Melissa Harrison on Gilbert White, History of Selborne

Touched with a Secret Delight

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When you become an author, people start sending you free books. This is a mixed blessing; for every exciting new novel there’s a dubious-looking typescript sent in the hope of a quote, or a proof of an acquaintance’s new book that you should really say some kind words about, if only, if only, you could find the time to look at it. As an author, of course, I love books, but if I read all that I’m sent, I’d never do any writing of my own.

So you might think that receiving a copy of a book that I already have in two older versions might signal another trip to the Oxfam shop – but not when it’s Oxford University Press’s handsome hardback reissue of Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789). It’s never been out of print and has appeared in at least 300 editions – three of which now nestle together on my desk. As well as the new OUP version, I’ve a battered, orange-spined Penguin paperback and a lovely Everyman edition from 1950, inscribed, in my father’s angular, unmistakeable handwriting, ‘Dartmoor Bookshop, Ashburton, May 28, 1994’. I called in there recently on a trip to Devon, lured by childhood memories of stacks of books piled like treasure in Escher-like warrens of rooms; sadly, the shop wasn’t open that day.

For someone who writes about nature, as I do, the importance of Gilbert White’s Selborne, coupled with the daily journals he kept from 1751 to 1793, cannot be overestimated. The original parson-naturalist, White dedicated his life to observing and recording the natural history of his small Hampshire parish. In doing so he not only advanced our understanding of British flora and fauna quite considerably – he was the first to identify the harvest mouse and the noctule bat, and to distinguish between the chiffchaff, the willow warbler and the wood warbler, by listening to their song – but also laid the groundwork for an appreciation of

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About the contributor

Melissa Harrison can think of nothing better than to live in the countryside with a tortoise and write a nature journal. For now, though, she lives in south London. Her second novel, At Hawthorn Time, was published earlier this year.

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