Gilbert White was an 18th century clergyman with an inquiring mind & an obsessive interest in natural history. He lived almost all his life in the parish of Selborne, Hampshire, near the borders of Sussex & Surrey, in his family home, The Wakes. After studying at Oxford, he had hoped for an academic career but, when they didn’t happen, he moved back to Selborne after inheriting the family home & spent the rest of his life there, ministering to the parish & observing nature. The Natural History consists of two series of letters, written to the naturalists Thomas Pennant & the Hon Daines Barrington. These gentlemen valued the minute observation & experience of White as he had been observing his local area for years, recording his observations in a series of notebooks called The Naturalist’s Journal. Thomas Pennant, who White knew through his brother, the London bookseller Benjamin White, gave Gilbert White his first Journal, which was designed by his other correspondent, Daines Barrington.
The Journal was a means of encouraging amateur naturalists to record their observations so that the cyclical & seasonal differences could be observed in the life cycles of all species of animals. White believed that the observation of a small area over a long period of time was crucial in the accumulation of knowledge that allowed theories of natural history to be developed. Although he was interested in the wider world, referring in his letters to books of traveller’s tales of everywhere from India to China, he recognised that his own observations of his parish were just as important. His decision to publish his observations in the form of his letters to Pennant & Barrington is in an eighteenth century tradition of histories of the antiquities of English counties. White took this to a new level with his concentration on the parish of Selborne. His intimate descriptions of the natural phenomena of the local area struck the original readers & reviewers of the book as something new & attractive & the book has never been out of print.
I would also suggest that the personality of White himself is no small part of the attraction. He is an endearing character, endlessly curious, obsessed with nature & expecting everyone to provide him with observations as well. He had family living in Spain & Gibraltar as well as other parts of England. His letters to them must have been full of inquiries about the habits of the birds & animals they observed as he often includes this evidence in the published letters. I imagine him on his daily travels, making notes & being acutely aware of everything around him, then filling in the day’s observations in the Journal each night. He was a true enthusiast, who finds it strange that others are not as alert to the habits of their fellow creatures as he is himself.
As a clergyman with a recognized place in local society, he was able to prevail upon his parishioners for information & their own experiences. The locals obviously knew that he would be grateful for any specimens they could procure for him as he’s often dissecting a decomposing mouse or bird brought to him as an object of interest. He was able to spend long periods observing the habits of birds especially; the minuteness of his reports on the different habits of flight, the way nests are built or the way birds feed their young reflect the time he spent on this. His love of the classics is also evident as he often quotes classical authors & it’s evident that he sees everything through the lens of the natural world.
I’ve marked so many passages that I want to quote as I think hearing White’s own voice will inspire readers much more than any description of the book that I can give. Here he is on cats (of course, I had to quote this),
There is a propensity belonging to common house-cats that is very remarkable; I mean their violent fondness for fish, which appears to be their most favourite food: and yet nature in this instance seems to have planted in them an appetite that, unassisted, they know not how to gratify: for of all quadrupeds cats are the least disposed towards water; and will not, when they can avoid it, deign to wet a foot, much less to plunge into that element.
Even on visits (the Duke of Richmond’s moose was more of an attraction on a visit to Goodwood than the house or the Duke), it seems it was the animals he was interested in as much as his friends & family,
Happening to make a visit to my neighbour’s peacocks, I could not help observing that the trains of these magnificent birds appear by no means to be their tails; those long feathers growing not from their uropygium (rump), but all up their backs.
This same letter ends with,
I should tell you that I have got an uncommon calculus aegogropila (hairball), taken out of the stomach of a fat ox; it is perfectly round, and about the size of a large Seville orange; such are, I think, usually flat.
Obviously everyone should be willing to observe the habits of nature at any time of day or night,
Hedge-sparrows frequent sinks (open drains) and gutters in hard weather, where they pick up crumbs and other sweepings: and in mild weather they procure worms, which are stirring every month in the year, as any one may see that will only be at the trouble of taking a candle to a grass-plot on any mild winter’s night.
The detail of White’s (& his friends’) observations is truly amazing,
A neighbour of mine, who is said to have a nice ear, remarks that the owls about this village hoot in three different keys, in G flat, or F sharp, in B flat and A flat. He heard two hooting to each other, the one in A flat, and the other in B flat. Query: Do these different notes proceed from different species, or only from various individuals?
The most famous character in the letters is Timothy, the tortoise belonging to White’s Aunt Rebecca. After her death in March 1780, White brought Timothy back to Selborne, “The rattle and hurry of the journey (eighty miles in a post-chaise) so perfectly roused it that, when I turned it out on a border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden” before burying itself in the earth to resume its hibernation. White ponders the longevity of the tortoise,
When one reflects on the state of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squander more than two thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor, and to be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers.
and admires his instinct to make himself comfortable,
But as he avoids heat in the summer, so, in the decline of the year, he improves the faint autumnal beams, by getting within the reflection of a fruit-wall: and, though he never has read that planes inclining to the horizon receive a greater share of warmth,he inclines his shell, by tilting it against the wall, to collect and admit every feeble ray.
One more quote about Timothy, I can’t resist,
No part of its behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire, shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner.
This new edition from Oxford University Press, is edited by Anne Secord. I don’t usually read the Introduction before the book when I read fiction but, in this case, I would definitely recommend it as Secord’s Introduction puts White & The Natural History into context. I knew very little about White & I would have been confused if I’d just plunged straight in. The notes are also very necessary to translate the Latin & Greek as well as the more obscure words that weren’t obvious from the context. I now know the meaning of autopsia, faunists, nidification & cantoned.
Oxford University Press kindly sent me a review copy of The Natural History of Selborne.