10.3.1 Richard Jeffries
Richard Jefferies, son of a small farmer, was born at Coate Farm, in Wiltshire, on November 6, 1848. He remained in the district for the first thirty years of his life, studying, writing, working on provincial newspapers. His first books were novels, but they had no success. It was not until he had moved to London, in 1877, after a successful contribution to The Times, that he turned to the interpretation of country life as a proper theme for his work.
He never returned to Wiltshire, but the best of his books were all based on the exact and detailed knowledge of country life which he had gained there in his early years. His first success was The Gamekeeper at Home, which was published in 1878. He had then only nine years to live; yet he contrived in that short time (and despite continual illness) to write fifteen books to the permanent enrichment of the literature of English country life. He died in 1887 and was buried in Broadwater Cemetery, Worthing. Omitting the early novels, some pamphlets and books of local history, and certain unpublished MSS., the following is a list of Jefferies' most important works:
The Gamekeeper at Home, 1878;
Wild Life in a Southern County: The Amateur Poacher: Greene Feme Farm, 1879;
Hodge and his Masters: Round about a Great Estate,1880;
Wood Magic, 1881;
Bevis, 1882;
Nature near London: The Story of My Heart,1883;
Red Deer: The Life of the Fields:
The Dewy Morn, 1884;
After London or Wild England: The Open Air,1885;
Amaryllis at the Fair, 1886;
Field and Hedgerow, 1889;
The Toilers of the Field, 1892.
Jefferies is one of several British naturalists whose contribution has been literary rather than of original research. Their influence has been great on the aesthetic and ethical attitude of people towards wild life. Richard Jefferies had a remarkable power of vividly setting down what his eyes saw. His was no great mind, but one unusually receptive of the natural scene. Born a farmer's son he began valuing wildlife through the barrel of a gun, which he ultimately lays it down for the pen.  The Gamekeeper at Home,1878, faithfully records this period of the gun when, intensely enjoying the wholeness of nature, he was indifferent to the creatures he shot. The Amateur Poacher, 1879, holds this passage, portraying the change which worked within him:
"My finger felt the trigger, and the least increase of pressure would have been fatal; but in the act I hesitated, dropped the barrel and watched the beautiful bird.
"That watching so often stayed the shot that at last it grew to be a habit; the mere simple pleasure of seeing birds and animals when they were quite unconscious that they were being observed being too great to be spoiled by the discharge."
The writings of the last years of Jefferies' short life show the length of his spiritual journey from the hunter to the mystically-minded interpreter of nature.
The Open Airhas always been one of the most popular of the works of Richard Jefferies. "Nowhere else," says Mr. C. Henry Warren, "can you renew in quite the same degree a near, almost personal contact with a man whom to know is emphatically to love." In it his gifts are displayed in their fullest maturity–it was published in 1885, just before the onset of his last illness. Its contents range from those scrupulous observations of nature on which his reputation has chiefly rested, to brilliant if sometimes uneven reporting of the scene and social life of the country round London and the South Coast watering places, and those realistic studies of the English countryman of which Warren says, "I believe the time is coming when Jefferies, the interpreter of the countryman, will even be preferred to Jefferies, the interpreter of the countryside".
The following extract was taken at random.
How fond Nature is of spot-markings!–the wings of butterflies, the feathers of birds, the surface of eggs, the leaves and petals of plants are constantly spotted; so, too, fish–as trout. From the wing of the butterfly I looked involuntarily at the foxglove I had just gathered; inside, the bells were thickly spotted–dots and dustings that might have been transferred to a butterfly's wing. The spotted meadow-orchis ; the brown dots on the cowslips; brown, black, greenish, reddish dots and spots and dustings on the eggs of the finches, the whitethroats, and so many others–some of the spots seem as if they had been splashed on and had run into short streaks, some mottled, some gathered together at the end; all spots, dots, dustings of minute specks, mottlings, and irregular markings. The histories, the stories, the library of knowledge contained in those signs! It was thought a wonderful thing when at last the strange inscriptions of Assyria were read, made of nail- headed characters whose sound was lost; it was thought a triumph when the yet older hieroglyphics of Egypt were compelled to give up their messages, and the world hoped that we should know the secrets of life. That hope was disappointed; there was nothing in the records but superstition and useless ritual.
But here we go back to the beginning; the antiquity of Egypt is nothing to the age of these signs–they date from unfathomable time. In them the sun has written his commands, and the wind inscribed deep thought. They were before superstition began; they were composed in the old, old world, when the Immortals walked on earth. They have been handed down thousands upon thousands of years to tell us that to-day we are still in the presence of the heavenly visitants, if only we will give up the soul to these pure influences. The language in which they are written has no alphabet, and cannot be reduced to order. It can only be understood by the heart and spirit. Look down into this foxglove bell and you will know that; look long and lovingly at this blue butterfly's underwing, and a feeling will rise to your consciousness.