree and Porch, Selborne Parish Church

The best way (if there can possibly be such a thing) of reading White is to approach him in the same spirit as his work was written, that is, slowly and at leisure, maybe with a little something warming in a glass by your elbow, sipping and savouring each in turn. And I think I might just do that myself now. Good evening to you all, I hear a rather pleasant Merlot singing out to me (just a wee ornithological joke for you there … ).

Gilbert White in later life

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