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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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 local habitats that still informs our national character today.

The Natural History of Selborne has been loved by everyone from Constable, Coleridge and Darwin to Edward Thomas and Virginia Woolf. It was taken to the New World by settlers, and to the trenches of the First World War. Today our fascination with this Hampshire curate shows no sign of waning. Visitors flock to White’s house and garden in Selborne, The Wakes, and his journals even have their own Twitter account, from which his daily notes issue in ‘real time’; they have also been lovingly collated online by the London-based illustrator Sydney Padua, in fully searchable form for anyone to consult.

The Natural History of Selborne is a collection of White’s letters to the zoologist Thomas Pennant and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Daines Barrington. White edited and reordered them, and added several new ones for publication: it took him fourteen years to complete the project. The epistolary format was nothing new; exchanges of letters were used not only in early novels like Pamela, but also in scientific periodicals. Neither was Selborne the first work of local natural history: John Aubrey and John Wallis had produced similar books – albeit on a county, rather than a parish, scale. But what White brought to the format was an accessibility of language and a vividness of description that has made a humble Hampshire parish come alive to generation after generation of readers.

Here he is describing the nesting habits of his local swallows:

In general with us this hirundo breeds in chimneys . . . Not that it can subsist in the immediate shaft where there is a fire; but prefers one adjoining to that of the kitchen, and disregards the perpetual smoke of that funnel, as I have often observed with some wonder. Five or six or more feet down the chimney does this little bird begin to form her nest about the middle of May . . . this nest is lined with fine grasses, and feathers which are often collected as they float in the air . . . the progressive method by which the young are introduced into life is very amusing: first they emerge from the shaft with difficulty enough, and often fall down into the rooms below: for a day or so they are fed on the chimney-top, and are then conducted to the dead leafless bough of some tree, where, sitting in a row, they are attended with great assiduity.

This is not a scientific narrative, although it is packed with valuable information, much of it new at the time. It is, instead, nature writing of the highest order: carefully observed, beautifully described and with a sense of affection and wonder that is a world away from the dry tone in which White’s contemporaries were recording their own observations of natural phenomena. In fact, he upbraids himself in one letter for briefly having taken a ‘quaint and magisterial air’, calling a previous letter ‘sententious’. It wasn’t, of course, for he was someone for whom writing a dull sentence was nigh-on impossible.

Swallows (and with them, swifts and martins) were a great preoccupation of White’s, for their disappearance over winter was at the time the subject of much debate. Some thought they spent the time at the bottom of ponds and lakes, but White found that hard to credit, speculating instead that they might ‘lay themselves up in holes and caverns’. The idea that they would fly halfway around the world twice a year was hardly more credible; sadly, White did not live to see the mystery finally resolved, a hundred years after his death.

But it wasn’t just the big, unanswered questions of natural history that fascinated White. Haze, landslips, echoes, the flocking behaviour of birds, ants, cobwebs, superstitions and the reproductive instincts of pigs: all these things, no matter how seemingly mundane, were worthy of investigation. Admittedly, this was a time when our knowledge of natural processes was incomplete, so that a single individual in possession of sufficient intellect and leisure (such as a country parson) had a chance to make a real contribution to science in a way that non-experts are generally precluded from doing these days; but even so, White’s determination to take nothing at face value, to question everything, is a wonderful testament to the power of curiosity. It’s easy to picture him on his daily perambulations around the village, peering into birds’ nests, stopping to listen to the sound of grasshoppers (or were they grasshopper warblers?), testing the wind direction, checking on his vines, vegetables and pet tortoise, Timothy, and then carefully writing it all down in his journal. He became so well known for his inquisitiveness, in fact, that he built up a network of local informants who would let him know of any interesting phenomena and even send him unusual specimens to dissect.

Gilbert White was, like many of his contemporaries, keen to get hold of specimens for study and dissection, but where he differed was in his preference for observing living creatures in their own environments. This meant he was able to learn about their habits and behaviour, laying the groundwork for the modern ecological movement by beginning to reveal the ways in which species depend on each other, and making it possible to consider how one species might be affected by the relative fortunes of its neighbours. Some of the natural phenomena he recorded so exactly for so many years now inform our modern study of phenology, helping us to compare the timing of weather conditions and seasonal events with their occurrence over two hundred years ago. And his approach restored to the creatures he studied in the field the dignity of their own lives and prerogatives, as distinct from those of their human observers.

White’s portrait of Timothy the tortoise (whom history eventually proved to have been a she) is an exemplar of White’s sense of animals’ dignity, as well as his genuine affection. In fact, Timothy’s nature comes through so clearly that she went on to inspire two books of her own: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Portrait of a Tortoise (1946) and Verlyn Klinkenborg’s wonderfully eccentric Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile (2006). Bought by White’s uncle and aunt from a sailor in 1740, Timothy passed into his care after his aunt Rebecca Snooke’s death in 1780, when he described the tortoise as ‘so old a domestic, who behaved himself [sic] in so blameless a manner in the family for nearly fifty years’. Having dug her carefully out of her winter hibernaculum in Mrs Snooke’s Sussex garden, he took her back to The Wakes and began regularly to weigh her and observe her behaviour:

July 1780: Timothy eats voraciously; but picks out the hearts & stems of the Coss-lettuce, holding the outer leaves back with his feet.

September 1780: When we call loudly thro’ the speaking-trumpet to Timothy, he does not seem to regard the noise.

October 1782: The tortoise not only gets into the sun under the fruit-wall; but he tilts one edge of his shell against the wall, so as to incline his back to its rays: by which contrivance he obtains more heat than if he lay in his natural position. And yet this poor reptile has never read, that planes inclining to the horizon receive more heat from the sun than any other elevation! At four p.m. he retires to bed under the broad foliage of a hollyhock.

Despite Timothy’s occasional, worrying bids for escape, and the depredations she wrought on his vegetable garden, White’s affection and fascination never waned, and he was still observing and recording her behaviour a few days before his death in 1793. She would outlive him by a year.

‘It is no small undertaking for a man unsupported and alone to begin a natural history from his own autopsia,’ White wrote to Daines Barrington in 1770. ‘All that one could collect in many years would go into a very narrow compass.’ In fact his compass was broad and his legacy would extend even further, for he left us not only his observations, but also his example: that of daily attention and boundless curiosity, and a sense of the teeming beauty and wonder that could be discovered, not abroad amid the world’s great wonders, but at home, in one deeply loved country parish.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 48 © Melissa Harrison 2015


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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