Gilbert White; The Natural History Of Selborne (Little Toller Books)
264 pages, trade paperback
Review by Roy Wilkinson
There are connections here with both the wood pigeon and the Lockheed Hudson reconnaissance aircraft. This new edition of the 18th-century classic of nature-writing hints at varied skyward endeavour – inspiring and immortal; tragic and all too mortal.
The Natural History Of Selborne, written by free-thinking parish priest Gilbert White, is the most celebrated of British nature writing – a book that has fired the name of a Hampshire village, population c.650, around the world. It’s said the book is the fourth most-published literary source in the English language, after The Bible, Shakespeare and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress – though White biographer Richard Mabey questions this statistic. This new edition is illustrated with crisply charismatic woodcut engravings from the artist Eric Ravilious, illustrations that first accompanied White’s text in a 1938 publication of the book. Almost two centuries after White was scanning the Hampshire heavens to such enduring ornithological effect, Ravilious was also up in the air. In 1942, stationed in Iceland, he was working as a War Artist. An aeroplane he was travelling in as an observer failed to return to base – Ravilious and the four-man crew were recorded as lost in action. Furthering connection, Selborne is on the Hampshire / West Sussex border, just inside what is now the South Downs National Park. Before the Second World War many of Ravilious’s wonderful watercolours had depicted the South Downs.
White’s natural history consists of a series of his letters – written, first, to the naturalist and writer Thomas Pennant and, later, to the lawyer and naturalist Daines Barrington. These letters have been cited by writers from Darwin to WH Auden and are seen as things of proto-ecological originality. But how can you explain the book’s endurance, a book that often boils down to a bewigged curate wandering up through Churchyard Mead toward Butts Pasture while pondering such now-archaic avian names as great titmouse and middle willow-wren?
This writer first came across The Natural History Of Selborne as 17-year-old – a very intermittent birdwatcher whose schooling in language and literature had stopped at O-level. I have a vivid memory of reading the 1970s Penguin edition while working at a Saturday job at a petrol station by the M6 – in southern Cumbria, supplying truckers with diesel and Drifter bars. With a Wagon Wheel biscuit maybe serving as a petrol-tinged counterpart to Proust’s memory-tugging madeleine cakes, I can picture the book in my hands – the barn owls on the cover, the Richard Mabey introduction. My terrifying and sexily bossy female petrol-kiosk co-worker looks on with disdain. Who is this muppet and what on earth is he reading?
As I pumped a fiver’s worth of four-star, there were other things in the air. At the time I was transfixed by the seven-inch version of New Order’s debut single, Ceremony – the one with Peter Saville’s brass-effect sleeve. The solemn sounds and a cover suggestive of Ancient Rome had a feel of an age-old perspective. For me Gilbert White had some kind of common ground with this New Order single – notions of timeless potencies, a self-serious inkling that there was life beyond the ephemeral flicker of the pop culture of the moment.
I was amazed at how The Natural History Of Selborne was such a fluid read. The full original title information for the book was The Natural History And Antiquities of Selborne, In The County Of Southampton. To Which Are Added The Naturalist’s Calendar; Observations On Various Parts Of Nature; And Poems. Despite this and the fact that White’s letters were written from the 1760s onward, the writing was clear, lucid, almost entirely free of Ye Olden Circumlocution. The way the prose so rarely moves into the archaic only emphasises the book’s essential clarity (apparently, 18th-century Britain featured a snake known as the squnck or stonck). More typically the prose brings our natural world alive with compelling incident and observation.
There’s the famous meditation on whether house martins migrated or spent the winter hidden away in caves. White’s unfussy observations are fascinating and kind of thrilling. He was living in a very different world, a United Kingdom on the verge of the Industrial Revolution, with a population on the rise from the six million of 1740. But if there were less people there were often more birds. White writes of flights of wood pigeons “reaching in strings for a mile”. But he often seems to be doing his best to reduce this avian bounty. At the time a staple method of wildlife study involved sampling by means of firearm. White blithely shoots – or has shot – owls, stone curlews and honey buzzards. He shoots a pair of ring ouzels and dissects the female’s reproductive system before eating one of the birds: “Juicy and well-flavoured.” And that’s before we’ve come to his pre-pubsecent slaughter of blue tits: “When a boy, I have known 20 caught with mousetraps.” Even so, White’s bloody assizes form a minority part of a his groundbreaking and systematic wildlife observation – one that casts that proto-eco eye from earthworms to investigations of the migratory routine of ring ouzels, the ones he didn’t shoot.
Prior to the arrival of this new edition my own current copy of The Natural History Of Selborne was a 1854 version. The publishers had added subheadings that suggest discarded Morrissey lyrics: “SOCIALITY OF BRUTES / EVENING PROCEEDINGS OF BOOKS / PROPENSITY OF AN IDIOT BOY”. Even without this Victorian Mozzer this new edition from Little Toller – with a persuasively admonitory new foreword from James Lovelock – is a beautiful manifestation on this undimming book. The spacious layout combines with Ravilious’s powerfully monochromatic illustrations to make this accessible book more accessible still. Once again an itinerant 18th-century priest seems like very good company indeed.
The Natural History Of Selborne is available in the Caught by the River shop
Roy Wilkinson is author of the rock/family/forestry memoir Do It For Your Mum, available at www.doitforyourmum.com