6 February 2010

White's Selborne

Gone now, like most of the town’s character, is the old second-hand bookshop in Queen’s Road.

The shelves extended from floor to ceiling and were crammed with volumes in all conditions and on all subjects. Ecclesiastical titles abounded, as well as Victorian novels with an improving moral tone – evidently the fallout from yet another broken-up rectory library.

These were of no interest to me. At the age of thirteen, the corner I liked best was devoted to books on natural history.

As with gold prospecting, a lot of spoil had to be sifted before you struck a nugget, especially since many of the book-spines were illegible. But nuggets there were, overlooked by the less persistent (and no doubt more affluent) customers.

One of my best buys, for the princely sum of 2/- (10p), was a book bound in embossed green cloth and decorated with gilt, undated, but evidently published about 1869. “Arranged for Young Persons”, and liberally illustrated with steel-engravings, this was my first sight of that most delightful and enduring classic, Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne.

While not going so far as one author, who declared that no one who does not own and appreciate a copy of White’s Selborne has no claim to call himself an English naturalist, I would nonetheless hold it up as indispensable to the library of anyone who loves our countryside, or who loves our language properly used, or both. As a Christmas gift, especially for a “Young Person” with an interest in natural history, it could hardly be bettered. There have been nearly three hundred editions; the book is never out of print.

Gilbert White was born in July 1720 at Selborne, Hampshire, where his grandfather was vicar of St Mary’s church. Educated at Basingstoke and then Oriel College, Oxford, of which he became a Fellow in 1744, he was ordained in 1747. Although later given a college living at Moreton Pinkney in Northamptonshire, White chose not to live there, but installed a curate, preferring to remain, a curate himself, in his beloved native parish.

His house in Selborne, The Wakes, stands almost opposite the village green and today has been made into a museum. It was the garden at The Wakes, much improved by White and his father, which gave rise to some of his earliest writings on nature, kept in a journal called the Garden Kalendar. The garden features often in the pages of his Selborne, and lends the book its core of parochial stability and charm.

White was happiest in the country, content to leave the city to his brother Benjamin, who became a prominent bookseller and publisher, handling many of the most important natural history titles of the day. Through Benjamin, Gilbert was introduced to leading naturalists such as Thomas Pennant and the Honourable Daines Barrington.

The Natural History of Selborne consists of White’s edited letters to these two men, written over a period of some twenty years. The first series of letters is addressed to Pennant, a famous, professional zoologist; Barrington was an amateur, an antiquary as well as a naturalist. White’s great gift was that of combining careful personal observation with a transparent and graceful literary style. Each paragraph rings true because it is a distillation of what he has actually discovered at first hand.

The two series of letters reflect the personality of their recipients. With Pennant, White is rather formal and scientific. The letters to Barrington tend to be longer, more gently humorous, and more filled with human detail.

He writes to Pennant: “On a retrospect, I observe that my long letter carries with it a quaint and magisterial air, and is sententious; but when I recollect that you requested stricture and anecdote, I hope you will pardon the didactic manner for the sake of the information it may happen to contain.”

White is never didactic, or magisterial, and some of the information his letters happen to contain is of historic importance to European natural history. He was fascinated by animal behaviour at a time when most zoology consisted merely of collecting and naming specimens; his discoveries include the differences between the leaf-warblers, between the common and lesser whitethroat, the presence in England of the noctule bat, and, perhaps most famous of all, the harvest mouse.

“I have procured some of the mice mentioned in my former letters, which I have preserved in brandy,” he writes to Pennant in November, 1767. “From the colour, shape, size, and manner of nesting, I make no doubt but that the species is nondescript ... They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves; abound in harvest; and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles ...

“One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially plaited, and composed of the blades of wheat; perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket-ball; with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged ... This wonderful procreant cradle, an elegant instance of the efforts of instinct, was found in a wheat-field, suspended in the head of a thistle.”

His inquiries covered the whole sphere of the natural world, from birds and flowers to geology and the weather. He had a special interest in bird migration. At that time it was believed by some people that swallows, for example, remained here for the winter, lying torpid in the mud at the bottom of ponds. White, who inclined to the correct view, added greatly to the debate.

He was intrigued too by nature’s oddities, and had a soft spot for his aunt’s old tortoise, Timothy (not least because its habit of hibernation might throw some light on the migration controversy). On the death of his aunt, White brought the tortoise by post-chaise to Selborne: the shell is now on display in the Natural History Museum at Kensington.

White’s legacy is the conviction that anyone, equipped only with a keen pair of eyes and an open mind, can add information of real value to our knowledge of the world. He has been an inspiration to countless people since, including some of today’s most eminent scientists. His era, like the bookshop in Queen’s Road, may have passed into history, but the spirit he embodied lives on.

(Introduction to these pieces; see all)

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