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Penguins on Parade: Landscape with Figures!

By (February 1, 2014) No Comment

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Some Penguin Classics claim only the flimsiest of excuses for their existence, and one such recent example would have to be the new reprint of Landscape with Figures, the selected prose writings of the great Victorian author and nature-writer Richard Jefferies, who was born in 1848 and died in 1887 and yet managed to cram a great penguin richard jeffriesdeal of writing into the short span. Penguin brought out this same volume as part of its library of English writers (those always-inviting orange-spined old paperbacks) thirty years ago; this present Penguin Classic is that old edition, with two changes: it’s got an entirely perfunctory two-page new preface by editor Richard Mabey, and it’s got a new cover featuring the “K is for Keeper” woodcut William Nicholson did back in 1898 (the old orange-spined paperback feature a painting of bucolic workers, but since this one has a dog, I prefer it).

Not that any flimsy old excuse wouldn’t have been just fine by me – no matter what he set his hand to (his thrilling “boys novel” Bevis, for instance, once given a nice paperback edition by Oxford University Press, or his autobiography, The Story of My Heart, or his ground-breaking science fiction novel After London), Jefferies was a fantastically readable author, and Landscape with Figures is a superb collection of his nature-writing, the genre he almost single-handedly invented and for which he’s best known today to the sixteen people who know about him at all.

The first part of this collection features some of the copious social-criticism writings Jefferies did about the poor and subsistence agricultural laborers of rural Wiltshire, which he intended in his own day to act as a kind of expose and which have come in our own day to act as virtual archeologies of an entirely vanished world and entirely vanished customs, sights, and sounds:

What is more pleasant than the jingling of the tiny bells on the harness of the cart-horses? You may hear the team coming with a load of straw on the waggon three furlongs distant; then step out to the road, and watch the massive yet shapely creatures pull the heavy weight up the hill, their glossy quarters scarcely straining, but heads held high showing the noble neck, the hoofs planted with sturdy pride of strength, the polished brass of the harness glittering, and the bells merrily jingling!

The second part is the heart of the matter, the writings on nature that so occupied our hill-and-dale-rambling author. He wrote about the simple joys of the countryside in an open yet eloquent manner that hadn’t been achieved in England in a century (since Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, in fact), and these pieces still make fascinating reading today – like this 1878 piece on the behavior of rooks as the sun begins to set:

As evening approaches, and the rooks begin to wing their way homewards, sometimes a great number of them will alight upon the steep ascent close under the entrenchment on the Downs … and from whence the wood and beech trees where they sleep can be seen. They do not seem so much in search of food, of which probably there is not a great deal to be found in the short, dried-up herbage and hard soil, as to rest here, half-way home from arable fields. Sometimes they wheel and circle in fantastic flight over the very brow of the down, just above the rampart; occasionally, in the raw cold days of winter, they perch moping in disconsolate mood upon the bare branches of the clumps of trees on the ridge.

The book’s third part consists of later writings on a miscellany of topics but always burnished with a slightly melancholy awareness that the times of his boyhood – not so long ago – were changing radically, perhaps forever. This segment from “Nature and Books” was written in the year of his death, and it foresaw clearly both the triumph lucy reading penguin jeffriesof science and some of its costs:

Bits of printed paper that listen to no command, to which none can say, ‘Stand back; thou shalt not enter.’ They rise on the summer whirlwinds from the very dust of the road, and float over the highest walls; they fall on the well-kept lawns – monastery, prison, palace – there is no fortress agains a bit of printed paper. They penetrate where even Danae’s gold cannot go. Our Darwins, our Lyalls, Herschels, Faradays – all the immense army of those that go down to nature with considering eye – are steadfastly undermining and obliterating the superstitious past, literally burying it under endless loads of accumulated facts; and the printing-presses, like so many Argos, take these facts on their voyage round the world.

(A slightly more active editorial involvement in this reprint would probably have added an asterisk or gloss noting that “Lyalls” should be “Lyells,” but no matter – there are only a couple of such slips in the entire book)

“Thus men’s minds all over the printing-press world are unlearning the falsehoods that have bound them down so long,” Jefferies wrote, clearly wishing he’d be granted the time to see more of the dawn of this new intellectual freedom. “They are unlearning, the first step to learn.”