Study Guide

Richard Jefferies

Richard Jefferies Essay - Critical Essays

Jefferies, Richard

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Criticism

The Saturday Review (review date 1879)

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 no grubbing or trimming of the luxuriant hedgerows that divided the irregular fields; there was an abundance of the water that always attracts birds, with the pond under the alders and the brook among the osier beds, which we fancy we have heard of before. Rabbits swarmed in the banks and double mounds; snipe and even duck were to be found in the swamps and among the hedges in the season; a "cock" would now and then be flushed in the small spinneys; while, beyond the boundaries which enclosed their lawful shooting-grounds, were preserves that were strictly looked after by the keepers. The very danger of trespassing upon these forbidden domains had irresistible temptations for roving boys; and we have a thrilling account of an expedition into the great pheasant wood, although it was only upon very rare occasions that they ventured so far into the enemy's territory. The poaching indicated in the title does not necessarily imply breaking bounds. It merely means that, as boys will do, they had to follow their various sports under grave disadvantages of weapons, and were by no means particular as to the contrivances by which they circumvented the game.

The book begins with the romantic story of the youthful bent forcing its way under difficulties. It tells of the old gun with its single barrel of preposterous length, which had been hidden or forgotten in an attic popularly said to be haunted. "No modem mortal could have held that mass of metal steady to his shoulder." But the young artillerists made a gun-carriage of a chest set upon a linenpress, and they used the venerable piece of ordnance for practising sights upon animate objects from the garret window. That gun was burned in cruel kindness, lest the boys should do themselves a mischief with it; but as they were evidently set upon shooting with something or other, it was replaced a year or two after with another. Then the pair of scapegraces took the field in earnest, playing in a domestic English way at the hunter's life in the wilderness. They would sit watching for rabbits of a hot summer noon with the enduring stoicism of the Red Indian. "The shadowless recess grew like a furnace"; the black flies settled down upon them in crowds; and yet they felt bound in honour to sit motionless, in the hope of a shot at some unsuspecting rabbit. We can enter into their feelings of excitement when a woodpigeon perched upon a bough overhead, and, little dreaming of the danger immediately beneath, after assuring himself of his solitude by rapid glances all around, complacently gave them an easy opportunity; or still more, as they were navigating their craft among the osiers, when a great bird rose out of the wooded channel ahead, and dropped to a quick shot through the branches. The mysterious fowl proved to be a wild duck, and great was the triumph and rejoicing. For they had calked the seams of a water-logged old punt with dried moss and clay, and, having fitted her with a mast, a sail, and an anchor, they used to go poling her through the labyrinth of channels among the reeds. So far they had been more of sporting loafers than poachers. But their nautical tastes made them long for a handier boat, and to reach that object of their ambition money must be obtained somehow. Their ally the blacksmith was ready to buy any number of rabbits at sixpence a head, on the understanding that the vendor asked no questions. But getting rabbits with the gun was slow work, so it occurred to them that they might try their luck at wiring. The difficulty was, that though rabbits were known to be snared freely in the neighbourhood, nobody would own to having even a notion of the elements of the art. So they had to fall back on self-education and experiment, and it was only by slow degrees that they arrived at the necessary adroitness. In the chapter which gives the narrative of their studies, and elsewhere, we are taught the whole...

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James Purves (essay date 1883)

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...

(The entire section is 1285 words.)

Walter Besant (essay date 1888)

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.

...

(The entire section is 2972 words.)

H. S. Salt (essay date 1894)

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 entire section is 3207 words.)

Arthur Rickett (essay date 1906)

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...

(The entire section is 3279 words.)

Edward Thomas (essay date 1909)

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,...

(The entire section is 4337 words.)

William Ernest Henley (essay date 1921)

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,...

(The entire section is 1482 words.)

Edward Garnett (essay date 1922)

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,...

(The entire section is 2613 words.)

Herbert M. Vaughan (essay date 1931)

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...

(The entire section is 6103 words.)

Q. D. Leavis (essay date 1938)

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...

(The entire section is 2098 words.)

Samuel J. Looker (essay date 1938)

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...

(The entire section is 2212 words.)

William J. Hyde (essay date 1956)

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 [1908] offer high praise of Jefferies' treatment of rustic characters;...

(The entire section is 3401 words.)

Henry Williamson (lecture date 1959)

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...

(The entire section is 4982 words.)

W. J. Keith (essay date 1965)

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...

(The entire section is 9883 words.)

Brian Taylor (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 7006 words.)

Richard Mabey (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 5308 words.)

James Krasner (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 4020 words.)