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The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies
Walter Besant


"I remember" – I quote from a letter which has already furnished information about these early days – "that he once showed his brother a roll of manuscript which he said 'meant money' some day." It was necessary in that house to think of money first.

I wonder what that manuscript was. Perhaps poetry – a clever lad's first attempt at verse; there is never a clever lad who does not try his hand at verse. Perhaps it was a story – we shall see that he wrote many stories. At that time his handwriting was so bad that when he began to feed the press, the compositors bought him a copybook and a penholder and begged him to use it. He did use it, and his handwriting presently became legible at least, but it remained to the end a bad handwriting. His note-books especially are very hard to read.

He was left by his father perfectly free and uncontrolled. He was allowed to do what he pleased or what he could find to do. This liberty of action made him self-reliant. It also, perhaps, increased his habit of solitude and reserve. In those days he used to draw a great deal, and is said to have acquired considerable power in pen-and-ink sketches, but I have never seen any of them.

At this period he was careless as to his dress and appearance; he suffered his hair to grow long until it reached his coat collar. "This," says one who knew him then, "with his bent form and long, rapid stride, made him an object of wonder in the town of Swindon. But he was perfectly unconscious of this, or indifferent to it."

Later on, he understood better the necessity of paying attention to personal appearance, and in his advice to the young journalist he points out that he should be quietly but well dressed, and that he should study genial manners.

In appearance Richard Jefferies was very tall – over six feet. He was always thin. At the age of seventeen his friends feared that he would go into a decline, which was happily averted – perhaps through his love for the open air. His hair was dark-brown; his beard was brown, with a shade of auburn; his forehead both high and broad; his features strongly marked; his nose long, clear, and straight; his lower lip thick; his eyebrows distinguished by the meditative droop; his complexion was fair, with very little colour. The most remarkable feature in his face was his large and clear blue eye; it was so full that it ought to have been short-sighted, yet his sight was far as well as keen. His face was full of thought; he walked with somewhat noiseless tread and a rapid stride. He never carried an umbrella or wore a great-coat, nor, except in very cold weather, did he wear gloves. He had great powers of endurance in walking, but his physical strength was never great. In manner, as has been already stated, he was always reserved; at this time so much so as to appear morose to those who knew him but slightly. He made few friends. Indeed, all through life he made fewer friends than any other man. This was really because, for choice, he always lived as much in the country as possible, and partly because he had no sympathy with the ordinary pursuits of men. Such a man as Richard Jefferies could never be clubable. What would he talk about at the club? The theatre? He never went there. Literature of the day? He seldom read it. Politics? He belonged to the people, and cursed either party. That once said, he had nothing more to say. Art? He had ideas of his own on painting, and they were unconventional. Gossip and scandal? He never heard any. Wine? He knew nothing about wine. Yet to those whom he knew and trusted he was neither reserved nor morose. An eremite would be driven mad by chatter if he left his hermitage and came back to his native town; so this roamer among the hills could not endure the profitless talk of man, while Nature was willing to break her silence for him alone among the hills and in the woods.

He became, then, a journalist. It is a profession which leaves large gaps in the day, and sometimes whole days of leisure. The work, to such a lad as Jefferies, was easy; he had to attend meetings and report them; to write descriptive papers; to furnish and dress up paragraphs of news; to look about the town and pick up everything that was said or done; to attend the police courts, inquests, county courts, auctions, markets, and everything. The life of a country journalist is busy, but it is in great measure an out-door life.

Although Mr. Morris was his first literary friend and adviser, Jefferies was never attached to his paper as reporter. Perhaps there was no vacancy at the time. He obtained work on the North Wilts Herald, and afterwards became in addition the Swindon correspondent of the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, published at Cirencester. The editor of the North Wilts Herald was a Mr. Piper, who died two years ago. Of him Jefferies always spoke with the greatest respect, calling him his old master. But in what sense he himself was a pupil I know not. Nor can I gather that Jefferies, who acquired his literary style much later, and after, as will be seen, the production of much work which has deservedly fallen into oblivion, learned anything as a writer from anybody. In the line which he afterwards struck out for himself – that of observations of nature – his master, as regards the subject-matter, was his father; as regards his style he had no master.

He filled these posts and occupied himself in this kind of work between the years 1865 and 1877.

But he did other things as well, showing that he never intended to sit down in ignoble obscurity as the reporter of a country newspaper.

I have before me a little book called "Reporting, Editing, and Authorship," published without date at Swindon, and by John Snow and Co., Ivy Lane, London. I think it appeared in the year 1872, when he was in his twenty-fourth year. It is, however, the work of a very young man; the kind of work at which you must not laugh, although it amuses you, because it is so very much in earnest, and at the same time so very elementary. You see before you in these pages the ideal reporter – Jefferies was always zealous to do everything that he had to do as well as it could be done. It is divided into three chapters, but the latter two are vague and tentative, compared with the first. The little book should have been called, "He would be an Author."

"Let the aspirant," he says, "begin with acquiring a special knowledge of his own district. The power and habit of doing this may subsequently stand him in good stead as a war-correspondent. Let him next study the trade and industries peculiar to the place. If he is able to write of these graphically, he will acquire a certain connection and good-will among the masters. He will strengthen himself if he contributes papers upon these subjects to the daily papers or to the magazines; thus he will grow to be regarded as a representative man. Next, he should study everywhere the topography, antiquities, traditions, and general characteristics of the country wherever he goes; he should visit the churches, and write about them. He may go on to write a local history, or he may take a local tradition and weave a story round about it – things which local papers readily publish. Afterwards he may write more important tales for country newspapers, and so by easy stages rise to the grandeur of writing tales for the monthly magazines." Observe that so far the ambition of the writer is wholly in the direction of novels.

One piece of advice contrasts strongly with the description of him given by his cousin. He has found out that eccentricity of appearance and manner does not advance a man. Therefore he writes:

"A good personal manner greatly conduces to the success of the reporter. He should be pleasant and genial, but not loud: inquiring without being inquisitive: bold, but not presumptuous: and above all respectful. The reporter should be able to talk on all subjects with all men. He should dress well, because it obtains him immediate attention: but should be careful to avoid anything 'horsey' or fast. The more gentlemanly his appearance and tone, the better he will be received."

The chapter on Editing gives a tolerably complete account of the conduct of a country-town newspaper. The chapter on Authorship is daring, because the writer as yet knew nothing whatever of the subject. Among other mistakes is the very common one of supposing that a young man can help himself on by publishing at his own expense a manuscript which all the respectable publishing houses have refused. He himself subsequently acted upon this mistake, and lost his money without in the least advancing his reputation. The young writer can seldom be made to understand that all publishers are continually on the look-out for good work; that good work is almost certain (though mistakes have been made) to be taken up by the first publisher to whom it is offered; that if it is refused by good Houses, the reason is that it is not good work, and that paying for publication will not turn bad work into good. Jefferies concludes his little book by so shocking a charge against the general public that it shall be quoted just to show what this country lad of nineteen or twenty thought was the right and knowing thing to say about them:

"The public will read any commonplace clap-trap if only a well-known name be attached to it. Hence any amount of expenditure is justified with this object. It is better at once to realize the fact, however unpleasant it may be to the taste, and instead of trying to win the good-will of the public by laborious work, treat literature as a trade, which, like other trades, requires an immense amount of advertising."

This is Jefferies' own ideal of a journalist. In March, 1866, being then eighteen years of age, he began his work on the North Wilts Herald.

CHAPTER III.

LETTERS FROM 1866 TO 1872

The principal sources of information concerning the period of early manhood are the letters – a large number of these are happily preserved – which he wrote to his aunt, Mrs. Harrild. In these letters, which are naturally all about himself, his work, his hopes, and his disappointments, he writes with perfect freedom and from his heart. It is still a boyish heart, young and innocent. "I always feel dull," he says, "when I leave you. I am happier with you than at home, because you enter into my prospects with interest and are always kind… I wish I could have got something to do in the neighbourhood of Sydenham, which would have enabled me to live with you."

The letters reveal a youth taken too soon from school, but passionately fond of reading – of industry and application intense and unwearied; he confesses his ambitions – they are for success; he knows that he has the power of success within him; he tries for success continually, and is as often beaten back, because, though this he cannot understand, in the way he tries success is impossible for him. Let us run through this bundle of letters.

One thing to him who reads the whole becomes immediately apparent, though it is not so clear from the extracts alone. It is the self-consciousness of the writer as regards style. That is because he is intended by nature to become a writer. He thinks how he may put things to the best advantage; he understands the importance of phrase; he wants not only to say a thing, but to say it in a striking and uncommon manner. Later on, when he has gotten a style to himself, he becomes more familiar and chatty. Thus, for instance, the boy speaks of the great organ at the Crystal Palace: "To me music is like a spring of fresh water in the midst of the desert to a wearied Arab." He was genuinely and truly fond of good music, and yet this phrase has in it a note of unreality. Again, he is speaking of one of his aunt's friends, and says, as if he was the author of "Evelina": "How is Mr. A.? I remember him as a pleasant gentleman, anxious not to give trouble, and the result is …" and so forth. When one understands that these letters were written by the immature writer, such little things, with which they abound, are pleasing.

In March, 1866, he describes the commencement of his work on the North Wilts Herald; he speaks of the kindness of his chief and the pleasant nature of his work. In December of the same year he sends a story which he wants his uncle to submit to a London magazine. In June, 1867, he writes that he has completed his "History of Swindon" and its neighbourhood. This probably appeared in the pages of his newspaper.

In the same year he says that he has finished a story called "Malmesbury."

"Here I have no books – no old monkish records to assist me – everything must be hunted out upon the spot. I visit every place I have to refer to, copy inscriptions, listen to legends, examine antiquities, measure this, estimate that; and a thousand other employments essential to a correct account take up my time. The walking I can do is something beyond belief. To give an instance. There is a book published some twenty years ago founded on a local legend. This I wanted, and have actually been to ten different houses in search of it; that is, have had a good fifty miles' walk, and as yet all in vain. However, I think I am on the right scent now, and believe I shall get it.

"This neighbourhood is a mine for an antiquary. I was given to understand at school that in ancient days Britain was a waste – uninhabited, rude and savage. I find this is a mistake. I see traces of former habitation, and former generations, in all directions. There, Roman coins; here, British arrowheads, tumuli, camps – in short, the country, if I may use the expression, seems alive with the dead. I am inclined to believe that this part of North Wilts, at least, was as thickly inhabited of yore as it is now, the difference being only in the spots inhabited having been exchanged for others more adapted to the wants of the times. I do not believe these sweeping assertions as to the barbarous state of our ancestors. The more I study the matter the more absurd and unfounded appear the notions popularly received."

"The spiders have been more disturbed in the last few days than for twelve months past. I detest this cruelty to spiders. I admire these ingenious insects. One individual has taken possession of a box of mine. This fellow I call Cæsar Borgia, because he has such an affection for blood. You will call him a monster, which is praise, since his size shows the number of flies he has destroyed. Why not keep a spider as well as a cat? They are both useful in their way, and a spider has this advantage, that he will spin you a web which will do instead of tapestry."

Between July 21st and September 2nd of this year he writes of a bad illness which sent him to bed and kept him there, until he became as thin as a skeleton. As soon as he was able to get out of bed he wrote to his aunt; his eyes were weak, and he could read but little, which was a dreadful privation for him. And he was most anxious lest he should lose his post on the paper.

Later on he tells the good news that Mr. Piper will give him another fortnight so that he may get a change of air and a visit to Sydenham.

He goes back to Swindon apparently strengthened and in his former health and energy. Besides his journal work he reports himself engaged upon an "Essay on Instinct." This is the first hint of his finding out his own line, which, however, he would not really discover for a long time yet.

"The country," he says, little thinking what the country was going to do for him, "is very quiet and monotonous. There is a sublime sameness in Coate that reminds you of the stars that rise and set regularly just as we go to bed down here."

His grandfather – old Iden of "Amaryllis" – died in April, 1868.

He speaks in June of his own uncertain prospects.

"My father," he says, "will neither tell me what he would like done or anything else, so that I go my own way and ask nobody…" The letters are full of the little familiar gossip concerning this person and that, but he can never resist the temptation of telling his aunt – who "enters into his prospects" – all that he is doing. He has now spent two months over a novel – this young man thinks that two months is a prodigiously long time to give to a novel. "I have taken great pains with it," he says, "and flatter myself that I have produced a tale of a very different class to those sensational stories I wrote some time ago. I have attempted to make my story lifelike by delineating character rather than by sensational incidents. My characters are many of them drawn from life, and some of my incidents actually took place." This is taking a step in the right direction. One wonders what this story was. But alas! there were so many in those days, and the end of all was the same. And yet the poor young author took such pains, such infinite pains, and all to no purpose, for he was still groping blindly in the dark, feeling for himself.

His health, however, gave way again. He tells his aunt that he has been fainting in church; that he finds his work too exciting; that his walking powers seem to have left him – everybody knows the symptoms when a young man outgrows his strength; he would like some quiet place; such a Haven of Repose or Castle of Indolence, for instance, as the Civil Service. All young men yearn at times for some place where there will be no work to do, and it speaks volumes for the happy administration of this realm that every young man in his yearning fondly turns his eyes to the Civil Service.

He has hopes, he says, of getting on to the reporting staff of the Daily News, ignorant of the truth that a single year of work on a great London paper would probably have finished him off for good. Merciful, indeed, are the gods, who grant to mankind, of all their prayers, so few.

In July he was prostrated by a terrible illness, aggravated by the great heat of that summer. This illness threatened to turn into consumption – a danger happily averted. But it was many months before he could sit up and write to his aunt in pencil. He was at this time greatly under the influence of religion, and his letters are full of a boyish, simple piety. The hand of God is directing him, guiding him, punishing him. His heart is soft in thinking over the many consolations which his prayers have brought him, and of the increased benefit which he has derived from reading the Bible. He has passed through, he confesses, a period of scepticism, but that, he is happy to say, is now gone, never to return again.

He is able to get out of bed at last; he can read a little, though his eyes are weak; he can once more return to his old habits, and drinks his tea again as sweet as he can make it; he is able presently to seize his pen again. And then … then … is he not going to be a great author? And who knows in what direction? … then he begins a tragedy called "Cæsar Borgia; or, The King of Crime."

He is touched by the thoughtfulness of the cottagers. They have all called to ask after him; they have brought him honey. He resolves to cultivate the poor people more.

"After all," he says, with wisdom beyond his years, "books are dead; they should not be our whole study. Too much study is selfish."

Unfortunately the letters of the year 1869 have not been preserved; but we may very well understand that the lad spent that year in much the same way as the year before and the year after. That is to say, he wrote for his country paper; he reported; he collected local news; and he devoted his spare time to the writing of stories which were never to see the light, or, more unhappy still, to perish at their birth.

In the autumn of the year 1870 the letters begin again. He has now got money enough to give himself a holiday. He is at Hastings, and he is going across the water to Ostend. It is in September. The Prince Imperial of France is in the place, and Jefferies hopes to see him. There is a postscript with a characteristic touch: "I do not forget A – . Her large and beautiful eyes have haunted me ever since our visit to Worthing. Remember me to her, but please do it privately; let no one else know what I have said of her. I hope to see her again."

Presently he did see the Prince, sitting at the window of his room in the Marine Hotel. The adventures which followed were, he says in his next letter, "almost beyond credibility."

You shall hear how wonderful they were. Lying in bed one night, a happy thought occurred to him. He would write some verses on the exile of the Prince.

"… No sooner thought than done. I composed them that night, and wrote them out, and posted them the first thing next morning (Thursday). You say I am always either too precipitate or too procrastinating. At least, I lost no time in this. A day went by, and on Easter day there came a note to me at the hotel, from the aide-de-camp of the Prince, acknowledging the receipt of the verses, and saying that the Prince had been much pleased with them. You will admit this was about enough to turn a young author's head. Not being au fait in French, I took the note to a French lady professor, and she translated it for me. I enclose the translation for you. But does not S. learn French? If so, it would be good practice for her to try and read the note. Please tell her to take care of it, as it cannot be replaced, and will be of great value to me in after-life. If I were seeking a place on a London paper the production of that note would be a wonderful recommendation. Well, the reception of that acknowledgment encouraged me, and on the following morning I set to work and wrote a letter to the Prince, communicating some rather important information which I had learnt whilst connected with the press. The result was a second letter from the aide-de-camp, this time dictated by the Empress Eugénie, who had read my note. I send you this letter too, and must beg you to carefully preserve it. I took it and had it translated by the same French lady, Madame – , and I enclose her translation. She says that the expressions are very warm, and cannot be adequately rendered into English. She says it would be impossible to write more cordially in French than the Empress has done. Now came another discovery. It came out in conversation with this French lady that she had actually been to school with the Empress in her youth; that they had played together, and been on picnics together. Her husband was a sea-commander, and she showed me his belt, etc. He served Napoleon when Napoleon was president, but protested against the coup d'état of 1851, and they had then to leave Paris. She had been unfortunate, and had now to earn her bread. She still preserves her husband's coat-of-arms, etc. Then came another discovery. It appeared that the equerries of the Empress (sixteen in number), unable to speak English, had seen her advertisement and came to her to act as interpreter. She did so. After a while it crept out that these rascals were abusing their employer behind her back, and even went the length of letting out private conversations they had overheard in the Tuileries, and at the Marine Hotel. She felt extremely indignant at this ungrateful conduct (for they are well paid and have three months' wages in advance), and she should like the Empress to know, but being so poor she could not call on her old companion; indeed, her pride would not permit. These were the men, she said, from whom the Prussians obtained intelligence; and certainly they did act the part of spies. Other Frenchmen resident here met them at an inn, and they there detailed to them what they had learnt at the Marine Hotel. I persuaded her (she was in a terrible way, indignant and angry) to write to my friend, the aide-de-camp, and see him. She did so, and the consequence is that a number of these fellows have been discharged. The Empress and the Prince are still here, despite all paragraphs in the papers. They drove out yesterday afternoon. I saw them…"

After this adventure Jefferies took the boat from Dover to Ostend. He had more adventures on the journey:

"… It was a beautiful night, scarcely a breath of air, moonlight and starlit, and a calm sea. Every little wave that broke against the side flashed like lightning with the phosphoric light of the zoophytes, and when at eleven the paddles began to move, great circles of phosphoric light surrounded the vessel. I was on deck all night, for instead of being four hours as advertised, the boat was eight hours at sea. After we had been out about four hours the sailors mistook a light on the horizon for Ostend, and steamed towards it. Presently the light rose higher, and proved to be the planet Venus, shining so brilliantly. At this moment an immense bank of fog enveloped us, so thick that one could scarcely see from one end of the ship to the other. The captain had lost his way, and the paddles were stopped. After a short time there was the sound of a cannon booming over the sea. Everyone rushed on deck, thinking of war and ironclads; but it was the guns at Ostend, far away, firing to direct ships into port through the fog. It was now found that we had actually got about opposite Antwerp. So the ship was turned, and we slowly crept back, afraid of running on shore. Then, after an hour or two of this, we got into shallow water, and the lead was heaved every minute. The steam-whistle was sounded, and the guns on shore again fired. To our surprise, we had run past Ostend almost as much the other way, thanks to the fog. Now I heard a bell ringing on shore – the matin bell – and you cannot imagine how strange that bell sounded. You must understand no shore was visible. More firing and whistling, until people began to think we should have to remain till the fog cleared. But I did not grumble; rather, I was glad, for this delay gave me the opportunity of seeing the sun, just as the fog cleared, rise at sea – an indescribable sight:

'Then over the waste of water
The morning sun uprose,
Through the driving mist revealed,
Like the lifting of the Host
By incense clouds almost
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