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Jefferies, (John) Richardfree

(1848–1887)
  • Andrew Rossabi

(John) Richard Jefferies (1848–1887)

by London Stereoscopic Co.

Jefferies, (John) Richard (1848–1887), writer and mystic, was born on 6 November 1848 at the Jefferies Farm at Coate, in the parish of Chiseldon, near Swindon in Wiltshire, the first son and second of five children of James Luckett Jefferies (1816–1896), dairyman, and his wife, Elizabeth (1817–1895), daughter of Charles Gyde, printer, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Estcourt.

Ancestry and early life

Jefferies was proud of his descent from many generations of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire farmers, but his was country blood with a difference, for the family had strong connections with the London printing trade. In 1816 Richard's grandfather John Jefferies had reluctantly resigned his position as overseer with the Fleet Street printer Richard Taylor to take over the family mill and bakery in the market town of Swindon. The family also owned a small estate in the nearby hamlet of Coate, consisting of a labourer's cottage (to which John Jefferies added a dwelling house about 1823) and 39 acres of pasture. The farm was managed by Richard's father, James, after his marriage in Islington in 1844 to Elizabeth Gyde, daughter of Taylor's binder and manager Charles Gyde, whose family came from Painswick in Gloucestershire. An original but unbusinesslike man, James spent more time embellishing his garden and orchard than running the farm. Lacking capital, he was further handicapped by a charge placed on his will by his father, who died in 1868. James took out a mortgage of £1500 to pay off legacies to two sisters and began to slide into debt. In 1877 the creditors foreclosed, the farm was sold, and James ended his days as an odd-job gardener in Bath.

James's wife, always known as Betsy, was a kind, nervous, town-bred woman not happy living in the country. Their first-born child, Ellen, was killed by a runaway horse at the age of five. Richard, their second child, was sent to live between the ages of four and nine with an aunt and uncle, the Harrilds, at Sydenham in Kent, where he attended preparatory school. Thomas Harrild was a successful Fleet Street printer. With his aunt Ellen (née Gyde) the boy formed a close friendship. On his return home he attended various small private schools in Swindon but showed little promise. After leaving school at fifteen he did no farm work and spent much of his time poking about the hedgerows with a gun, gaining a reputation as an idler. In 1864 he and his cousin James Cox ran away to France, planning to march to Moscow and back. Their French took them no further than Picardy. Instead of returning home they next tried for America, perhaps fired by the tales of Jefferies's father, who had worked his passage to America as a boy of sixteen, but in Liverpool were detained by the police when they tried to pawn their watches and sent back to Swindon in disgrace. Superficially idle, Jefferies was living in a ferment of undefined ideas and aspirations. He was by now a voracious, eclectic reader: J. Fenimore Cooper's 'Leather-Stocking Tales', Longfellow, the Odyssey, Goethe's Faust, Don Quixote, the Arabian Nights, Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, and Shakespeare's poems were among his favourite books. When he was about eighteen he began to read the ancient classics in Bohn's translations.

Years of struggle, 1866–1876

In March 1866 Jefferies joined the North Wilts Herald, a Swindon-based tory newspaper, where his first published work appeared in the shape of satirical poems, sensational tales, and laborious local histories. Jefferies became an antiquary interested in the prehistoric relics of his vicinity which he said was 'alive with the dead' (letter to Ellen Harrild, 21 July 1867). He was the first to identify a small stone circle of recumbent sarsens in Day House Lane. 1866 was also the year when he began to resort to the downs near Coate in search of spiritual renewal. Liddington Hill with its ‘cassel’ or Iron Age hill fort became a favourite haven. Here and elsewhere Jefferies experienced moments of intense communion with sun, sky, earth, and distant sea, when he lost all sense of separate existence and became absorbed into the being of the universe. In September 1867 and July 1868 Jefferies was ill with what are now known to have been the first symptoms of tuberculosis. On 28 August he reported to his aunt that his legs were 'as thin as a grasshopper's'. A holiday in Brussels in September 1870 earned him the nickname of ‘the Belgian Lamp-Post’.

On 14 November 1872 Jefferies first came into prominence with a long letter in The Times on the Wiltshire labourer. The letter appeared in the wake of the publicity attending the formation of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union under Joseph Arch. Jefferies's letter, which was followed by two others, championed the tenant farmer and adopted a condescending attitude towards the labourer. But though partisan, the letters were models of clear, forceful exposition and attracted notice. Jefferies became regarded as an authority on farming matters, about which he contributed articles to Fraser's Magazine and other publications in the mid-1870s. His chief energies, however, were directed to winning fame and fortune as a novelist. The Scarlet Shawl (1874), Restless Human Hearts (3 vols., 1875), and World's End (3 vols., 1877), published by William Tinsley, publisher of Thomas Hardy's early novels, were critical and commercial failures but fortified Jefferies's imagination in a way that the admirably practical farming articles for Fraser's could not.

On 8 July 1874 at Holy Cross Church, Chiseldon, Jefferies married Jessie, née Baden (1853–1926), daughter of a neighbouring farmer, Andrew Baden, of Day House. In 1875 the couple moved to 22 Victoria Street (now 93 Victoria Road) in Old Swindon, where their first child, Richard Harold, was born on 3 May.

Years of success, 1877–1880

Early in 1877 Jefferies moved to 2 Woodside Terrace, (now 296) Ewell Road, Tolworth, Surrey, to be nearer his London editors. The separation from his native Wiltshire spurred his memory and on 4 January 1878 in the Pall Mall Gazette appeared the first of a series of twenty-four anonymous articles entitled 'The gamekeeper at home' which were published in volume form later that year by Smith, Elder, & Co. Subtitled 'Sketches of natural history and rural life' and based on Haylock, keeper on the Burderop estate near Coate, The Gamekeeper at Home was an immediate success and quickly ran through several editions. Reviewers hailed the author as the new Gilbert White and praised the charm and exactness of the natural descriptions. Drawing on his Wiltshire memories, Jefferies poured them forth in a series of titles redolent of the countryside—Wild Life in a Southern County (1879), The Amateur Poacher (1879), Hodge and his Masters (2 vols., 1880), and Round about a Great Estate (1880), which Q. D. Leavis called 'one of the most delightful books in the English language' (Leavis, 440). These works established Jefferies as the foremost country writer of his day. Edward Thomas wrote:

No one English writer before had had such a wide knowledge of labourers, farmers, gamekeepers, poachers, of the fields, and woods, and waters, and the sky above them, by day and night … When he wrote these books—The Amateur Poacher and its companions—he had no rival, nor have they since been equalled in purity, abundance, and rusticity.

Thomas, 320

In Tolworth, where a daughter, Jessie Phyllis, was born on 6 December 1880, Jefferies also published Greene Ferne Farm (1880), a slight but charming pastoral novel, and two children's stories which have become classics. Wood Magic (2 vols., 1881), dedicated to his son Harold, is a satirical fable about a Battle of the Birds which ends on a mystical note with the wind whispering 'There never was a yesterday … and there never will be to-morrow. It is all one long to-day' (chap. 17). Bevis (3 vols., 1882), for many the best boys' book ever written, recreates large tracts of Jefferies's childhood at Coate whose reservoir, transformed into a New Sea, is the setting of the adventures of Bevis and his friend Mark. The novel celebrates the unconscious education imbibed in the open air and records Bevis's visionary moments, when he feels out to sun and stars and is lost in 'the larger consciousness of the heavens' (chap. 35). All these works, which represented an astonishing outburst of creativity, a Proustian recapture of temps perdu, were based on Wiltshire memories. The first book in which Jefferies explored his immediate surroundings in north Surrey was Nature Near London (1883), a collection of articles on the theme of the richness of wild life to be found in the London suburbs. A new strain of observation is apparent in these essays, a more subtle, delicate, tender, and microscopic eye not afraid to linger over fleeting effects of colour, form, and atmosphere.

Illness and final years

In December 1881 Jefferies had again been ill, with an anal fistula. In 1882 after four painful operations he moved to West Brighton in Sussex to convalesce, first to 3 Lorna Road, then (between March and April 1883) to Savernake, 8 (now 87) Lorna Road. The recovery of a chalk grassland landscape, the presence of the sea, always a potent force in his imagination, and the shadow cast by his illness combined to inspire Jefferies to write his spiritual autobiography, The Story of my Heart (1883). There he recorded the moments of ecstasy, visions of eternity, and dreams of a world freed from want and needless toil that had come to him alone on the Marlborough Downs, by the Sussex sea, and in London. A failure on publication, the book remains the cornerstone of his work, a classic of English mysticism saluted by William James as 'Jefferies's wonderful and splendid mystic rhapsody' (W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902, 425).

A visit to Somerset in June 1883 inspired Red Deer (1884) which Jefferies described as 'a minute account of the natural history of the wild deer of Exmoor and of the mode of hunting them' (letter to C. J. Longman, 22 Aug 1883). In Sussex Jefferies published The Life of the Fields (1884) and The Open Air (1885), which contain some of his best and most characteristic essays. These include impassioned meditations like 'The pageant of summer', 'Sunlight in a London square', 'The pigeons at the British Museum', and 'Wild flowers'; pieces of close, almost scientific, observation like 'The hovering of the kestrel' and 'Birds climbing the air'; and Zola-esque tales like 'One of the new voters', about a reaper who works fourteen hours a day in the August sun, where Jefferies exposes the degradation and hardship behind the scenes of rural life. Jefferies also published two novels: The Dewy Morn (2 vols., 1884) is notable for its chaste but sensuous heroine Felise and its mordant satire of the vacuous squire Cornleigh and his do-gooding wife Letitia. Q. D. Leavis called The Dewy Morn 'one of the few real novels between Wuthering Heights and Sons and Lovers' and said that in it Jefferies 'goes further than any Victorian novelist towards the modern novel' (Leavis, 445). In the futurist After London (1885) England has reverted to nature, society relapsed into barbarism, the Thames valley flooded to become an inland sea, and London lies buried beneath a miasmal swamp. The opening section is remarkable for its remorseless Thucydidean power.

In April 1885 Jefferies's health finally broke down. In summer 1886 he vomited blood. His savings went on doctors' fees, and in November he accepted a grant of £100 from the Royal Literary Fund. In March 1887 he had another haemorrhage and could not even dictate. Yet in these years, during which he wrestled manfully with his three great giants of Disease, Despair, and Poverty, Jefferies produced much of his finest work. Essays like 'Hours of spring', 'Nature and books', 'Winds of heaven', 'Walks in the wheat-fields', 'Nature in the Louvre', and the valedictory 'My old village'—collected by his widow and published posthumously in Field and Hedgerow (1889)—extend the boundaries of the form as practised by Addison, Hazlitt, and Lamb, and in their emotional vigour anticipate D. H. Lawrence. Fittingly, among the last pieces Jefferies wrote was the preface to a new edition of White's The Natural History of Selborne (1887). The final work published in his lifetime was the autobiographical novel Amaryllis at the Fair (1887), memorable for its portrait of the farmer Iden, based on Jefferies's father, with his muddling ways and heroic individuality.

After Brighton Jefferies was nowhere long. From 24 June 1884 he lived at 14 Victoria (now 59 Footscray) Road, Eltham, Kent, where his twenty-month-old son, Richard Oliver Launcelot, who had been born in Brighton on 18 July 1883, died suddenly of meningitis. Jefferies was so distressed that he was unable to attend the funeral. Jefferies was then briefly at Rehoboth Villa (now Brook View House), Jarvis Brook, Rotherfield, Sussex, before moving to The Downs, high on Crowborough Hill, and finally to Sea View (now Jefferies House), the Bottom of the Sack (now Jefferies Lane), Goring by Sea, where he died on 14 August 1887, aged thirty-eight, of chronic fibroid phthisis (a form of tuberculosis) and exhaustion. He was buried on 20 August at Broadwater cemetery, Worthing.

Jefferies was a tall, thin, bearded, and slightly stooping figure with brown hair, broad intellectual brow, clear blue eyes, somewhat drooping eyelids, and calm meditative expression. He was a man of simple tastes and regular habits who found his deepest joy in the solitary contemplation of nature. Otherwise he was perfectly content with his family. Proud and reserved, he did not mix in literary society but maintained amicable relations with his editors Frederick Greenwood, C. J. Longman, Oswald Crawfurd, and C. P. Scott and later in life became friendly with the artist J. W. North.

Posthumous influence

Richard Jefferies is among the purest and most sensitive observers of nature England has produced. Blessed with exquisite senses, he responds to the beauty of the visible world with passion, tenderness, and joy but without sentimentality. He teaches humankind to observe what is about it, to delight in the common sights and sounds of nature. The reader comes to see the world through Jefferies's eyes and his or her life is immeasurably enriched. No writer transports the reader outdoors with such immediacy and Jefferies's work belies his own aphorism: 'The sheaf you may take home with you, but the wind that was among it stays without' (The July grass, Field and Hedgerow). Few writers, at least in prose, have articulated the hidden, spiritual aspect of nature with such haunting power. 'The clearness of the physical is allied to the penetration of the spiritual vision' (Thomas, 49). Jefferies wrote as much about people as about nature and his country books are an indispensable source for the rural history of late nineteenth-century England. Hodge and his Masters (1880) in particular presents a magnificent panoramic view of a southern English farming community at the start of what came to be known as the great agricultural depression. A reliable, fair commentator unrivalled for the breadth of his knowledge of the countryside, Jefferies is the central figure in the whole rural tradition, a Janus looking back to the cruder, more spacious world of the early nineteenth century and forward to the troubled introspection of George Sturt (George Bourne), Edward Thomas, and Henry Williamson. Jefferies was also a considerable novelist, an important bridge between Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, and a prose artist of bewitching power, the master of a simple, flowing, apparently effortless style. 'His writing never reaches after effect and seems unconscious of achieving any; he is therefore the best possible model' (Leavis, 443). Not least, he inspired one of the finest literary biographies in the language, by Edward Thomas. As Jefferies wrote of Iden (Amaryllis at the Fair, chap. 26): 'It was his genius to make things grow … [he was] a sort of Pan, a half-god of leaves and boughs, and reeds and streams, a sort of Nature in human shape, moving about and sowing Plenty and Beauty.'

Sources

  • E. Thomas, Richard Jefferies: his life and work (1909)
  • H. R. Matthews and P. Treitel, The forward life of Richard Jefferies: a chronological study (1994)
  • G. Miller and H. R. Matthews, Richard Jefferies: a bibliographical study (1993)
  • Q. D. Leavis, ‘Lives and works of Richard Jefferies’, Scrutiny, 6/4 (March 1938), 435–46
  • BL, Richard Jefferies Collection, Add. MS 58822A, B [20A, B correspondence of Jefferies with members of his family and various publishers]
  • W. J. Keith, Richard Jefferies: a critical study (1965)
  • W. J. Keith, ‘Richard Jefferies’, The rural tradition: a study of the non-fiction prose writers of the English countryside (1974), 127–47
  • W. Besant, The eulogy of Richard Jefferies (1888)
  • H. S. Salt, Richard Jefferies: a study (1894)
  • O. Crawfurd, ‘Richard Jefferies: field-naturalist and litterateur’, The Idler, 13 (Oct 1898), 289–301
  • J. Luckett [F. C. Hall], ‘The forbears of Richard Jefferies’, Country Life, 23 (14 March 1908), 373–6
  • R. H. Jefferies, ‘Memories of Richard Jefferies’, Concerning Richard Jefferies, by various writers, ed. S. J. Looker (1944), 17–27
  • R. Ebbatson, ‘Richard Jefferies’, Lawrence and the nature tradition: a theme in English fiction 1859–1914 (1980), 127–64
  • ‘Jefferies at Goring’, Richard Jefferies: a tribute by various writers, ed. S. J. Looker (1946), 143–56
  • [L. M. Phillips], EdinR, 210 (1909), 221–43
  • L. V. Grinsell, ‘The archaeological contribution of Richard Jefferies’, Transactions of the Newbury District Field Club, 8 (1940), 216–26
  • P. K. Robins, ‘Richard Jefferies at Tolworth’, Richard Jefferies Society Journal, 6 (spring 1997), 14–19
  • J. Hall, ‘A personal reminiscence of Richard Jefferies’, Country Life, 26 (18 Dec 1909), 870–71
  • A. Delattre, ‘The Jefferies saga’, unpublished typescript, 1992, Archives of the Richard Jefferies Society
  • A. Smith, ‘The Gydes, the Jefferies and the Harrilds’, unpublished typescript, 1984, Archives of the Richard Jefferies Society

Archives

  • BL, corresp., literary MSS, and autograph notebooks, Add. MSS 58803–58832
  • Devizes Museum, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society
  • BL, Archive of the Royal Literary Fund, loan 96 M1077/1–145
  • Richard Jefferies Museum, Coate, Wiltshire

Likenesses

  • J. G. Barrable, photograph, 1862, BL
  • attrib. F. C. Hall, photograph, 1872, repro. in G. Toplis, ed., The early fiction of Richard Jefferies (1896)
  • M. Thomas, plaster, 1890 (after marble bust), NPG
  • M. Thomas, marble effigy on monument, 1891 (unveiled 1892), Salisbury Cathedral
  • P. Nutt, acrylic, 1985 (after photograph), Richard Jefferies Museum, Coate, Wiltshire
  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, priv. coll.
  • London Stereoscopic Co., photo-mezzotype, BL, NPG [see illus.]
  • W. Strang, etching (after photograph by London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company, 1879), repro. in R. Jefferies, Field and hedgerow, large paper edn (1889)
  • bust, Taunton shire hall

Wealth at Death

£184 12s.: administration, 3 Sept 1887, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Edinburgh Review, or, Critical Journal