The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White is a series of letters based on a journal kept between 1768 and 1793 by clergyman and naturalist Gilbert White. Nearly all his material came from observations of nature in and around the small village of Selborne in Hampshire. Initially the book does not seem the most promising of reads. Gilbert has little apparent organisation in his observations, skipping around amongst topics which include swallows, crickets, and the hibernating habits of a pet tortoise called Timothy - the shell of which, incidentally is kept at the British Museum. But The Natural History of Selborne became a much loved classic, and one of the most widely published books in the English language. Quite why this happened has been long debated. Perhaps today we might actually find it easier to empathise with White's style. I often think that Gilbert White would have liked the internet with its free association of links, and wandering blogs.
St Mary's Church, Selborne
Gilbert White was born in 1720 in the vicarage at Selborne, where his grandfather was vicar at St Mary's Church, and where his father, John, occasionally acted as curate. Not much is known about these years, but it seems that Gilbert's father had a passionate interest in his garden at Selborne, and may not have been engaged by much else. Quiet echoes of a rather depressive personality seem to come through. Meanwhile Gilbert was educated, mainly in Basingstoke, before leaving for Oriel College, Oxford in April 1740. Gilbert White's biographer Richard Maybey says of those years in Oxford: "Standards of scholarship were at one of their lowest ebbs, and Gilbert may have found more enlightenment (as many generations of students have) outside the formal framework in his private reading and a circle of new friends" (Gilbert White P35). In a sense the low standards did students a favour, since they could pretty much study what they liked. Professors would put on voluntary lectures covering all kinds of subjects outside the usual narrow curriculum designed to prepare students for the Church.
Gilbert was awarded his degree in 1743, an MA in 1746, and was ordained in 1747. He then held various temporary curacies of churches in Hampshire and Wiltshire. A career in the Church, however, never seemed to hold his interest, and by 1748 at the age of thirty he was back in Selborne, out of a job, and wondering what to do next. To keep himself occupied he started work on the garden at his house, called The Wakes. This was a time when nature was becoming a fashionable subject for study. Plants were increasingly considered important in themselves, rather than for the artificial effects that could be created with them. White reflects this change in his gardening, and in the keen interest he took in all aspects of his land. He kept a record of what he did in his Garden Kalendar. This was a distinctive work since earlier publications of a similar name prescribed what to do, while White's Kalendar described what he did.
The Wakes, Selborne: now a museum dedicated to Gilbert White.
In 1752 there was another chance to live a life beyond the limits of Selborne, when a job as Junior Proctor back at Oxford came up. This was a fairly undemanding job, maintaining discipline among members of the university and officiating at some formal functions. After quiet years in Selborne this time in Oxford was clearly a pleasant release. There was much enjoyable dining and wandering around in academic gowns. After a year as Proctor, White applied in 1757 for a job as Provost back at Oriel, but he failed to get it. There was nothing to do but head back to Selborne, where John White died in September. This period was probably the closest that Gilbert White came to a crisis in his life. He disappeared for six months, and it is not clear where he went, though London is a probable destination. Perhaps during this period the decision about what to do with the rest of his life was being made, and on his return to Selborne White seemed to commit, or perhaps resign himself, to life in the village. He worked on the garden, kept his diary, wrote to his friend John Mulso, and did some undemanding work as a curate at Farringdon.
In 1763 his quiet life and his composure took a dent with the arrival of three cousins of Mrs Etty, the vicar's wife. These girls were in their late teens and early twenties, and sparkled around the village for a couple of months. Perhaps Gilbert felt his single status all the more keenly with these lovely young ladies about. He enjoyed their company, but was probably glad when they left. Life continued quietly until 1767 when a friendship with the naturalist and writer Thomas Pennant began. It is not clear exactly when or where they met, but they started corresponding. Daines Barrington, a lawyer, antiquary and naturalist became a friend and correspondent in 1768, when he presented White with his The Naturalists Journal. It was Barrington who suggested that White publish his letters to Pennant and himself as a book.
From then on until his death in 1793 Gilbert White lived in Selborne, observing the natural world around him, writing about it in a journal, and in letters to Pennant and Barrington. He would sometimes travel outside the village, to Fyfield, London or Oxfordshire for example, but he resisted all attempts by his friends to tempt him to take longer trips. Selborne was his world. And because he knew it so intimately it was not a small world to him. The village of Selborne stood in a very varied area. Variation actually explained the existence of the village in the first place. Selborne sat at the junction of South Downs chalk and lower lying sandstone. Water percolating down through the chalk emerged as springs where it met the sandstone. Selborne was built near this water supply. Variety of geology meant variety of soils, plant and animal life. There was much to explore in this apparently small world. In fact White didn't feel it was small at all: "The parish of Selborne... is a vast district... the outline, in all its curves and indentings does not comprise less than thirty miles" (Letter V to Thomas Pennant).
Today you can walk along the junction which underlies Selborne's diversity. There is a footpath along the "hangers", a stepped landscape running along the junction of chalk, greensand and sandstone. This path is called the Hanger Way. It runs into Selborne from behind the village car park, and then runs on from the churchyard. The photo here was taken on the path beyond the churchyard.
Gilbert White was hemmed in, living in a village which in winter was frequently completely cut off from the outside world. And yet as he got to know it so well, the world of Selborne expanded around him, to vast dimensions. It is this vastness which most intrigues me about The Natural History of Selborne. Virginia Woolf said that the Natural History "was one of those ambiguous books that seem to tell a plain story... and yet by some apparently unconscious device of the author's has a door left open, through which we hear distant sounds" (The Captain's Death Bed: Quoted by Richard Mabey P 6). White ponders on the migration of tiny birds across thousands of miles of ocean, making their incredible journeys every year from Africa to the eaves of Selborne houses. He ponders on the beaks of birds, as Charles Darwin was to do in the following century: he sees different designs of beak, some suitable for a quiet life back at home eating worms, and harder beaks suitable for eating seeds on long journeys to distant lands. There are descriptions of huge landslips near the village in 1778, which give the sense that even the most seemingly solid landscapes are temporary. And finally in the penultimate letter he writes evocatively of the effects on Selborne of the distant eruption of the Skaptar-Jokull volcano in Iceland which took place in the summer of 1783. He writes in a detached way, and yet his quiet observation seems to bring out his awe at this event all the more strongly.
"The sun at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood coloured at rising and setting. All the time the heat was so intense that butcher's meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic, and riding irksome. The country people began to look with superstitious awe at the red louring aspect of the sun; and indeed there was reason for the most enlightened person to be apprehensive; for, all the while, Calabria and part of the Isle of Sicily were torn and convulsed with earthquakes; and about that juncture a volcano sprang out of the sea on the coast of Norway" (Letter LXV to Daines Barrington).
Strange light, refracted through volcanic clouds, shines on floors in Selborne. This small part of the world is part of a bigger universe. Normal demarcations fail to apply. In a similar spirit, White had studied animals in such a way that they didn't seem essentially different to people: he comments in one letter that both birds and humans tend to get fatter in cold weather - Letter V to Daines Barrington. Mankind is not cut off in the little village of his existence, but is, like Selborne, part of the bigger universe. The poet Coleridge read The Natural History and wrote in the margin of his copy that it was a sweet and delightful book. In 1797 he was to write The Ancient Mariner which explores the voyage of one lonely sailor across the oceans. This was a sailor who seems at once alone, and part of the world around him. This is the same sort of feeling that comes over to me in the writing of Gilbert White.
Cottage in Selborne
The Natural History of Selborne was finally published in 1789. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that it really became an icon. In this age of Industrial Revolution life in villages was becoming idealised, and White's writing about Selborne fitted the nostalgic mood. Selborne was to be involved in the Swing riots of 1830, the rural disturbances resulting from the harsh conditions in which rural workers were living. The involvement of Selborne in this disorder means we can be confident that life there was as difficult as it was in most rural areas. Yet shortly after the riots, a journalist from the New Monthly Magazine visited the village and chose not to see such problems. Instead he presented the traditional idealised picture:
"Chimneys reeking with evidence of clean hearths in full activity, walls neatly covered with vine and creepers, in full bloom, and trim little gardens prank'd with flowers, seemed here to tell only of cheerful toil and decent competence" (New Monthly Magazine Dec 1830: Quoted in Gilbert White by Richard Mabey).
Seeing Selborne as an idealised vision of the past is ironic because in many ways The Natural History is looking to the future. There is modernity in close observation, which replaced the grand theorizing which seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers tended to go in for. Enlightenment did not necessarily lie within, as the medieval religious thinkers traditionally felt. Engagement with the world was necessary for understanding. This engagement was tending to break down categories, between man and nature, between what was deemed important and unimportant. White realised that creatures as apparently humble as earthworms were vital to the health of soil, and thus to all life living on it. In this sense he was an early ecologist.
Gilbert continued working after the publication of his book. A final diary entry was made on 15th June 1793, talking of bird migration and the discomfort of a "wandering gout". He was then taken ill, and had the doctor in attendance every day. His bed was taken into the parlour at the back of the house where he could see his beloved gardens and swallows. He died here on 26th June 1793.