Richard Jefferies 1848-1887
(Born John Richard Jefferies; also wrote as R. J.) English essayist, novelist, naturalist, and poet.
Jefferies is best remembered for writings that combine description of the English countryside with an ardent admiration of the natural world. Jefferies is the author of some of the most detailed and interesting rural scenes in English literature; critics consider his essays intimate without being sentimental, exposing positive and negative aspects of country life.
Jefferies was born in rural Wiltshire. His conventional schooling was sporadic and ended by the time he was fifteen, with most of his knowledge acquired through informal study at home and outdoors. Jeffries gained a position as a reporter for the North Wilts Herald at Swindon in 1866, and worked there for six years, while contributing to several other periodicals. With the publication in the London Times in 1872 of three letters in which he sympathized with farmers' requests for higher wages, Jefferies received wider attention as a journalist. In 1874 he married, and the couple moved to the London suburb of Surbiton in 1877. Four years later Jefferies became severely ill. He continued working, eventually dictating to his wife. He died in 1887.
Jefferies's first published novels—The Scarlet Shawl (1874), Restless Human Hearts (1875), World's End (1876)—all of which focus on the upper classes, were financial as well as critical failures. In 1877 he contributed eleven articles to the Pall Mall Gazette; they were published the following year in book form under the title The Gamekeeper at Home. This collection—Jefferies's first book-length success—earned him widespread critical recognition. It was followed by three more works that originated as series in the Pall Mall Gazette: Wild Life in a Southern County (1879), The Amateur Poacher (1879), and Round about a Great Estate (1880). Also published in 1880 was Hodge and His Masters, which had originally appeared in the Standard. These four books, incorporating Jefferies's reminiscences about the sites and events of his rural childhood, established him as an authority on country life. Wood Magic, Bevis, and The Story of My Heart, all published between 1881 and 1883, were also imbued with Jefferies's love of nature, and are further characterized by reflection, urgency, and a visionary quality that some biographers have linked with his fatal illness. Jefferies's last book published before his death, Amaryllis at the Fair, again treats rural characters in a country setting. It is believed to be a fictionalized account of his own family.
Jefferies's literary career began early in his life, but he gained admiration slowly. His first novels focused on the life of the upper class, a subject with which he was obviously unacquainted. However, as he turned to a more familiar style and such subjects as childhood reminiscences and nature writing, his works, particularly his essays, greatly improved, and popularity soon followed. His descriptions of rural life were well-received; some scholars have suggested that the main reason for their appeal was that they commemorated an age and lifestyle that was quickly passing. While his reputation has declined in modern times, Jefferies's last works, especially his essays, are still valued as an interesting and important contribution to English nature writing.
The Scarlet Shawl (novel) 1874
Restless Human Hearts (novel) 1875
World's End (novel) 1876
The Gamekeeper at Home; or, Sketches of Natural History and Rural Life (essays) 1878
The Amateur Poacher (essays) 1879
Wild Life in a Southern County (essays) 1879
Greene Ferne Farm (novel) 1880
Hodge and His Masters (essays) 1880
Round about a Great Estate (essays) 1880
Wood Magic (novel) 1881
Bevis, The Story of a Boy (novel) 1882
Nature Near London (essays) 1883
The Story of My Heart (autobiography) 1883
The Dewy Morn (novel) 1884
The Life of the Fields (essays) 1884
After London; or, Wild England (novel) 1885
The Open Air (essays) 1885
Amaryllis at the Fair (novel) 1887
Field and Hedgerow; Being the Last Essays of Richard Jefferies, Collected by His Widow (essays) 1889
The Toilers of the Field (essays) 1892
The Early Fiction of Richard Jefferies (novels, essays) 1896
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SOURCE: A review of The Amateur Poacher, in The Saturday Review, London, Vol. 48, No. 1253, November 1, 1879, pp. 548-49.
[In the following article, the Saturday Review critic provides a very positive assessment of The Amateur Poacher.]
This third volume of a very agreeable series is perhaps in some respects more enjoyable than its predecessors. Naturally we become sensible of a certain monotony, or at least of some diminution in the freshness of the first vivid pictures. But, on the other hand, the charms of the country are infinite with a variety that never grows stale; and the author of Wild Life and The Gamekeeper at Home dwells upon them with the affection of a lifelong familiarity. In The Amateur Poacher we have the most delicate painting of the minutest details of our rural landscapes, with realistic sketches in eloquent language of the changing scenery of English seasons. It is full, too, of the lively autobiographical reminiscences which always give truth and colour to a book. The author began his studies in amateur poaching in the earliest years of a happy boyhood. He was bred, if not born, as he has intimated to us before, in the most delightful circumstances a boy could desire. His home was in a venerable farmhouse in a primitive country, where the occupants had the right to shoot over farms that had never been touched by modem improvements. There had been...
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SOURCE: A review of The Story of My Heart: My Autobiography, in The Academy, No. 600, November 3, 1883, p. 294.
[Here, Purves appraises The Story of My Heart, calling the book "a contribution to the ideal in life."]
This book is decidedly clever, though very unsatisfactory. Mr. Jefferies has not told the story of his own heart so well as he told the stories of The Gamekeeper at Home and The Amateur Poacher. "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer; let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." So said Thoreau in Walden; and Mr. Jefferies for the first time seems to step out to the music of the American, and follow in his wake. To appreciate the real value of the book before us the reader should take up Walden first, and he will be astonished at the similarity of ideas, though the American possesses the most. Mr. Jefferies has no sense of humour, and a little humour would have added force to his passionate pleading; nor has he much human feeling. The title is incorrect: there is little about his heart in the book; and it would be better described as the "Desires of a Naturalist." The pages throb with passionate vigour, and fall into dreamy contemplation; and sometimes he cries aloud, but not, like wisdom, in the streets. For the first time he has the courage to speak out; and he...
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SOURCE: "Fiction, Early and Late," in The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies, Longmans, Green and Co., 1888, pp. 145-62.
[Besant was a prolific English novelist, historian, and critic who used fiction to exposé and denounce the social evils of late-Victorian England. In the excerpt below, Besant discusses the failure ofJefferies's early novels.]
The Scarlet Shawl was published in July, 1874, in one volume. As the work is stated on the title-page to have advanced to a second edition, one of two things is certain—namely, either the book appealed to a large number of readers, or the editions were very small indeed. I incline, myself, to the latter opinion.
Great as is the admiration of Jefferies' readers for his best and noblest work, it must be frankly confessed that, regarded as a story-teller, he is not successful. Why this is so we will presently inquire. As regards this, his earliest serious work of fiction, there is one remarkable fact, quite without precedent in the history of literature—it is that the book affords not the slightest indication of genius, insight, descriptive or dramatic power, or, indeed, of any power, especially of that kind with which he was destined to make his name. It is a book which any publisher's reader, after glancing at the pages, would order to be returned instantly, without opinion given or explanation offered; it is a book which a young man of such...
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SOURCE: "As Poet-Naturalist," in Richard Jefferies: A Study, Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1894, pp. 49-69.
[In the following excerpt, Salt discusses the shift in Jefferies's style from naturalist to poet-naturalist, as "we find the poetical and imaginative element wielding almost complete supremacy over the merely descriptive and scientific. ']
The volumes which mark this most important transition [from naturalist to poet-naturalist] are Wood Magic and Bevis, published in 1881 and 1882 respectively, in both of which the central idea is the intimate sympathetic converse that exists, or is imagined to exist, between childhood and Nature.
The character of Bevis, the boy-hero of both stories, in spite of the tedious length of the narrative, is one of the most charming of Jefferies' creations, and has far more vitality than most of the figures in his novels. For Bevis, apart from his adventurous wanderings and voyages (which interest us chiefly as being actual records of Jefferies' own boyish freaks and imaginings), is the special favourite and confidant of Nature and her familiars—it is to him that the wild animals and birds, the trees and flowers, the streams and winds and sunshine, reveal their passwords and secrets. The well-known passages that describe Bevis' communings with the Wind are not only the best thing in Wood Magic, but the most significant indication of...
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SOURCE: "Richard Jefferies," in The Vagabond in Literature, J. M. Dent & Co., 1906, pp. 141-66.
[In the following excerpt, Rickett discusses Jefferies as a vagabond temperment, stating that he 'presents to my mind all the characteristics of the Vagabond," including "his many graces and charms," as well as "his notable deficiencies. ']
Looking at [Jefferies] first of all as an artist, the most obvious thing that strikes a reader is his power to convey sensuous impressions. He loved the Earth, not as some have done with the eye or ear only, but with every nerve of his body. His scenic pictures are more glowing, more ardent than those of Thoreau. There was more of the poet, less of the naturalist in Jefferies. Perhaps it would have been juster to call Thoreau a poetic naturalist, and reserved the term poet-naturalist for Jefferies. Be that as it may, no one can read Jefferies—especially such books as Wild Life in a Southern County, or The Life of the Fields, without realizing the keen sensibility of the man to the sensuous impressions of Nature.
Again and again in reading Jefferies one is reminded of the poet Keats. There is the same physical frailty of constitution and the same rare susceptibility to every manifestation of beauty. There is, moreover, the same intellectual devotion to beauty which made Keats declare Truth and Beauty to be one. And the likeness goes...
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SOURCE: "Recapitulation," in Richard Jefferies: His Life and Work, Little, Brown & Co., 1909, pp. 317-28.
[A poet, novelist, and critic, Thomas is the most prominent twentieth-century representative of the tradition of nature poetry in English literature. His verse displays a profound love of natural beauty and, at times, an archaic tone and diction. In the following essay, Thomas assesses the impact of Jefferies's personal life on his writings.]
Richard Jefferies was … always a child of the soil, as well as of the earth in a larger sense. From father and mother he had the blood of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire farmers. He was the second child (the eldest child, a daughter, died young) of a younger son of a younger son. But it was country blood with a difference: both Gyde and Jefferies had been dipped in London, and had followed there the trade of printing; and though old John Jefferies, the grandfather, retired early, and not quite contentedly, to the mill and the bakery and the farm, and Charles Gyde 'of Islington' was buried in Pitchcombe churchyard, they had been troubled by this change from the fields to Fleet Street and back again. Richard's mother, in spite of her good butter, was not a countrywoman, and she was soured by the life of one. His father left Wiltshire as a young man, and travelled roughly, seeing the cities of the United States. Of their sons, the two younger worked on the farm...
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SOURCE: "Jefferies," in Views and Reviews: Essays in Appreciation, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1921, pp. 161-66.
[Henley was an important figure in the counter-decadent movement of the 1890s. As editor of the National Observer and the New Review, Henley was an invigorating force in English literature, publishing and defending the early works of such writers as H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, and Bernard Shaw. Below, Henley focuses on the qualities that made Jefferies's writings popular.]
I love to think of Jefferies as a kind of literary Leatherstocking. His style, his mental qualities, the field he worked in, the chase he followed, were peculiar to himself, and as he was without a rival, so was he without a second. Reduced to its simplest expression, his was a mind compact of observation and of memory. He writes as one who watches always, who sees everything, who forgets nothing. As his lot was cast in country places, among wood and pasturage and corn, by coverts teeming with game and quick with insect life, and as withal he had the hunter's patience and quick-sightedness, his faculty of looking and listening and of noting and remembering, his readiness of deduction and insistence of pursuit—there entered gradually into his mind a greater quantity of natural England, her leaves and flowers, her winds and skies, her wild things and tame, her beauties and humours and discomforts, than was ever,...
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SOURCE: "Richard Jefferies' Amaryllis at the Fair," in Modern English Essays, Vol. 5, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1922, pp. 102-11.
[Garnett was a prominent editor for several London publishing houses, and discovered or greatly influenced the work of many important English writers. He also published several volumes of criticism, all of which are characterized by thorough research and sound critical judgments. In the following essay, Garnett challenges the opinion of most critics that Jefferies was not a novelist, emphasizing the merit of his Amaryllis at the Fair.]
"The book is not a novel" is a phrase often in the mouth of critics, who on second thoughts might, perhaps, add with less emphasis, "it does not conform to the common type of novel." Fortified, however, with that sense of rectitude that dictates conformity to our neighbours and a safe acquiescence in the mysterious movements of public taste, Victorian critics have exclaimed with touching unanimity—"What a pity Jefferies tried to write novels! Why didn't he stick to essays in natural history!"
What a pity Jefferies should have given us Amaryllis at the Fair, and After London! This opinion has been propagated with such fervency that it seems almost a pity to disturb it by inquiring into the nature of these his achievements. Certainly the critics and their critical echoes are united. "He wrote some later...
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SOURCE: "Richard Jefferies: Natural Historian of the English Countryside (1848-1887)," in From Anne to Victoria: Fourteen Biographical Studies Between 1702 and 1901, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1931, pp. 156-75.
[Here, Vaughan explores Jefferies's writings, contending that they provide insight not only into natural history, but also into "the human element of the countryside. ']
Jefferies has had many imitators.… [He] was the founder of a new school in natural history. Even in the press of to-day one can discover echoes of Jefferies' influence in the small paragraphs of 'Nature Notes,' which most papers include in their columns. Of course these humble contributions own none of the racy charm of Jefferies' work, but they do undoubtedly perpetuate his attitude towards, and treatment of, the countryside. Of the many who have followed in the master's footsteps and have sought in his terms to treat of things and people rural, probably the best disciple is the late Rev. Alfred Rees, formerly of Llandyssul, Cardiganshire. Like Jefferies, Rees died early, but his two published volumes, Ianto the Fisherman, and Creatures of the Night, have accomplished very much for the lovely but remote valley of the Teifi what Jefferies did for his native Wiltshire. The pity is that Rees's books are not better known.
Of course, a good deal of Richard Jefferies' work is mere journalism—short...
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SOURCE: "Lives and Works of Richard Jefferies," in Collected Essays, Vol. 3, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 254-64.
[Leavis was a twentieth-century English critic, essayist, and editor. Her professional alliance with her husband, FR. Leavis, resulted in several literary collaborations, including the successful quarterly periodical, Scrutiny, in which she published many critical essays. In the following excerpt, first published in Scrutiny in 1938, Leavis defends Jefferies against critical attacks of his works, calling him a "manysided and comprehensive genius.']
To secure Jefferies his right to be read, several points could be made. One is the intrinsic value as literature of the rural life of much of his work. The large public that enjoyed Farmer's Glory and Corduroy would equally enjoy The Amateur Poacher, Wild Life in a Southern County and Round About a Great Estate (one of the most delightful books in the English language). Those who have found Change in the Village and Change in the Farm relevant to their interest in social history will be glad that Hodge and His Masters is again in print and will be impelled by that to search Jefferies for more documentation; since three of the least useful chapters have been chosen for the Faber anthology the reprint will be even more welcome. It is characteristic of Jefferies that he expressed...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Jefferies' England: Nature Essays, edited by Samuel J. Looker, Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1938, pp. xi-xxvii.
[In the excerpt below, Looker compares the early and later works of Jefferies.]
What is most striking in the life of Richard Jefferies is the gradual development of his power of thought from the conventional and specious attitude of the early papers to a deeper realisation of the underlying needs and hopes of the mind.
It is a far cry from the Gamekeeper at Home to the "Pageant of Summer." The Jefferies of 1876 could hardly have written: "To be beautiful and to be calm, without mental fear, is the ideal of nature." The whole of his life was a progression from crude ideas and actions to high ideals and deep creative thought.
Like Thoreau, he came, by way of the sportsman's gun and habits, to a wider, closer understanding of wild life, and to a sympathy with everything that lived. In theAmateur Poacher, there is a self-revealing description, which tells very simply of the gradual alteration in his outlook. He says that the fascination of watching animals and birds so often stayed the shot that at last it grew to be a habit, until in the end the wire or gun remained unused.
Between the earlier and later prose, there is a startling and complete change in the attitude towards the brute creation. It is...
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SOURCE: "Richard Jefferies and the Naturalistic Peasant," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, December, 1956, pp. 207-17.
[In the following essay, Hyde examines Jefferies's portrayal of peasant life in his writings.]
Never famous among the ranks of the English rural novelists, Richard Jefferies nevertheless possesses a handful of ardent admirers, whose acclaim of his rural realism encourages an analysis of his achievement in the rural scene. Both Edward Thomas in his study of Jefferies [Richard Jefferies, 1938] and Edward Garnett in his introduction to Amaryllis at the Fair  offer high praise of Jefferies' treatment of rustic characters; both insist upon a certain superiority that Jefferies possesses over Hardy, whose "highly-praised novels," to the latter, "do not ring quite true." Thomas makes the point of realism predominant in his comparison:
[The rustics] appear and reappear with a truth which hardly any English writer has given to agricultural labourers. Jefferies does not go far with them; he has no occasion; they are only clattering about the yard: but his handling is absolutely sympathetic and understanding. Mr. Hardy is far more dramatic, far more psychological, and also far cleverer in effects, but he is seldom so right.
Granted that drama, subtlety, and psychological insight may be...
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SOURCE: "Some Nature Writers and Civilization," in Essays by Divers Hands, n. s. Vol. XXX, 1960, pp. 1-18.
[Here, Williamson surveys Jefferies's life and discusses his development of two distinct styles.]
It is not always immediately apparent to the very young writer that a man's thoughts, and particularly his ideals, arise indirectly from the circumstances of his early environment. Truth has many relatives. And at the end of a life, as Heine the German poet wrote, 'Under every gravestone an entire world lies buried.'
Lacking the views of maturity in my youth, when first I read Richard Jefferies's The Story of my Heart, it was to me a revelation of total truth. Indeed, within the first few moments of taking up a copy, in a second-hand bookseller's shop in Folkestone, a month or two after the fighting had stopped on the Western Front, my entire outlook changed. A life devoted more or less to pleasure, after my military duties, was ended. I had found, I believed, my purpose in life: to extend Jefferies's truth of redemption through Nature to my fellow men.
But it was not so much the ideas which shook one on that first occasion in the summer of 1919, as the descriptions of the beauty of the English scene, which arose out of the print upon the pages, and took possession of the spirit. Here was more than consolation, after the sudden ending of the hectic days and...
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SOURCE: "The Romances: Wood Magic, Bevis, and After London," in RichardJefferies: A Critical Study, University of Toronto Press, 1965, pp. 100-22.
[In the following essay, Keith explores some interconnections between Jefferies's romances—Wood Magic, Bevis, and After London.]
[Let us] consider the three… fictional works of Jefferies' maturity, Wood Magic (1881), Bevis (1882), and After London: or Wild England (1885), under the general term "romances." The first two are naturally linked by a common hero, Bevis, though they are so different in tone and intention that this superficial connection is somewhat misleading. But there are good reasons for considering all three books together. In all, Jefferies is concerned not only with the real world but with a dream-world; indeed, the latter is generally more important and more central than the former. But it is a dream-world which, in various significant ways, reflects everyday experience. Jefferies is not escaping into fantasy; instead he is bringing the world of imagination to the forefront and demonstrating its close connection with, and subtle influence upon, the so-called "real world." This connection is linked in all three books with the perennial theme of the "return to nature," which Jefferies presents with his characteristic precision and also with an admirable variety.
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SOURCE: "The Last Essays," in Richard Jefferies, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 135-52.
[In this excerpt, Taylor studies four ofJefferies's essay collections, suggesting that his "numerous essays originated in his obsessive early cataloguings of the details of the natural world.']
The volumes of collected essays which saw publication in Jefferies's lifetime were Nature Near London (1883), The Life of the Fields (1884), and The Open Air (1885). Field and Hedgerow, published as "Being the Last Essays of Richard Jefferies, Collected by his Widow," appeared in 1889, two years after his death. These four volumes repay more detailed examination and it is the essays which comprise them which will be examined in this chapter. A large number of Jefferies's essays were, however, collected together in comparatively recent years, many at the instigation of the late Samuel J. Looker. The Toilers of the Field appeared in 1892, and Mr. Looker edited the anthologies Jefferies' England (1937), Jefferies' Countryside (1944), Richard Jefferies' London (1944), The Spring of the Year (1946), The Jefferies Companion (1948), The Old House at Coate, and Other Hitherto Unprinted Essays (1948), Chronicles of the Hedges (1948), and Field and Farm (1957). Mention should also be made of the more recent collection of Jefferies's essays...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Landscape with Figures by Richard Jefferies; edited by Richard Mabey, Penguin Books, 1983, pp. 7-24.
[In the essay below, Mabey focuses on Jefferies's treatment of the common land-worker in books such as The Gamekeeper at Home and Hodge and His Masters.]
The central character in what Jefferies once called 'The Field-Play' is the land-worker himself. The shift in the way he is depicted—from laggard to victim to hero—is the most striking expression of the movement of Jefferies' thinking. Even his physical characteristics are viewed in different ways. In the early 1870s he is described as a rather badly designed machine. Ten years later he is being explicitly compared to the form of a classical sculpture.
Typically, it was with a shrewd, unflattering sketch of the Wiltshire labourer (today it would rank as an exposé) that Jefferies pushed his writing before a national audience in 1872. The Agricultural Labourers Union had been formed just two years earlier and there was mounting concern amongst landowners about its likely impact on the farm.
Jefferies was working on the North Wilts Herald at the time, and realized that he was well placed to make an entry into the debate. He had a lifetime's experience of observing agricultural affairs, an adaptable and persuasive style, and enough ambition not to be averse to saying what his...
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SOURCE: "Blossoms of Mutation: Field Theory in the Works of Richard Jefferies, W. H. Hudson, and D. H. Lawrence," in The Entangled Eye: Visual Perception and the Representation of Nature in Post-Darwinian Narrative, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1992, pp. 139-72.
[In the following excerpt, Krasner explores Jefferies's view of nature, noting that he perceives "natural energy rather than natural form."]
Albert Einstein [in The Evolution of Physics, 1961] explains the emergence of field theory as follows.
The old mechanical view attempted to reduce all events in nature to forces acting between material particles.… The field did not exist for the physicist of the early years of the nineteenth century. For him only substance and its changes were real.… In the new field language it is the description of the field between the two charges, and not the charges themselves, which is essential for an understanding of their action. The recognition of the new concepts grew steadily, until substance was overshadowed by field.… A new reality was created, a new concept for which there was no place in the mechanical description.
Einstein points out the radical change in conceptions of the material world brought about by the "new" physics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Darwin's evolutionary theory, for all its...
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Arkell, Reginald. Richard Jefferies. London: Rich & Cowan, 1933, 294 p.
Biographical and critical overview.
Avebury, Lord. "Richard Jefferies." In his Essays and Addresses: 1900-1903, pp. 67-78. London: Macmillan and Co., 1903.
Touches on Jefferies's life and explores his views on nature based on his thoughts on evolution, theology, and philosophy.
Coveney, Peter. "Mark Twain and Richard Jefferies." In his
Poor Monkey: The Child in Literature, pp. 169-91. London: Richard Clay and Co., 1957.
Discusses Jefferies in the context of the romantic tradition, stating that "his work, with all its passionate vehemence, reflects the tension of the human sensibility at the end of the nineteenth century."
Graham, P. Anderson. "The Magic of the Fields (Richard Jefferies)." In his Nature in Books: Some Studies in Biography, pp. 1-43. 1891. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971.
Detailed assessment of Jefferies's life.
Looker, Samuel J., ed. Richard Jefferies: A Tribute by Various Writers. Worthing, England: Frederick Steel & Co., 1946, 156 p.
Collection of reminiscences and biographical/critical commentary on Jefferies by various authors.
—and Porteous, Crichton. Richard Jefferies: Man of the Fields. London:...
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