An ordinary summer’s day in Trafalgar Square in the early 1880s; nothing remarkable – it’s a bit noisier these days but we can easily imagine the scene Jefferies quietly paints for us. Jefferies, however, could not possibly find such a scene ordinary. Light and shadow, the passing of people, splashes of colour, the swallows, a solitary cloud – all impart something of deep interest and, much more than that, of deep meaning. The ceaseless flood of light seems to induce in him a dreamy state of perception. Rigid boundaries fade away, the moment in time seems to lengthen, and other possibilities for human life begin to suggest themselves.
EXTRACT FROM THE FIRST PART OF ‘SUNLIGHT IN A LONDON SQUARE’
“There are days now and again when the summer broods in Trafalgar Square; the flood of light from a cloudless sky gathers and grows, thickening the air; the houses enclose the beams as water is enclosed in a cup. Sideways from the white-painted walls light is reflected; upwards from the broad, heated pavement in the centre light and heat ascend; from the blue heaven it presses downwards. Not only from the sun—one point—but from the entire width of the visible blue the brilliant stream flows. Summer is enclosed between the banks of houses—all summer’s glow and glory of exceeding brightness. The blue panel overhead has but a stray fleck of cloud, a Cupid drawn on the panel in pure white, but made indefinite by distance. The joyous swallows climb high into the illuminated air till the eye, daunted by the glow, can scarce detect their white breasts as they turn.
Slant shadows from the western side give but a margin of contrast; the rays are reflected through them, and they are only shadows of shadows. At the edges their faint sloping lines are seen in the air, where a million motes impart a fleeting solidity to the atmosphere. A pink-painted front, the golden eagle of the great West, golden lettering, every chance strip and speck of colour is washed in the dazzling light, made clear and evident. The hands and numerals of the clock yonder are distinct and legible, the white dial-plate polished; a window suddenly opened throws a flash across the square. Eastwards the air in front of the white walls quivers, heat and light reverberating visibly, and the dry flowers on the window-sills burn red and yellow in the glare. Southwards green trees, far down the street, stand, as it seems, almost at the foot of the chiselled tower of Parliament—chiselled in straight lines and perpendicular grooves, each of which casts a shadow into itself. Again, the corners advanced before the main wall throw shadows on it, and the hollow casements draw shadows into their cavities. Thus, in the bright light against the blue sky the tower pencils itself with a dark crayon, and is built, not of stone, but of light and shadow. Flowing lines of water rise and fall from the fountains in the square, drooping like the boughs of a weeping ash, drifted a little to one side by an imperceptible air, and there sprinkling the warm pavement in a sparkling shower. The shower of finely divided spray now advances and now retreats, as the column of water bends to the current of air, or returns to its upright position.
By a pillared gateway there is a group in scarlet, and from time to time other groups in scarlet pass and repass within the barrack-court. A cream-tinted dress, a pink parasol—summer hues—go by in the stream of dark-clothed people; a flower fallen on the black water of a river. Either the light subdues the sound, or perhaps rather it renders the senses slumberous and less sensitive, but the great sunlit square is silent—silent, that is, for the largest city on earth. A slumberous silence of abundant light, of the full summer day, of the high flood of summer hours whose tide can rise no higher. A time to linger and dream under the beautiful breast of heaven, heaven brooding and descending in pure light upon man’s handiwork. If the light shall thus come in, and of its mere loveliness overcome every aspect of dreariness, why shall not the light of thought, and hope—the light of the soul—overcome and sweep away the dust of our lives?”