Wild Life in a Southern County by Richard Jefferies
Wallachia Publishers, modern reprint, 2015 (first published 1887)
Wiltshire Local Studies Library Reference XJE.570
Richard Jefferies was born in Coate, Swindon, and his love of the countryside in an around his childhood home was a great influence on his work. Jefferies was a versatile writer, publishing a children’s book and a work of science fiction, but he is best known for his nature writing. His works The Amateur Poacher (1879) and Round About a Great Estate (1880) have drawn the most attention in this genre; I chose to read Wild Life in a Southern County as a modern reprint to see what it had to offer.
The look of the book and text is more modern in feel, but this does not detract from the content in any way although the text is a little small. However, the lack of pagination is a limitation when wanting to revisit certain parts of the book and the uncertainty of how the book is arranged in comparison to the original publication is a point to consider.
Great detail is given on the habits of various species of bird in the scientific manner of study and observation, interposed with the author’s own thoughts and experiences. It is fascinating to read these entries for species such as the kingfisher and swallow. A colourful picture is created of the beauty of the creatures that Jefferies’ observes and their interaction with their environment and the human world. His description of the blackbird in Chapter 9 is poetic in nature. Jefferies included fascinating details in this book such as the folklore that surrounded the wildlife and more soberingly, how they could be hunted. His thoughts on this subject provide a fascinating insight into the mind-set of those living in the late 19th century with matter of fact descriptions of hunting and the reasons for it sounding quite alien to modern-day views.
Jefferies possesses an almost magical touch in the way he describes the landscape, this being almost mythical and dreamlike in places. The information gained from these sections is a descriptive view of the north Wiltshire landscape at a point in time although actual locations are omitted.
The author also describes farming practices, the work of craftsmen, ancient customs such as St. Thomas’ Day, the Clerk’s Ale and folk lore, and the routines of village clubs and friendly societies.
Flora and the seasons are also noted; “All the summer through fresh beauties, indeed, wait upon the owner’s footsteps. In the spring the mowing grass rises thick, strong, and richly green, or hidden by the cloth-of-gold thrown over it by the buttercups!”
Wildlife enthusiasts and those interested in local history, landscape history and folklore should very much enjoy this book. It is a shame that Jefferies himself died tragically at the age of 38 in 1887, the year this book was first published.
Other editions of Wildlife in a Southern County are available to view at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre ref: AAA.590.
Julie Davis, County Local Studies Librarian