So Gilbert White of Selborne, England wrote to his niece in 1784.
It is the shorter days and cooler mornings that get me rummaging through my library for certain reading fare–the diarists, the journalists of old, the country observers. Another season is passing, another tick of the universal clock has just echoed; yet there is a comfort in the regularity of natural life as recorded in these yellowed pages. Of this trusty lot of journal keepers the ineffable Mr. Gilbert White of Selborne is a favorite. While he wrote with the same scrupulous care and loving attentiveness to all the seasons, it is when the autumn approaches that I find him the most…well…lively.
I want to know what Gilbert was up to in August of 1788. And here we find him:
1781: August 23, 1781 – ‘Caught 8 hornets with a twig tipped with bird-lime…. No wasps in my garden, nor at the grocer’s, or butcher’s shop. Five or six hornets will carry off a whole nectarine in the space of a day.’
“What make ye of Parson White in Selborne?” inquired Thomas Carlyle in 1832. One cannot help but note the slightly dismissive snort in this question. Yet Carlyle–who wrote thunderously of kings and controversies, not the mating habits of hirundines–is hardly read these days, while the diaries, carefully composed nature notes, and humble letters of ‘Parson White’ have never been out of print in the over 200 years since they were written. He is as beloved to the English as Jane Austen. He has a besotted following in Japan. His complete diaries are published online. His letters have made it to the ‘Penguin Classics’ distinction. His words penned on November 15th, 1792 regarding the now famous tortoise: ‘Timothy comes out’, still give a thrill of pleasure.
My copy of The Natural History of Selborne is a treasure. But I must admit that I hadn’t given it my complete attention until reading a brilliant little essay on White several years ago. If you’ve never read the work of Helen Bevington before, you’re in for a wonderful discovery. Her description of Gilbert White, in the essay, ‘The Seasonable Mr. White of Selborne’ is part of a larger collection of random essays by Bevington in a book entitled ‘Beautiful, Lofty People’.
A brief excerpt (written circa 1950):
‘The way to be happy in London in the spring,’ (Mrs. Bevington writes) ‘is to spend one’s days in the British Museum, reading the manuscript of the journals of Gilbert White. Except for a small selection, they have never been printed–ten thousand daily records, twenty five years (1768-1793) of the serenest life I’ve ever envied. Mr. White of Selborne is my peace.’
Of course the journals and diaries of Gilbert White are richly available now, as surely Mrs. Bevington would have rejoiced to know; his diary is online, http://naturalhistoryofselborne.com/ and in printed form aplenty. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I didn’t get to discover him as a secret and startling pleasure while spending a month at the British Library, reading his own journals penned from his own hand. (A picture of his journal here, plus other lovely pictures of Selborne)
That’s fine. I will get my book, pour myself a cup of tea, settle in to my armchair, and open to…
September 11, 1777 – ‘Mrs Snooke’s tortoise devours kidney-beans & cucumbers in a most voracious manner: swallows it’s food almost whole.’
Ah. The world is restored to peaceful order again. Timothy is rampaging in Mrs. Snooke’s garden with a healthy appetite and all is well.
As Mrs. Bevington notes, ‘Mr. White of Selborne is my peace.’
‘Oft on some evening, sunny, soft and still; The Muse shall lead thee to the beech-grown hill; To spend in tea the cool, refreshing hour; Where nods in air the pensile, nest-like bower.’ (Mr. Gilbert White)