IMPRESSIONS OF RICHARD JEFFERIES

Simon Coleman

RJ head and shoulders framed

The first biography of Richard Jefferies appeared in 1888, the year after his death at the age of 38.  It was written by the novelist, Sir Walter Besant, who had become aware of Jefferies’ work in the 1870s and had subsequently followed his career very closely.  Besant never met Jefferies but knew, through business associations, the husband of Jefferies’ sister.  In compiling his biography he was given access to letters and notebooks that are no longer known.  This is how Besant described the physical appearance of Jefferies:

 

“In appearance Richard Jefferies was very tall—over six feet. He was always thin. At the age of seventeen his friends feared that he would go into a decline, which was happily averted—perhaps through his love for the open air. His hair was dark-brown; his beard was brown, with a shade of auburn; his forehead both high and broad; his features strongly marked; his nose long, clear, and straight; his lower lip thick; his eyebrows distinguished by the meditative droop; his complexion was fair, with very little colour. The most remarkable feature in his face was his large and clear blue eye; it was so full that it ought to have been short-sighted, yet his sight was far as well as keen. His face was full of thought; he walked with somewhat noiseless tread and a rapid stride. He never carried an umbrella or wore a great-coat, nor, except in very cold weather, did he wear gloves. He had great powers of endurance in walking, but his physical strength was never great. In manner, as has been already stated, he was always reserved; at this time so much so as to appear morose to those who knew him but slightly.”

 

He also provides details of Jefferies’ daily lifestyle and routines, and some of his literary tastes.  In addition to those authors mentioned, Jefferies read much of Shakespeare, the Greek and Roman classics (especially Homer and Plato) and the ‘Arabian Nights’.  He is also known to have admired Robert Louis Stevenson but disliked Jane Austen.

 

“As for his personal habits, Jefferies was extremely simple and regular, even methodical. He breakfasted always at eight o’clock, often on nothing but dry toast and tea. After breakfast he went to his study, where he remained writing until half-past eleven. At that hour he always went out, whatever the weather and in all seasons, and walked until one o’clock. This morning walk was an absolute necessity for him. At one o’clock he returned and took an early dinner, which was his only substantial meal. His tastes were simple. He liked to have a plain roast or boiled joint, with abundance of vegetables, of which he was very fond, especially asparagus, sea-kale, and mushrooms. He would have preferred ale, but he found that light claret or burgundy suited him better, and therefore he drank daily a little of one or the other.

 

Dinner over, he read his daily paper, and slept for an hour by the fireside. Perhaps this after-dinner sleep may be taken as a sign of physical weakness. A young man of thirty ought not to want an hour’s sleep in the middle of the day. At three o’clock he awoke, and went for another walk, coming home at half-past four. He thus walked for three hours every day, which, for a quick walker, gives a distance of twelve miles—a very good allowance of fresh air. Men of all kinds, who have to keep the brain in constant activity, have found that the active exercise of walking is more valuable than any other way of recreation in promoting a healthy activity of the brain. To talk with children is a rest; to visit picture-galleries changes the current of thought; to play lawn tennis diverts the brain; but to walk both rests the brain and stimulates it. Jefferies acquired the habit of noting down in his walks, and storing away, those thousands of little things which make his writings the despair of people who think themselves minute observers. He took tea at five, and then worked again in his study till half-past eight, when he commonly finished work for the day. In other words, he gave up five hours of the solid day to work. It is, I think, impossible for a man to carry on literary work of any but the humblest kind for more than five hours a day; three hours remained for exercise, and the rest for food, rest, and reading. He took a little supper at nine, of cold meat and bread, with a glass of claret, and then read or conversed until eleven, when he went to bed. He took tobacco very rarely.

 

He had not a large library, because the works which he most wished to procure were generally beyond his means. For instance, he was always desirous, but never able, to purchase Sowerby’s “English Wild-Flowers.” His favourite novelists were Scott and Charles Reade. The conjunction of these two names gives me singular pleasure, as to one who admires the great qualities of Reade. He also liked the works of Ouida and Miss Braddon. He never cared greatly for Charles Dickens. I think the reason why Dickens did not touch him was that the kind of lower middle-class life which Dickens knew so well, and loved to portray, belonged exclusively to the town, which Jefferies did not know, and not to the country, which he did. He was never tired of Goethe’s “Faust,” which was always new to him. He loved old ballads, and among the poets, Dryden’s works were his favourite reading. In one thing he was imperious: the house must be kept quiet—absolutely quiet—while he was at work. Any household operations that made the least noise had to be postponed till he went out for his walk.”

 

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