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‘Matter of Curious Inquiry’: Gilbert White and The Natural History of Selborne: part 1

18 July 2020 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Gilbert White, the pioneering naturalist and author of the perennially popular Natural History of Selborne, published in 1788. In this blog post, I explore some aspects of Gilbert White’s life, his significance as a proto-environmentalist and scientist, and the charm of his natural-history writing.

18 July 2020 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Gilbert White, the pioneering naturalist and author of the perennially popular Natural History of Selborne, published in 1788. In this blog post, I explore some aspects of Gilbert White’s life, his significance as a proto-environmentalist and scientist, and the charm of his natural-history writing.

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Engraved title page by Eric Ravilious to volume one of The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne (London: Nonesuch Press, 1938), one of the most beautiful editions of The Natural History of Selborne.

In 1993 I curated an exhibition at the John Rylands Library to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Gilbert White of Selborne. The exhibition, entitled ‘Matter of Curious Inquiry’: Gilbert White and The Natural History of Selborne, drew on the wealth of White’s papers and editions of The Natural History that had been donated by the 10th earl of Stamford, a descendant of Gilbert’s brother Henry, and subsequent deposits by the National Trust. Back then I never imagined that in 2020 I would still be at the Library and so able to celebrate White’s 300th birthday by reprising that exhibition, albeit online.

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Engraving by Eric Ravilious from The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne (London: Nonesuch Press, 1938), vol. 1, p. 264, showing Gilbert White in his garden, with his beloved tortoise Timothy. White was a very keen gardener and in 1751 he began to keep a journal, the Garden Kalendar, in which he recorded his daily horticultural activities at The Wakes in Selborne. The greenhouse was used to grow melons and other exotic species.

Gilbert White was born in the small village of Selborne, Hampshire, on 18 July 1720, and spent almost all of his seventy-three years there. He was educated at Oxford in preparation for entering the Church of England. But he seems to have lacked clerical ambition and declined the chance of wealthy livings, preferring to remain a humble curate at Selborne. He never married; his affections were directed towards his native village, developing an intimate knowledge of every meadow, wood, pond and ‘hollow lane’.

By confining his attention to one parish, White was able to study its flora and fauna in minute detail, to appreciate the interconnection of species, and to develop a deep empathy with the natural world. He was a proto-environmentalist and gentleman-scientist, in an era when amateurs could make significant contributions to natural science. As he wrote: ‘the investigation of the life and conversation of animals … is not to be attained but by the active and inquisitive, and by those that reside much in the country.’ (NHS, letter 10)

Gilbert White’s individual contributions to science were few in comparison to those of Charles Darwin, for instance, but they were nonetheless significant. He is credited with the discovery in Britain of the noctule bat, and he was the first to distinguish the three British species of leaf warbler. It is appropriate that we owe to White, a ‘very exact observer’, the first description of the tiny harvest mouse.

Harvest Mouse Julian King
Harvest Mouse. Photograph by Julian King reproduced under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jumerphotography/29805300818

The conjunction of person and place gave rise to The Natural History of Selborne. The book is ostensibly no more than a collection of letters by a country parson describing the natural world of his native parish. Gilbert White was an prolific letter writer. He corresponded with members of his extended family, with friends from his Oxford days, but above all with fellow naturalists, including Carl Linnaeus and John Ray. In this way, from the relative isolation of a Hampshire village, he was able to keep abreast of the latest scientific thinking, and to expose his ideas to the scrutiny of his peers.

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Letter from Gilbert White to his brother-in-law Thomas Barker of Lyndon Hall, Rutland, discussing rainfall figures, brewing beer, and the fattening of pigs, 10 January 1787. English MS 1306/29.

White conceived the idea of turning his letters to fellow naturalists Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington into a natural history of his native village. However, The Natural History of Selborne is as much a work of literature as it is of natural history, in which literary devices are used to shape the book and provide dramatic effect. White extensively edited his genuine letters and framed them with invented introductory and concluding ‘letters’. The letter form perfectly suited the intimacy of White’s observations of nature.

It is something of a paradox that a work which is literally parochial has enjoyed such widespread popularity. Various qualities can be identified in White’s writing which may account for this appeal: his unaffected style, his quiet humour, the accuracy of his observations; but above all, the respect and affection with which he viewed the natural world. As Richard Mabey wrote: ‘White had rescued natural history from the dusty cabinets of the taxonomists, given it a human scale and a human setting, and humanized it.’ [Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne, ed. Richard Mabey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), xx.]

In the next blog post, I will look at the publication history of The Natural History of Selborne, one of the most frequently published books in the English language.

 

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