Richard Jefferies Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.