‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ by Richard Mabey.
He returned to Coate Farm in 1871, with no job and no money. His life began to slip into a mould more typical of the anxious, hand -to-mouth existence of the urban freelance, than of a supposed ‘son of the soil’. He wrote a play, a memoir of a prospective Member of Parliament, a right-wing pamphlet that ridiculed the advance of popular education. His breakthrough came with a letter to the Times in a similar Conservative vein, scorning the habits, intelligence and apathy of the Wiltshire farm-labourer. The letter won him sympathy from landowners, and offers of more journalistic work, and for the next few years we wrote copiously on rural affairs for Fraser’s Magazine and the Live Stock Journal.
His increasing journalistic commitments sparked the move to Surbiton, and regular essays for the Pall Mall Gazette, in which he reminisces – albeit in an idealistic way – about life back at Coate. His first fully-fledged non-fiction work, The Gamekeeper at Home, is made up of pieces written for the Gazette between late 1877 and spring’78. It is essentially a tribute to ‘the master’s’ man and an account of the practical business of policing a sporting estate, and maintains the Conservative, deferential tone of his early journalism. The pieces for Wild Life appeared in the Gazette between 1878 and ‘79, and though there is a new sympathy with the farm worker in it, and the first glimpses of his nature writing potential, flashes of the old right-wing shooting man continue to appear.
Jefferies had only eight years left to live at this point. He developed tuberculosis in 1881, and pain and disenchantment colour the rest of his work. He seems at last to understand the preciousness of life, to be engaged with it, not just as a curious observer but as a fellow being. His beliefs shift radically towards a kind of pantheism, and politically towards libertarian socialism. In his late essays be begins to write of the history, politics, ecology and aesthetics of the land as part of a single complex experience.
These final essays, such as ‘Hours of Spring’ (1886) ‘Walks in the Wheat-fields’ (1887) are his most mature and powerful. But Wild Life in a Southern County contains their first buds. To read these essays today is chastening. There is, in the best of them, an electric attentiveness, a noticing, that is hard to aspire to. They are chastening, too, in what they are able to describe – an abundance of bird and insect life that, despite the contemporary passion for slaughter (in which the author played his part), is unimaginable in the modern industrial countryside. The great set-piece of Wild Life, ‘Rooks returning to roost’ is like an epic Victorian narrative painting, full of intense images – the sound of thousands of black wings ‘beating the air with slow steady stroke can hardly be the compared with anything else in its weird oppressiveness’; full too of a sense of the deep history, the natural ‘tradition’ of these great nightly migrations. And of one stunning statistic: the ‘aerial army’s line of march extends over quite five miles in one unbroken corps’. Jefferies did not know this, but he was sending, in a faltering new language, a message in a bottle from a disappearing country.
Huge thanks to Richard Mabey for permitting me to reprint this essay, and also to Little Toller Press for whom it was originally written. Particular thanks go to Gracie, who saved me a great deal of transcription by providing the digital file.