Wednesday 6 July 2022

Gilbert White by Richard Mabey at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met for the last session of this academic year in Johnson’s own parlour, where we tried our best to behave and not spill any red wine. The book under discussion was Richard Mabey’s Gilbert White, a biography on the author of The Natural History of Selborne. 

We began by discussing the surprising longevity of White’s own book, an oddly structured description of the parish he lived in and the various plant, animal and mineral life that called it home. The key seems to be White’s skills of close observation linked with an evocative style of writing. Whether it’s describing a martin smoothing a nest with its chin, field mice scurrying in corn or recognising different birds by the way they fly, White captures the animals clearly. What’s more, in focusing on the eternal drama of animal life, the book manages to be timeless. The experience of watching the wheeling, screeching and gambolling of swifts is the same now as it was when White observed them.  

Gilbert White led a very simple life, never progressing very far in his chosen career in the clergy, remaining a bachelor throughout and spending twenty years working very slowly on his one book. This makes him an easy person to project onto and he has been sentimentalised over the years as the archetypical hobbyist-naturalist, wandering the fields looking for plants and bugs. The biography adds a little more complexity to this image, painting him as both tied to his place but slightly rootless, innocently open to experience but also a hard-working perfectionist who constantly tinkered with his book. 

One of the big sources behind the biography is White’s college friend John Mulso. Gilbert did not deserve a friend like John; always supportive, always lightly joshing, always keeping up correspondence and visits, even as White was slow to reciprocate. One of the reasons he didn’t travel far was that he got coach sick. At one point his personal expenses note that he gave a woman a soup tureen to pay back a coach fare and Richard Mabey makes the supposition that it was a joke about his vomiting.

It’s clear that White didn’t like the politicking that went into gaining a decent Living in the church, nor did he grasp romantic opportunities. He seems to have simply enjoyed himself, becoming an uncle to nearly 60 nephews and nieces, making his home in Selborne a treasured holiday destination for them. The most exciting thing in his life seems to have been melon farming, which is described in this book as nail-biting drama. 

One of his other fascinations was the migration of birds, particularly the class of birds called hirundines, such as swifts, swallows and house martins. We now know that they migrate great distances, something he has a suspicion of at first, supposing swifts being able to eat, sleep and even mate on the wing. It’s actually his observations, particularly the brief and irregular appearance of birds for a few sunny days but not on colder ones, that lead him to conclude that they probably hibernated. Sweetly, part of the reason for this is that he felt so attached to ‘his’ birds, he didn’t recognise that what he was actually seeing was a stream of the birds going through Selborne. It’s actually an easy mistake to make; I’d always assumed that blackbirds didn’t migrate as I see them all year round but actually, summer blackbirds have migrated from the south and winter ones come down from the north. 

Talking about Gilbert White brought the naturalist out in all the group and we all found ourselves sharing stories about the birds and animals we’ve seen, the wonder they evoke and the places near London to go listen for cuckoos. The evening ended with a special presentation of a card and flowers for Jane Darcey; who set the Reading Circle up seven years ago, put together the reading lists, ran the sessions, invited the guests and even kept it going through lockdown. Stepping down from her role running the group, everyone wishes her the best, buon viaggio in her trips abroad and looks forward to seeing her again in Dr Johnson’s House.

Our next event is a trip to Bath, with personalised tours, a cavalcade of eighteenth century stars.. and possibly a bun if we’re lucky.

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