John Richard Jefferies (1848-1887): is best known for his prolific and sensitive writing on natural history, rural life and agriculture in late Victorian England. But, a closer examination of his career reveals a many-sided, enigmatic author.
Jeffries’ corpus of writings includes a diversity of genres and topics, including Bevis: The Story of a Boy (1882), a classic children’s book, and After London(1885), an early work of science fiction.
Plagued with illness
For much of his adult life, he suffered from tuberculosis, and his struggles with the illness and with poverty also play a role in his writing. Jefferies valued and cultivated an intensity of feeling in his experience of the world around him, a cultivation that he describes in detail in The Story of My Heart (1883).
This work, an introspective depiction of his thoughts and feelings on the world, gained him the reputation of a nature mystic at the time. But it’s his success in conveying his awareness of nature and people within it, both in his fiction and in essay collections such as The Amateur Poacher (1879) and Round About a Great Estate (1880), that has drawn most admirers.
Walter Besant wrote of his reaction on first reading Jefferies:
“Why, we must have been blind all our lives; here were the most wonderful things possible going on under our very noses, but we saw them not.”
The Richard Jefferies Society
Much of the above comes from the website of the Richard Jefferies society. Founded in 1950, they describe the man as an authority on agriculture and rural life. They go on say that, though Jefferies was best known for his nature writing he was also an essayist, novelist and mystic.
‘Will Self, Monty Don, Tony Robinson, Jeff VanderMeer and the National Trust nature specialist, Matthew Oates. A disparate collection of people. Yet there’s a common connecting thread between them all. How so? Because they all confess to a love of, and respect for, Jefferies’ writings.
If I now hear ‘Richard who?’, I’m not surprised. It’s fair to say his fame is somewhat greater in Surbiton, whose library celebrates him with a wooden plaque, than Swindon. Yet those who know Jefferies’ writings find inspiration in him. Forgotten by most he may be – but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t good and isn’t worthy of our appreciation. Indeed, gardener and broadcaster Monty Don describes him as a great laureate of the English countryside, one not heralded nearly enough. Something to ponder on when next you’re mulching the rose beds. Not that it was always the case in Swindon – there used to be memorial days to him.’
The above is an extract from my Secret Swindon book. I’m happy to report that since the publication of that tome, the wonderful Richard Jefferies museum now has a bonny blue plaque commemorating its famous resident.
As a youth, Jefferies spent much time walking the countryside around Coate and along the Marlborough Downs. He also often visited Burderop woods and Liddington Hill – near his home. The latter his favourite haunt. That location was beloved too by Alfred Williams.
The Richard Jefferies Museum
Jefferies came into the world at the farmhouse by Coate Water that is now the Richard Jefferies museum. Back then the farmhouse sat in the north Wiltshire countryside, on the outskirts of Swindon. There his family farmed a forty-acre smallholding.
Located at Coate between the Swindon to Marlborough road and Coate Water Country Park, the Richard Jefferies Museum and garden is a tranquil delight. The mulberry tree that Jefferies knew as a boy still stands and still bears fruit that sometimes gets turned into jam.
Mike Pringle and the team running the museum have wrought wonders with it – increasing visitor numbers by a dramatic amount. Sitting there on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon with a scone and a cuppa is a most agreeable way to pass the time. In particular when, as is often the case, there’s a musician of some sort performing.
For more on Richard Jefferies himself see Secret Swindon and for the farmhouse in which he was born – Swindon in 50 Buildings.
See also – The Richard Jefferies Railway Halt – https://swindonian.me/2016/07/31/the-richard-jefferies-halt/
Buy Richard Jefferies media via this Amazon affiliate and I get a phial of unicorn snot!