An Extraordinary Journey: Richard Jefferies and the month of February

Rebecca Welshman

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Jefferies in 1872

In February 1871 when he was 22 years old, Richard Jefferies wrote a letter to his Aunt Ellen Harrild in which he described the difficulties he was experiencing in trying to forge a career as an author. The letter, paraphrased by Walter Besant, explained that he had been trying to earn a living by writing and to find work as a reporter. He found London to be overrun with reporters, and the two Swindon papers close to home were fully staffed. He had tried to sell his gun, had drafted two novels and written a hundred pages of another. Interestingly, from this point on February became a month of note for Jefferies, with each year bringing significant  developments in his life.

In February 1872 Jefferies began a second phase of work for the Wiltshire and Gloucester Standard, having previously been a reporter for the paper for a while in 1869. On the 9 March he published a letter in the paper about agricultural labour. This letter anticipated his letters on the Wiltshire Labourer in The Times in November 1872 which brought him nationwide attention and acclaim.

In February 1873 he wrote to Bentley, the publisher, to offer ‘Only a Girl’ – a novel that he described as follows: “the leading idea is the delineation of the character of a girl entirely unconventional and determined to follow the impulse of her own nature. The scenery is laid in Wiltshire, and I have introduced some of the social legends of that county to give it a county interest.” Following the success of the Wiltshire Labourer letters, he also writes that “I am not altogether unknown in a literary sense: my letters in the Times on the “Wiltshire Labourer” made some noise at the time, and have been quoted continually since.” The manuscript of Only a Girl has never been traced and we know very little about it.

In February 1874 Jefferies sends what will become his first published novel to Tinsleys. A reader’s report for the novel described it as “a remarkable and original book. It is unlike almost all novels ever written, – studies of character and incident without dialogue. The more intellectual few will admire it, but it is not likely to become popular.” Jefferies also wrote “to write a tale is to me as easy as to write a letter, and I do not see why I should not issue two a year for the next twelve or fifteen years. I can hardly see the possible loss from a novel.” His novels, however, were not as successful as he had hoped, despite going on to publish Restless Human Hearts and World’s End in the same decade. Restless Human Hearts was published by Tinsley in February 1875.

February 1876 saw another novel submitted to Bentley called ‘In Summer Time’. Although rejected at the time, it is likely that this manuscript evolved or was used in some way in the preparation of The Dewy Morn, which was published in 1884. In February 1876 Jefferies also published the pamphlet ‘Suez-Cide! or, How Miss Britannia Bought a Dirty Puddle and Lost her Sugar Plums’, with J. Snow and Co.’ This satire was unlike anything he had written before, and it became so collectible that it was forged. The forged edition itself is now so rare that it is worth around £450. The work was an allegory of Benjamin Disraeli’s purchase of Suez Canal shares.

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In February 1877 Jefferies made some notebook entries for what would become ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, concerning blackthorn in bloom in Surrey, and a reference to Selborne. These notes are of particular significance because they suggest Jefferies’ early familiarity with the work of Gilbert White (see Matthews and Trietel, ‘The Forward Life of Richard Jefferies, p. 84). White (1720-1793) was a pioneering naturalist and one of the founders of the English nature writing tradition. His best known book is  ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’.

On 1st February 1878 a letter arrived from Jefferies at the offices of Smith, Elder, and Co, accepting a proposal from them. For the first time Jefferies has been approached by a publisher to produce a work. Smith and Elder had noticed Jefferies’ articles in the Pall Mall Gazette titled ‘The Gamekeeper at Home’, and asked him if they might publish them in book form. It was a major breakthrough for the young Jefferies, who at age 29, with a wife and child to support, was looking for a stepping stone into the commercial world of publishing.

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The Gamekeeper at Home, first edition

The first half of February 1879 (1-15th) saw Smith and Elder publish Jefferies’ second collection of natural history and countryside articles, which appeared first in the Pall Mall Gazette, and which we know today as ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’. On 6 February Smith and Elder paid Jefferies £200 (double the amount initially offered by them in December 1878), which as Matthews and Trietel point out, suggests that Jefferies had successfully negotiated better terms. On 11 February Jefferies dated a signed presentation copy of the book for his mother, Elizabeth. February 1880 was no less eventful, with Jefferies securing an agreement with Cassells publishing firm for his book Wood Magic: a Fable, the first copy of which he inscribed to his eldest son, Harold. Today this book features in the many activities for children that take place at Jefferies’ birthplace – the Richard Jefferies Museum.

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A 1920s edition of Wood Magic

On 1 February 1882 Jefferies made a unique manuscript note that can be seen at the British Library. On a single leaf of paper he wrote the date, and ‘New Thought. Beauty’. Something significant was happening for Jefferies at this time – a shift in thought, a sense of getting closer to what really mattered to him. For year he had been trying to write his spiritual work, The Story of My Heart, and he refers to early attempts having been destroyed. In the summer of 1882 the Jefferies family moved to Brighton, where the expanses of the South Downs and the sparkling sea were to draw forth from Jefferies some of his finest work, and most importantly, the final version of The Story of My Heart. The February note, although so brief, suggests that he was beginning to clearly articulate the ‘one thought’ that he said went winding through his days, like a meandering brook through a meadow – the one hope that he could crystallise new spiritual ideas and share them with the world. As he wrote that year in ‘Out of Doors in February’, published in Good Words, ‘The murmur of the poets is indeed louder in February than in the more pleasant days of summer, for then the growth of aquatic grasses checks the flow and stills it, whilst in February, every stone, or flint, or lump of chalk divides the current and causes a vibration.’ He sees that ‘the lark and the light are one, and wherever he glides over the wet furrows the glint of the sun goes with him.’ The lark becomes ‘a sign of hope’.

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Wood engraving of a Skylark by Peter Brown

As his career began to flourish, and he became increasingly well known, a parallel development was taking place that was to largely rob him of the chance to enjoy his success, and would inevitably shorten his life. Jefferies’ illness, which until now had not seriously impaired his life, began to take hold. In February 1883 he describes being ‘seized with a mysterious wasting disease, accompanied by much pain. I gradually wasted away to mere bones. By degrees this pain increased till it became almost insupportable.’ This happened two months after having a complicated operation for fistula, which had cost him ‘a large share’ of his savings. The doctors could do nothing, he wrote, so he sought London doctors, who for more than two years gave him various prescriptions, but nothing could relieve the ‘maddening’ pain. Hugoe Matthews writes that later medical knowledge would have classed these symptoms as low-grade tuberculous peritonitis, but to doctors of the time it would have seemed a mysterious disease without any apparent cure.

Despite all this, Jefferies secured a further book contract in February 1883, this time with Chatto and Windus, for Nature near London. In the February of 1884 Jefferies made a note of an address of a studio in Charlotte Street, London, which marked the beginning of one of the most important friendships of his life. The studio belonged to the artist J.W. North, one of the Idyllists who specialized in illustration, watercolour, and oils. Steve Milton, in his article on North, writes that North and Jefferies were introduce to one another by Joseph Comyns Carr in 1883. It is no surprise that the two men found a meaningful connection, for like Jefferies, North ‘always worked direct from nature in the open air’.  As Milton explains:

“‘In many of his best works, figures although present are generally subordinate or incidental to the scene – the focus is nature. The Idyll that North seeks to reveal seems to be about inner revelation or rapture – human spirit and emotion defined within a natural context. Like Jefferies, there is an element of mysticism in North’s work. In Jefferies’ nature writing, time seems irrelevant and deeper truths are hinted at but not completely revealed – an idyllic state of oneness with nature.”

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/341674

‘Spring’ in watercolour, by J.W. North. Metropolitan Museum

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‘An Old Bowling Green’, Halsway Manor in Somerset, 1865, by J.W. North

No extant letters from Jefferies to North are known, but we do know that after Jefferies’ death in August 1887, his wife and children went to stay with North in Somerset. North took care of them, helped Jessie with the process of securing a civil  list pension, and instigated a memorial fund for Jefferies. North wrote a moving account of the day he rushed to Jefferies’ bedside at Goring, but on arriving found that his friend had already passed away.

“…I went yesterday, expecting to once more speak with him. I found him lying dead, twelve hours dead. I saw him with Mrs. Jefferies and their little Phyllis. A pitiful sight to see them kiss the poor cold face! God help them! “When I find a new flower in the garden I cannot show it to papa now.  Mamma! Mamma! I hope Tommy Burrell won’t tell everybody that I have got no papa now.” The poor wife seemed to feel the change which death had brought upon the dear loved face almost more than all the rest. “Oh! How he is changed! A few hours back he was himself. How can I bear it? But they tell me he will soon again look better.” When I tried to dissuade her from looking upon him she said: “I must – I must; until he is taken away I must see him, and I must kiss him each time. My Phyllis, you will never see your dear papa without kissing him?” “No, no.” said the little one, and she had no fear in the presence of death. …

I asked Mrs. Jefferies if he had made a will. She said: “No: surely it would have been useless; we have nothing.  A woman singly, strong as I am could rough it; but if something can be done for the children I shall be thankful.”

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John William North

On 8 February 1886 the ailing Jefferies wrote to his mother from his address in Crowborough ‘The Downs’:

“My dear Mother, I have wanted for a long time to write to you but I am so fearfully weak I can with difficulty sit & the torture I go through every day & often all night long is indescribable, my stomach and bowels seem all wasted away & my back is as it were broken, nothing will give any relief. It starves me – it is downright starvation, eat what I will it is still empty. There is something wrong inside which no one can find out. The Doctor here says he has no idea what is the matter & has given me up sometime. I am now trying to get a physician down from London but the expense is very great. The cold here is intense & does so much harm but cold is not the cause…You must not be surprised that Jessie has not written, she has so much to do waiting on me all day for I cannot do the smallest thing for myself. So you must not suppose it is because we do not think of you. Phyllis has grown such a big girl & is very busy and happy, she knows her letters now. Toby is all go & rush like a wild March wind. He plays hare and hounds right through the forest here, sometimes they go for miles and rather alarm me as I cannot get out to see what he is doing. I have not been out of doors now for months. He often talks of his grandfather & wants to see him. I hope we shall see you both in the warmer weather. Phyllis says I am to tell you something about her, she says she can do some sewing now. Toby gets on capital with his drawing at the studio & I think will make a first rate draughtsman if he will but work. He has taught himself several airs on the piano entirely by ear & sings very nicely having a good voice. I very much hope that you & the governor will come and see us in the warmer weather. This place is beautiful in summer. Now it is a howling wilderness. I have managed to write a letter somehow but it causes me much distress & pain to do anything. With much love to yourself & the governor, always your affectionate son Richard.”

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Jefferies’ Last Days at Goring, dictating his work to his wife, Jessie

By February 1887 Jefferies knew he was dying. He describes himself in a letter to C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, as ‘a perfect invalid’, and seems hopeful:  “I am in hope, too, that as the warmth comes on the sea will help me more.” Yet by 14 February his notebook entries are imbued with despair:

“I have had the misery of dying many times and the presence of it for years. Children neglected playing with street roughs. Slobbering food for months like an imbecile old man. Handkerchief – drop not able to pick up. Writing a letter – effort. … Neither lie stand walk sit without distress.”

Alongside these notes, however, are jottings relating to ‘Sun Life’, his next proposed spiritual work, which he had already begun writing. The Jefferies of February 1887 makes a poignant contrast to the eager ambitious youth seeking reporting work in the February of 1871. He had only 6 months to live, and for that time he wrote profusely about Sun Life in his notebooks, even alluding to a manuscript, which has never been traced. On 16 February he lists 22 key ideas for the work, which include:

“There is another Nature or Natures”

“That we do not really see things at all”

“That there is a whole of which I form a part, now, then, and after, and that this I recognise in looking at the cedar in the night, at the Dawn, even if I perish utterly as I understand perishing”

“That this whole is superior probably to all the common ideas of justice, beneficence”

“That the true work of man is the Man Help”

“There is more than I have imagined rather than less”

“The opening of the mind forever”

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References

 

Jefferies’ notebooks

Hugoe Matthews and Phyllis Trietel, The Forward Life of Richard Jefferies. Petton Books, 1994.

Steve Milton on J.W. North

http://www.southwilts.com/site/The-Idyllists/JWN-Working-Notes.htm

 

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