W.H. Hudson’s masterful book, merging fiction, reminiscence, memoir and oral history, was recognized as a classic when it was first published in 1910. It remains so today.
Through the story of one man, Caleb Bawcombe, a shepherd whose flocks graze the Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset borders, we meet men and women of humble birth, poachers, gypsies, farmers and labourers striving to survive on the land. As we read, the cumulative affect of their stories becomes much more than a record of rural life. It reads like a lost hymn, sung by people whose lives were disregarded and whose histories are now forgotten.
Reviewed by Ursula Buchan in Slightly Foxed Issue 53.
Along the Old Ways
I spend a couple of weeks each year walking on the Lake District fells, so it is inevitable that I should have fallen upon James Rebanks’s remarkable The Shepherd’s Life (2015). I loved it, and I learned much more about upland sheep farming than I could possibly have divined from hours of watching Herdwicks on the fell. Reading The Shepherd’s Life inevitably set me thinking about another book I read long ago and which, tellingly, turned the young Rebanks into a reader: ‘One day, I pulled A Shepherd’s Life by W. H. Hudson from the bookcase . . . It was going to be lousy and patronizing, I just knew it. I was going to hate it like the books they’d pushed at us in school. But I was wrong, I didn’t hate it. I loved it.’
The use of the indefinite article in Hudson’s title points to an important difference between the two books, however. Hudson was less interested in conveying the practicalities of shepherding and sheep-breeding than in recording the lives of shepherds. His is a much gentler and more episodic book than Rebanks’s but, nevertheless, it’s one I’ve never forgotten . . .
‘Hudson belongs as much to the air as to the earth’ Adam Thorpe
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