November marks 173 years since the birth of this talented Wiltshire writer whose life was so tragically cut short. Chippenham Library’s Local Studies Champion wanted to discover more about him.
Richard Jefferies (John Richard Jefferies) was born on the 6th November 1848 at Coate farm, Swindon, which now houses the Richard Jefferies Museum. His father was a farmer. His childhood had a great influence on him, providing many of the characters he later wrote about in his novels.
Between the ages of 4 and 9 he stayed with his aunt and uncle at Sydenham and went to a private school, returning to Coate during the holidays. His father would read and explain Shakespeare and the Bible and taught him and his siblings what he knew of natural history. Richard would collect bird eggs, he loved to fish in the brook, climb trees, was also a keen reader and had inherited his father’s handiness with tools. A letter he wrote to his aunt mentions his having made a sundial so he could tell the time.
At 16 he and a cousin ran off to France, intending to walk to Russia. After crossing the Channel, they soon realised that their schoolboy French was not good enough and they returned to England. Before they reached home they saw an advertisement for cheap crossings from Liverpool to America, so set off in this direction, but after buying the tickets they had no money for food and were forced to return home.
When he was 17 he began work on the North Wilts Herald which was published in Swindon. His duties were correcting manuscript and proofs. This work wasn’t well paid but he did have some of his stories published. Jefferies had hoped that his Uncle would pass on his stories to the editor of London Society. He also worked on the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard and Swindon Advertiser. Jefferies developed an antiquarian interest in the countryside and published articles on local history.
In 1874 his first novel was published ‘The Scarlet Shawl’. He also married that year to Jessie Baden a nearby farmers daughter. They lived at Coate Farm for a few months before moving to a house in Swindon.
In early 1877, he, his wife and baby son moved to a house near Surbiton. Jefferies spent much time wandering through the nearby countryside. His new surroundings defined him both to himself and others as a country writer. Many articles drawing on his experiences in the Wiltshire countryside were a success in The Pall Mall Gazette. In 1879 he wrote ‘Wild Life In A Southern County’ and ‘The Amateur Poacher’ followed in 1880 by ‘Round About A Great Estate’. In 1881 and 1882 he wrote The Bevis books which are about a child’s interaction with the natural world.
In 1881 he began to suffer with tuberculosis and after many operations he moved to West Brighton to convalesce. He started to write his autobiography ‘The Story of My Heart’.
In 1885 his next novel was ‘After London’ where nature reclaims England, fields become overrun by forests, animals run wild, roads and towns become overgrown. Today its eco-apocalyptic theme seems ahead of its time.
In August 1887 he died of tuberculosis and exhaustion.
The work of Richard Jefferies has become widely known and admired around the world. Monty Don cited Jefferies' The Story of My Heart as one of his favourite books on Radio 4’s ‘Open Book’. Of the author he said:
"When we think of the classic idea of the British Countryside, people like Thomas Hardy immediately spring to mind, but what Richard Jefferies does is explore the other side of that coin. Jefferies writes about the poverty, the hardship and the injustice of Victorian county life, but at the same time he couples these views with a mystical sense of the immanence of everything, the idea that every leaf, every blade of grass, glows with its own intensity and place in the world".
The Richard Jefferies Museum has produced a new book, Wild Life, inspired by ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, to help spread the word about Richard Jefferies, his life and works.
Richard Jefferies’ birthplace at Coate is open to the public. To find out more, visit https://www.richardjefferies.org/
At WSHC you can also find letters (which have been transcribed) from Richard Jefferies under reference 1192A/2:
Local Studies Champion
- Tags: Coate, Coate Farmhouse, London Society, Monty Don, nature writing, North Wilts Herald, Open Book, Richard Jefferies, Surbiton, Swindon, Swindon Advertiser, The Pall Mall Gazette, tuberculosis, Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, Wiltshire, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, Wiltshire author, writer, ‘After London’, ‘Round About A Great Estate’, ‘The Amateur Poacher’, ‘The Scarlet Shawl’, ‘The Story of My Heart’', ‘Wild Life In A Southern County’