Richard Jefferies published his last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair, in 1887, a few months before his death. Set in a rural farmhouse, Coombe Oaks, it is closely based on Jefferies’ own childhood environment of Coate. Though it lacks a compelling plot and seems to drift through a succession of largely static scenes, it is a remarkable book for a number of reasons. The two central characters, sixteen-year-old Amaryllis Iden and her father (known only as ‘Iden’), are outstandingly drawn. Amaryllis, a lover of wild flowers and a budding artist, is trying to make sense of the intrusion of aggressive creditors into the household, at the same time being discouraged in her creative endeavours by her parents. Iden has been a failure as a farmer and his debts weigh heavily on his family’s life. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of nature, can quote Shakespeare with ease; yet, to Amaryllis’ frustration, he seems content to stand and gossip with the ignorant hamlet-folk.
The great strengths of the novel are its truthful representations of rural life and its ability to examine, with penetrating insight, some of the universal problems of human life. Jefferies loves his characters and remains close to them throughout. The closing chapters see a change in mood with the unexpected arrival of two relatives: Alere Flamma, a London artist and engraver, and a sickly youth, Amadis, from somewhere over the hills. As the spring unfolds around the summer-house, Iden, the two visitors and Amaryllis (who mostly listens) talk ceaselessly, about anything, and everything, content just to be there. Simple human companionship in a beautiful garden, with nature living and growing all around them, is raised to the status of an ideal of life. And it’s all possible because Iden had long ago created the garden. His genius and philosophy now come to the fore. He knows how to work with nature to create not only a beautiful garden, but one to live and dream in, a place with potential for healing, and for love (between Amaryllis and Amadis). Even the orchard gate was the work of great care and expense. A practical man he was not: he built for ‘all time’ rather than for the requirements of the moment. For what the book lacks in narrative it more than compensates by its authenticity in portraying human life and its bond with nature. Its pictures are living ones and the strength of its humanity surely makes it one of the most spiritual books ever written.
The following quotations are from chapters 26 and 34.
“The round summer-house was their Parliament House whenever the east winds sank and the flowers shone forth like sunshine; as the sun shines when the clouds withdraw, so when the harsh east winds cease the May flowers immediately bloom and glow.
It was a large round house, properly builded of brick, as a summer-house should be—put not thy faith in lath work—and therefore dry and warm; to sit in it was like sitting in a shell, warm and comfortable, with a sea of meadow-grass, smooth and coloured, stretching in front, islanded about with oak, and elm, and ash.
The finches came to the boughs that hung over the ivy-grown thatch, and sang in the sycamore opposite the door, and in the apple-trees, whose bloom hung down almost to the ground.
These apple-trees, which Iden had planted, flung sackfuls of bloom at his feet. They poured themselves out in abandoned, open-armed, spendthrift, wasteful—perfectly prodigal—quantities of rose-tinted petal; prodigal as a river which flows full to the brim, never questioning but what there will be plenty of water to follow.
Flowers, and trees, and grass, seemed to spring up wherever Iden set down his foot: fruit and flowers fell from the air down upon him. It was his genius to make things grow—like sunshine and shower; a sort of Pan, a half-god of leaves and boughs, and reeds and streams, a sort of Nature in human shape, moving about and sowing Plenty and Beauty.
One side of the summer-house was a thick holly-bush, Iden had set it there; he builded the summer-house and set the ivy; and the pippin at the back, whose bloom was white; the copper-birch near by; the great sycamore alone had been there before him, but he set a seat under it, and got woodbine to flower there; the drooping-ash he planted, and if Amaryllis stood under it when the tree was in full leaf you could not see her, it made so complete an arbour; the Spanish oak in the corner; the box hedge along the ha-ha parapet; the red currants against the red wall; the big peony yonder; the damsons and pear; the yellow honey-bush; all these, and this was but one square, one mosaic of the garden, half of it sward, too, and besides these there was the rhubarb-patch at one corner; fruit, flowers, plants, and herbs, lavender, parsley, which has a very pleasant green, growing in a thick bunch, roses, pale sage—read Boccaccio and the sad story of the leaf of sage—ask Nature if you wish to know how many things more there were.
A place to eat and drink, and think of nothing in, listening to the goldfinches, and watching them carry up the moss, and lichen, and slender fibres for their nest in the fork of the apple; listening to the swallows as they twittered past, or stayed on the sharp, high top of the pear tree; to the vehement starlings, whistling and screeching like Mrs. Iden herself, on the chimneys; chaffinches “chink, chink,” thrushes, distant blackbirds, who like oaks; “cuckoo, cuckoo,” “crake, crake,” buzzing and burring of bees, coo of turtle-doves, now and then a neigh, to remind you that there were horses, fulness and richness of musical sound; a world of grass and leaf, humming like a hive with voices.
When the east wind ceases, and the sun shines above, and the flowers beneath, “a summer’s day in lusty May,” then is the time an Interlude in Heaven.
And all this, summer-house and all, had dropped out of the pocket of Iden’s ragged old coat…
Amaryllis went outside the court, and waited; Amadis rose and followed her. “Come a little way into the Brook-Field,” she said.
They left the apple-bloom behind them, and going down the gravel-path passed the plum trees—the daffodils there were over now—by the strawberry patch which Iden had planted under the parlour window; by the great box-hedge where a thrush sat on her nest undisturbed, though Amaryllis’s dress brushed the branches; by the espalier apple, to the little orchard-gate.
The parlour-window—there are no parlours now, except in old country houses; there were parlours in the days of Queen Anne; in the modern villas they have drawing-rooms.
The parlour-window hung over with pear-tree branches, planted beneath with strawberry; white blossom above, white flower beneath; birds’ nests in the branches of the pear—that was Iden.
They opened the little orchard-gate which pushed heavily against the tall meadow-grass growing between the bars. The path was almost gone—grown out with grass, and as they moved they left a broad trail behind them…
Iden’s flag-basket of tools lay by the gate, it was a new gate, and he had been fitting it before he went in to lunch. His basket was of flag because the substance of the flag is soft, and the tools, chisels, and so on, laid pleasant in it; he must have everything right. The new gate was of solid oak, no “sappy” stuff, real heart of oak, well-seasoned, without a split, fine, close-grained timber, cut on the farm, and kept till it was thoroughly fit, genuine English oak. If you would only consider Iden’s gate you might see there the man.
This gateway was only between two meadows, and the ordinary farmer, when the old gate wore out, would have stopped it with a couple of rails, or a hurdle or two, something very, very cheap and rough; at most a gate knocked up by the village carpenter of ash and willow, at the lowest possible charge.
Iden could not find a carpenter good enough to make his gate in the hamlet; he sent for one ten miles, and paid him full carpenter’s wages. He was not satisfied then, he watched the man at his work to see that the least little detail was done correctly, till the fellow would have left the job, had he not been made pliable by the Goliath ale. So he just stretched the job out as long as he could, and talked and talked with Iden, and stroked him the right way, and drank the ale, and “played it upon me and on William, That day in a way I despise.” Till what with the planing, and shaving, and smoothing, and morticing, and ale, and time, it footed up a pretty bill, enough for three commonplace gates, not of the Iden style.
Why, Iden had put away those pieces of timber years before for this very purpose, and had watched the sawyers saw them out at the pit. They would have made good oak furniture. There was nothing special or particular about this gateway; he had done the same in turn for every gateway on the farm; it was the Iden way.
A splendid gate it was, when it was finished, fit for a nobleman’s Home Park. I doubt, if you would find such a gate, so well proportioned, and made of such material on any great estate in the kingdom. For not even dukes can get an Iden to look after their property. An Iden is not to be “picked up,” I can tell you….
The neighbourhood round about could never understand Iden, never could see why he had gone to such great trouble to render the homestead beautiful with trees, why he had re-planted the orchard with pleasant eating apples in the place of the old cider apples, hard and sour. “Why wouldn’t thaay a’ done for he as well as for we?”
All the acts of Iden seemed to the neighbourhood to be the acts of a “vool.”
When he cut a hedge, for instance, Iden used to have the great bushes that bore unusually fine May bloom saved from the billhook, that they might flower in the spring. So, too, with the crab-apples—for the sake of the white blossom; so, too, with the hazel—for the nuts…
In truth Iden built for all time, and not for the little circumstance of the hour. His gate was meant to last for years, rain and shine, to endure any amount of usage, to be a work of Art in itself…
If only he could have lived three hundred years the greater world would have begun to find out Iden and to idolize him, and make pilgrimages from over sea to Coombe Oaks, to hear him talk, for Iden could talk of the trees and grass, and all that the Earth bears, as if one had conversed face to face with the great god Pan himself.”