COUNTY YARNS - Champion of England’s Fields and Woodlands

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John Richard Jefferies was a very interesting man. Born on 6th November 1848 on his family’s farm near Swindon in Wiltshire, he was destined to lead an itinerant life.

Between the ages of four and nine he went to a private school in Sydenham, south of London, where he lived with his aunt and uncle. He returned to the farm during the holidays and he clearly developed a love for the countryside. His father took him hunting (with gun and snares) and fishing.

He left school at 15 and a year later, he and a cousin, James Cox, decided it would make a great adventure to walk all the way to Russia. The pair got as far as France where they found their limited command of the language was an enormous handicap. Upon returning to Swindon, they saw an advertisement for cheap Atlantic crossings. In Liverpool they discovered the fare did not include food on board; while attempting to pawn their watches to raise money they caught the eye of the police. Another adventure was over before it had hardly begun.

Back in Swindon John displayed no real enthusiasm for farming and gained a reputation as an idler. However, his ambition was to be a writer. Early in 1866, he landed a job as a reporter on a local newspaper. He also submitted stories to other publishers and got noticed by William Morris, an antiquarian and historian who lent books to Jefferies and encouraged him in his writing.

A move to Surbiton near London followed as he strove to find a bigger audience for his work. Now followed his most productive years as he wrote essays that were published in the prestigious Pall Mall Gazette and a series of books that earned him a reputation for being a mystic of the natural world. Titles included The Amateur Poacher and Round About a Great Estate.

He had married Jessie Baden while still living in Wiltshire. The couple had three children, the third, Richard, being born in Brighton in 1883. The family had moved to the South Coast as Richard sought to convalesce from a period of poor health (he was actually suffering from undiagnosed tuberculosis). That year saw a book published called Nature Near London that included chapters referring to Beachy Head, Ditchling Beacon and other Sussex locations. Soon the family was on the move again, this time to Eltham in Kent. Young Richard contracted meningitis and died, aged less than two. A distraught Jefferies could not bear to go to the funeral.

After Eltham, Jefferies lived briefly in various parts of Sussex, first at Rotherfield, then Jarvis Brook and also in a house on Crowborough Hill where he wrote his most unusual novel, Amaryllis at the Fair (1887).

Based on experiences from his early life in Wiltshire, it describes a farm and family unwittingly approaching disaster.

Natural disaster had been a theme in other works. The book After London (1885) is set in a time following some sudden and unspecified catastrophe that killed off much of the population of England. The countryside is reclaimed by nature, and the few survivors must live a way of life little short of that endured by peasants in the Middle Ages. These days it would be termed a ‘post-apocalyptic thriller’ and turned into a blockbuster movie starring Brad Pitt. It’s worth noting that Jefferies’s book was published two years before H G Wells published his own seminal ‘disaster’ novel, War of the Worlds.

Jefferies also wrote two short pieces in the 1870s that described social collapse after London is crippled by freak winter conditions.

The family made one more move to the seaside at Goring near Worthing in another bid to beat Richard’s persistent ill-health. It was made in vain. On 14th August 1887, the exhausted writer died of tuberculosis. He was just 38 when he was interred in Broadwater and Worthing Cemetery.

Today, the house where he died, called Seaview at the time, is in Jefferies Lane, and has a plaque on the outside recording the connection.

The Richard Jefferies Society was established in 1950 and exists to foster interest in the life and works of the writer (www.richardjefferiessociety.co.uk). The inscription on Jefferies’ grave reads: ‘To the honoured memory of the prose poet of England’s fields and woodlands.’