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‘Matter of Curious Inquiry’: Gilbert White and The Natural History of Selborne: part 2

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 the first blog post to celebrate the centenary, I explored Gilbert White’s life, his significance as a proto-environmentalist and scientist, and the charm of his natural-history writing. In this second blog post, I discuss the publication history of The Natural History of Selborne and its evergreen appeal to successive generations of readers. 

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 the first blog post to celebrate the centenary, I explored Gilbert White’s life, his significance as a proto-environmentalist and scientist, and the charm of his natural-history writing. In this second post, I discuss the publication history of The Natural History of Selborne and its evergreen appeal to successive generations of readers. 

Vol 2 title page
Title page of volume two of The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne (London: Nonesuch Press, 1938), engraved by Eric Ravilious.

‘My work will be well got up, with a good type, & on good paper; & will be embellished with several engravings. It has been in the press some time; & is to come out in the spring.’ So Gilbert White wrote to his nephew Samuel Barker in January 1788 (Rylands English MS 1306/30). In fact The Natural History of Selborne did not appear until December 1788 (though bearing the date 1789). It was indeed well got up, with engravings by the Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymus Grimm. A panoramic view of Selborne was selected for the frontispiece.

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Watercolour by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, made for the frontispiece of the first edition of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Reproduced by kind permission of Gilbert White & The Oates Collections, Gilbert White’s House, Selborne.

Since its first publication in 1788, The Natural History of Selborne has been issued in over two hundred editions. No other book on natural history has attracted such an extensive and persistent readership. Each generation has sought to reinterpret the author and his book in the light of its own interests and concerns.

In 1792, less than four years after its first publication in England, a German translation was published in Berlin under the title of White’s Beyträge zur Naturgeschichte von England. The German edition was severely abridged. The translator, Friedrich Albrecht Anton Meyer (1768–95), claimed that ‘the original has much chaff (Spreu) in it, but also some corn that is worth transplanting into German soil.’ The work is very rare: the John Rylands Library holds one of only three known copies in the UK, a gift from the 10th earl of Stamford.*

In Britain the book first achieved the status of a classic in the 1830s, and for the rest of the nineteenth century scarcely a year went by without a new edition appearing. As the country was being transformed by the Industrial Revolution, The Natural History of Selborne was seen as an evocation of a rural idyll that had disappeared for ever. Gilbert White was transformed into a mythical figure, the clean-living, celibate clergyman, uncomplicated, at one with nature, a representative of a lost Golden Age.

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Engraving by Eric Ravilious from The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne (London: Nonesuch Press, 1938), vol. 1, p. 243, illustrating Letter 42, on birds.

In 1938 the Nonesuch Press published a magnificent two-volume limited edition of The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne, with wood engravings by Eric Ravilious, painter, engraver and designer. Ravilious spent several days in Selborne while working on the illustrations, absorbing the atmosphere of the village, and his engravings successfully convey the period charm of The Natural History of Selborne. Most of the images used to illustrate this and the previous blog post are derived from Ravilious’s engravings. The Library holds two copies of this edition; one, from the Allen Freer Collection, originally belonged to its editor, H. J. Massingham.

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Engraving by Eric Ravilious from The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne (London: Nonesuch Press, 1938), vol. 1, p. 301, illustrating Letter 65, on the ‘amazing and portentous’ summer of 1783. The freak conditions were caused by the Laki eruption in Iceland.

The Natural History of Selborne has enjoyed considerable popularity in wartime, perhaps as an escape from grim reality. James Fisher expressed such sentiments in his preface to the first Penguin edition, published in 1941 and illustrated by Clare Leighton: ‘ His world is round and simple and complete: the British country; the perfect escape. No breath of the outside world enters in; no politics; no ambition; no care or cost.’

Penguin Selborne
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1941), illustrated by Clare Leighton, private collection.

In the last hundred years much of the British countryside has been transformed by intensive farming or lost entirely beneath motorways, industrial estates and housing developments. Despite, or perhaps because of, these changes, The Natural History of Selborne remains as popular as ever. With his affection for the natural world and his understanding of the interrelationship of living things, Gilbert White has been heralded as a forerunner of the modern environmental movement. During the Covid-19 lockdown, many have found solace in the natural world in their own localities. Gilbert White remains as relevant today as ever.

Postscript. The autograph manuscript of The Natural History of Selborne now appropriately resides at The Wakes in Selborne. It has been digitised and can be viewed online at http://www.gilbertwhiteshouse.org.uk/manuscript/.

* Other copies are held at Gilbert White’s House and Cambridge University Library.

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