This is a beautifully produced and fascinating study of nature writing from Gilbert White to the present. Being a book aimed at the academic market it is very expensive and is unlikely to reach the popular market, so it is a particular privilege to try to share some of its important messages with anyone interested in the genre. It is a collaborative venture written by five scholars, each with particular areas of expertise, whose conversations have helped rather than hindered its readability; it flows in a way that most volumes with individual chapters by different scholars don’t.
It begins with the publication in 1789 of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne in the same summer as the French Revolution. A coincidence that points to the complexity of nature writing from the very beginning and its relationship with the political and cultural conflicts in whose shadow it is shaped. When I first researched Gilbert White, I quickly discovered that his writing had come to be wreathed in a fog of myths about idyllic rural England, nativism and underworked clergy, which obscured White himself, his scientific and literary achievements, and his historical context. I was delighted that the authors proclaimed themselves from the start as debunkers of the idea that nature writing is essentially compensatory and escapist. A welcome harbinger of this was how often Ted Dadswell’s brilliant study of White, The Selborne Pioneer was referenced!
What White chose to give his attention to and what he ignored are among the threads that run through the entire book. His concern with not just naming and recording animals but trying to describe their character and behaviour and his lack of critical concern about the colonial system being two examples.
That White embraced letter writing appears to have persuaded the authors to concentrate mainly on prose writing about nature, largely putting fiction and poetry to one side, except when needful to discuss a particular writer. They discuss the most significant figures and how their work responded to contemporary literary influences, social circumstances and concerns. Significant here though does not mean just most well-known, so alongside fresh perspectives on familiar writers there were, for me, plenty of surprises.
It is argued that Rousseau’s influence was earlier and more benign than hostile caricatures have led us to believe, bringing both a scientific interest in nature and a more restrained emotional attention than is usually supposed.
There are extensive introductions to the work of Charlotte Smith and Thomas Bewick. We see how they both used experimental forms to get beyond the cataloguing tendency in nature study. In Smith’s case the use of poetry, prose and fiction and in Bewick’s case local names for the birds in his wood engravings and quirky tailpieces; both to celebrate nature’s otherness and mystery of wild things.
There is an introduction to the prose writing of John Clare and the rugged pastoral writings of James Hogg, both of whom restored nature writing to those who actually participated in rural life, rather than observed it, or merely dwelt in the country.
In the chapter on Victorian nature writing, I was glad to see some coverage of Charles Kingsley and Philip Henry Gosse, alongside Richard Jefferies and was struck again by how strange John Ruskin’s contemplative approach to nature and beauty was-spiritual sight as a kind of disgust at flesh and blood. The various forms of mysticism that nature writers embraced during that time, as a way to re-enchant a world they believed to be threatened by science and urbanisation remain fascinating.
Reading about the response to the eco collapse brought about at the beginning of the C20th by egg collecting, and persecution by gamekeepers and farmers I discovered writers such as Max Nicholson and Charles Elton who influenced people’s rejection of anthropomorphism and introduced the terminology of ecology for the first time and contributed to the rise of conservation movements.
I was not surprised to find consideration of Gerald Durrell and Jane Goodall but was intrigued by the preface to their discussion being a reflection on the nature writing of Virginia Woolf, with a glance at queer and feminist perspectives.
When we get closer to the present there is an inevitable celebration of J A Baker’s ‘ The Peregrine’ for the beauty of its writing, vivid brutality and warnings about extinction. Its status as a modern gothic English version of Silent Spring is assured and its influence is unquestionable, but I missed any mention of its status as the greatest masterpiece written by a manager of a bottle depot!
The book concludes with a note of rejoicing that the genre has shown signs recently of greater diversification and cites the 2020 shortlist for the Wainwright Prize as evidence, with the inclusion of books such as Dara McAnulty’sDiary of a Young Naturalist and Jini Reddy’s Wanderland. I note that even these two books have a touch of White about them- one is in the same diary form and the other has a contemporary modern take on the spirituality of place. As a reader from a working-class background living and working in a diverse part of London, I find this broadening out a huge benefit. I am a great admirer of White and follow the same vocation, but the new voices are much closer to my own experience and echo the concerns of all of us living in the shadow of the Anthropocene!
There is no way that I could give this volume its due in so few words, but I do recommend it highly for anyone who loves nature writing and wants to think critically about its evolution and the forces that continue to shape it. You might not be able to afford it, but it would be a great addition to any public library!
- Modern British Nature Writing, 1789-2020 Landlines By Will Abberley, Christina Alt, David Higgins, Graham Huggan and Pippa Marland. is published by Dundurn Press. To order a copy go to www.cambridge.org (£75.00)
Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England who writes occasional pieces about the people who shaped the history of science and human and animal travel-real and fictional.