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Richard Jefferies (1848-87)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 33-36 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0024

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In what might seem like an unenticing introduction to Richard Jefferies's late novel The Dewy Morn (1884), Laurence Lerner remarks that "it is clear from all three of " Jefferies's late novels The Dewy Morn, After London (1885), and Amaryllis at the Fair (1886) "that Jefferies had no competence as a story-teller." Lerner's assessment is in keeping with critical consensus; the word "failure" comes up frequently in criticism of Jefferies's novels, as in David Garnett's introduction to an edition of Amaryllis at the Fair, which warns the reader that the book is "a complete failure as a novel" (qtd. in Keith 139). Yet if Jefferies fails as a novelist, he fails, as Lerner puts it, "interestingly." His novels are full of plot-straining digressions, scenes described in captivating but apparently superfluous detail, plots that meander, freeze, and then evaporate altogether. Early Jefferies critic Henry S. Salt concludes that the more novels Jefferies produced, the "more [he] ceased to trouble himself in the construction of a plot," resulting in "'novels' ... that are not narratives at all, but a series of splendid word-pictures" (113).

The novels are weak, then, because in them Jefferies draws upon his strength, even his genius, as a composer of insightful, meditative, finely detailed scenes of nature and country life—sketches of the sort he wrote for periodicals and collected in numerous volumes, beginning with The Gamekeeper at Home (1878) and including The Amateur Poacher (1879), Hodge and His Masters (1880), Nature Near London (1883), The Life of the Fields (1884), and numerous posthumous volumes. The idiosyncrasies in Jefferies's fiction make for bad novels but good books, and Raymond Williams is not alone in concluding that the novels illustrate a weakness in readers' overly narrow expectations or "the weakness of the form of the novel" rather than a weakness in Jefferies's writing (194).

Jefferies refused to move his stories and characters along quickly or logically, focusing instead on individual, often seemingly disconnected, "word-pictures," scenes, or sketches. Jefferies is at his best when unhurried, when staying still and dwelling on a scene rather than rushing a narrative headlong towards its logical end. Works by Jefferies, including the novels as well as the essays, scenes, and sketches considered his best work, frequently operate in an unfamiliar temporal register. Hodge and His Masters consists of a series of sketches depicting multiple facets of a rural community at one point in time, devoid of narrative linkage or progression; the sketches of natural settings or wildlife similarly remove the scene from narrative time. Jefferies sometimes seems to compress time, condensing into a present-tense discussion of a single pigeon a lifetime's worth of study of the species. In the first chapter of The Open Air, what begins as a simple tale of a boy exploring nature is interrupted when the wheat itself summarizes its observations from the fields near the boy's family farm for the past thousand years. ("What did you see all the time?" the boy asks, prompting a thorough response [7].) A similar synopsis of extremely long periods of time appears in After London, which details the slow, seasonal reclamation of London by weeds, wildlife, and swamps in the centuries after an unnamed event forces the abandonment of the city.

It is not surprising that readers in the progress-oriented Victorian period found Jefferies's narratives unsatisfying. Lynda Nead remarks that "if the process of modernisation" characterizing the mid- to late-nineteenth century "can be said to have had a primary goal, it was movement" (13). Moving forward and progressing were ideas central not only to Victorian expectations for the novel but to the dominant narrative of the Victorian period itself. Modern society was moving away from its traditional past, shuttled along by technologies emphasizing speed and efficiency and concentrated in urban centres "devoted," as Nead writes, "to the production of constant motion and ... inhabited by a new, ideal citizen: 'locomotive man'" (54). In the final essay of The Open Air, Jefferies finds that the frantic rush of London traffic communicates the mantra of motion perfectly clearly: "Move," the city tells you, "or cease to be—pass out of Time...



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