|Richard Jefferies - click to enlarge|
I did spot one literary connection in my visit to Salisbury Cathedral on Saturday: the memorial to the Victorian pastoralist and nature writer Richard Jefferies. The inscription reads:
TO THE MEMORY OF
BORN AT COATE IN THE PARISH OF CHISELDON AND COUNTY
OF WILTS, 6TH NOVEMBER 1848,
DIED AT GORING IN THE COUNTY OF SUSSEX,
I4TH AUGUST 1887,
WHO OBSERVING THE WORKS OF ALMIGHTY GOD,
WITH A POET'S EYE
ENRICHED THE LITERATURE OF HIS COUNTRY,
WON FOR HIMSELF A PLACE AMONGST
WHO HAVE MADE MEN HAPPIER
Jefferies isn't buried in the cathedral, nor, though Wiltshire-born, did he even have any much connection with Salisbury. The memorial, unveiled on March 1892, was placed there as the result of a fundraising campaign by his friends and admirers, as described in The Spectator: Volumes 64-65, 1890, page 116:
MEMORIAL TO RICHARD JEFFERIES.
[To The Editor or The "Spectator." Sir,—It may interest your readers to learn that this unrivalled delineator of country life is no longer to remain unhonoured. A wish has been expressed of late by many that some memorial of Richard Jefferies should be erected, and inasmuch as he was a native of Wilts and fond of his county, Salisbury Cathedral appeared to be the most appropriate spot for that purpose. Mr. Charles Longman, an attached friend of Richard Jefferies, and Mr. Walter Besant, the happy author of the "Eulogy," regarding the proposal with favour, a committee has been formed for placing a marble bust of the prose-poet of the Wiltshire Downs in this grand old cathedral, the Bishop of Salisbury and the Dean having most cordially given their assent to this project. The execution of the proposed memorial has been entrusted to Miss Margaret Thomas, an artist of acknowledged ability. The estimated cost of this work will be about £150. It is believed that little difficulty will be experienced in raising this small fund among the admirers and readers of the most remarkable man produced in the Diocese of Salisbury for many years. The committee consists of the Bishop of Salisbury and the Dean, Mr. Burdett-Coutts, M.P., Mr. Walter Pollock, Mr. Andrew Lang, Mr. Rider Haggard, Mr. J. W. North, Mr. George Smith, Mr. Andrew Chatto, Mr. Alfred Buckley, Mr. Osborne, Mr. C. P. Scott, Mr. F. G. Heath, Mr. Walter Besant, and Mr. Charles Longman. The two latter gentlemen will act as honorary secretaries, and I have willingly accepted the office of treasurer, and opened an account with Stuckey's Banking Company for subscriptions.—I am, Sir, &c.,
Haines Hill, Taunton, July 21st. Arthur Kinglake.
The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 27, issue 79, June 1893, pages 69-99 has a report on the unveiling of the memorial, and an extended contemporary appreciation and bibliography of Jefferies. "The Euology" referred to is Walter Besant's 1888 The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies (Internet Archive eulogyrichardje00besagoog), an immediately posthumous biography and appreciation.
I haven't read much by Jefferies; I admit Victorian nature-mysticism isn't really my cup of tea; and some of his writing is even stranger, such as the 1883 autobiographical The Story of My Heart, which expresses deeply personal epiphanies about his life and his soul's journey (it reads to me as if written on opiates - he was undergoing a series of painful operations). But I may well have misjudged him, because his work had wider scope, including a number of interesting-looking novels. For example, in the 1875 Restless Human Hearts:
Nature and nature mysticism are sharply contrasted with the decadence of fashionable Mayfair society. Brimming with original and often audacious ideas, the novel is also notable for its gallery of women characters – Heloise, who experiences mystical raptures alone on the downs but marries a brutal and debased peer; Georgiana, a feminist intellectual who defies convention by entering on a trial marriage with her lover; and the sin-stained Carlotta, a cross-dressing femme fatale whose nemesis comes in a close encounter with a cobra in a train compartment.
- description at Richard Jefferies Society site
One RJ novel I have read is his 1885 post-apocalyptic novel After London: Or, Wild England (Internet Archive afterlondon13944gut) is worth checking out. London has become a toxic swamp, and England, deserted by most of its populace, has largely reverted to woodland. The remaining populace consists of small feudal kingdoms in constant conflict with invading Welsh armies, tribes of gypsies and savage "Bushmen". The actual story - the novel's second section, Wild England - isn't so great. It's an adventure involving a baron's son, Sir Felix Aquila, who is frustrated by the lack of opportunity to prove his worthiness to marry the Lady Aurora Thyma, and so goes on a canoe voyage of exploration to seek his fortune. Unfortunately, the human and cultural side isn't well thought-through. Jefferies, like more than a few authors of post-apocalyptic novels, has just jumped back to mediaeval times rather than plausibly inventing a future. His future culture doesn't contain the 'fossils', via language, names, and half-remembered cultural fixtures, of a world built on a collapsed Victorian England. However, the first section, The Relapse into Barbarism, describes vividly and plausibly the development of the woodland ecology of an English landscape that has ceased to be cultivated.
See the Richard Jefferies Society for more background. The Society also has web pages on the Wilts Community Web - here - with many of his published works, and its journal and newsletter.