A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“The Parish of Selborne lies in the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire, bordering on the count of Sussex, and not far from the county of Surrey; it is about fifty miles south-west of London, in latitude 51, and near midway between the towns of Alton and Petersfield. Being very large and extensive it abuts in twelve parishes, two of which are in Sussex, viz. Trotton and Rogate. If you begin from the south and proceed westward the adjacent parishes are Emshot, Newton Faringdon, Harteley Mauduit, Great Ward le ham, Kingsley, Hedleigh, Bramshot, Trotton, Lysse, and Greatham.”
A slightly frayed linen-bound copy of The Natural History of Selborne languished unloved on my family’s bookshelves all through my childhood, teens and young adulthood. Several times I took it down, opened it, read the above opening paragraph and then wandered off to find something more interesting to do.
I knew who Gilbert White was and more or less why he was famous (ie: ‘he wrote a book about something’) because we lived near Selborne and even visited his home – The Wakes – there, but nothing could ever induce me to tackle his master work in spite of a self-professed interest in natural history – and I never did read beyond the first paragraph of that delapidated old copy on the shelf.
It was the need to read something tranquil, coupled with the arrival of a handsome new edition (gorgeous cover, silken bookmark …) from the Oxford University Press that finally persuaded me to tackle the Reverend White and his natural history.
I came to it expecting something plodding, worthy and slightly dull. What I found was a labour of love.
Gilbert White lived nearly all of his 73 years in the family home in Selborne – a south of England parish of twelve-and-a-half square miles which was home to some 700 inhabitants. The son of a clergyman, he had hopes of pursuing an academic life in Oxford, but when he failed in his attempt to become Provost of Oriel College, he retreated to Selborne and concentrated instead on his first love – the study of natural history.
Inspired by the Reverend Benjamin Stillingfleet and his Calendar of Flora, he was chiefly interested in observing and recording the seasonal changes in the flora and fauna around him and revealing how working with the natural calendar could benefit the rural economy.
The Natural History takes the form of a series of letters written by White to two well-known 18th Century naturalists, Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. Because they are letters (howbeit carefully chosen, edited and rearranged letters) they have an immediacy that lifts the book out of the realms of dry scientific observation into that of personal enthusiasm. He was not a trained scientist but he was a natural observer – patient, painstaking and sharp-eyed – who was genuinely interested in the world around him.
He could have travelled. He could have left Selborne to explore the wider world, in which he was very much interested, but he firmly believed that staying in one place and observing what was happening around him in minute detail would add more to the sum of human knowledge than travelling and studying nature in a far more general way.
Nothing escaped White’s attention – everything was of interest to him, even if it wasn’t native to the area – or even to the country. Famously, his aunt had a tortoise called Timothy (which White inherited on his aunt’s death) and he spent many hours watching the creature doing very little in extreme slow motion.
Pennant and Barrington had different opinions on the then current debate about whether swallows, swifts and martins hibernated or migrated* in the winter months and White faithfully reported his observations to them both – enlisting the help of local people to watch and note the birds’ appearances and disappearances and even exploring chimneys in his attempts to uncover possible winter roosting sites. Nor did other natural phenomena go unremarked. There’s a lovely passage in one of the letters describing his investigation and pursuit of echoes, and later on we’re treated to a vivid description of the intensely hot, blood-red summer of 1783 caused – as we now know – by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Skaptar Jokull.
He spoke directly of the amorous behaviour of animals in ‘the season of love’ (a directness that got him bowdlerized in some editions), puzzled over cats’ fondness for fish (when they so much hate get their feet wet ) and got up close and personal with horseflies.
Earthworms, chiff-chaffs and how to make a good rush-light … everything was interesting to Gilbert White. As Anne Secord perceptively says in her excellent introduction to the OUP’s edition of The Natural History, his local perspective “does not banish wonder, it relocates it in the ordinary”.
And therein lies the charm and the magic. He saw the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower … and wrote about them with love, humour and enthusiasm. Nor did his enquiring mind fade with age: he was still trying to find the winter roosts of torpid swallows just a few weeks before his death.
I’m not entirely sorry I left it so late to catch up with Gilbert White, because I don’t believe I would have appreciated him quite the way I do now if I’d read The Natural History when I was younger. As it is, I think I may have to make the pilgrimage down to Selborne, to visit his home again – and this time to see it with open eyes.
* They migrate.
Edition shown: Oxford University Press. 2013. ISBN: 978-0-19-959196-1. 316pp.