Indexing Gilbert White

November 10, 2018 0 Comments

Selborne, Hampshire. Why we’ve never been there before I don’t know. The village isn’t far from Winchester, familiar enough territory. It’s a bit off the beaten track, though a busy B road passes through the village, channelling noise and people through the narrow main street that would have been quiet in the mid-eighteenth century, when Gilbert White rode his horse down it, and the hollow lanes leading off it (carriages made his feel sick and he preferred horseback).

There are only a few people looking round the house and grounds when we reach The Wakes. Gilbert White’s father had lived here before him, and he was lucky, with his modest curate’s stipend, to live in such a fine house (though smaller then than it is now), for over sixty years. He was lucky too that his duties were light enough to allow him time to improve his home and the gardens behind, and to make the observations of his parish’s natural history that made his name, after the publication of The natural history of Selborne in 1788 (1789 according to the title page).

The trust that looks after the house and estate has done a fine job in preserving the house and conserving the grounds. An HLF-funded project has restored the stables as a café (alas, the chance was lost to reopen Gilbert’s brewhouse as a microbrewery using his own recipes). By the time you’ve wandered through the house, read the excellent information panels, watched the two films and wondered at the number of editions of The natural history on display (over 300), you come away with a fair idea of Gilbert White’s background, achievements and character.

Then there’s the estate. This is the real Selborne experience, especially on a fine autumn afternoon, with the sun slanting down through the trees of The Hanger, the steep, densely wooded hill above the village. Its 30 acres are a wonderful mix of open parkland – sculptured in the established eighteenth century way, with long vistas, clumps of trees, a ha-ha and sundial, and even a wooden ‘Hercules Farnese’ skulking under the wood – and sheltered domestic gardens (White was an energetic and experimental gardener): vegetable plots, herb gardens, a melon plot, a pooled glade and a fruit tree wall.

We come back to the house with the contented feeling that all must be well with the world, if this is how it appears before us. Which is probably what Gilbert White, a believer in divine providence and the Great Chain of Being, would have felt himself. In ‘Selborne Hanger’, one of his poems prefacing the letters in the second edition of The natural history of Selborne, he invites the nymphs of The Hanger to return and ‘bring all Arcady before our eyes’.

But White was no more of a conventional pious countryman clergyman than his contemporary, Laurence Sterne. He was obsessed by the natural world, in three particular ways. First, he observed its living creatures and plants as he found them, outside in their natural environment, not, as was more usual at the time, as dead specimens in cases, or in even deader books. What’s more, his observations were inquisitive, acute and longitudinal (he insisted on the value of recording data across a period of years). Second, he’s ultra-local. The book rarely strays beyond the parish boundary of Selborne. But that microcosm is rich enough: ‘Selborne parish alone can and has exhibited at times more than half the birds that are ever seen in all Sweden’ (letter XL). Every living thing that inhabits it is a candidate for the minutest study: stinking bats, migrating swallows, tiny mice, troublesome harvest bugs, copulating frogs. And third, he views non-human life with a respect and fellow-feeling that, again, was very unusual for his time. People often feel that his ethos is nearer to our own ‘new ecology’ than the assumptions of his own age. Here he is on hunting:

Though large herds of deer do much harm to the neighbourhood, yet the injury to the morals of the people is of more moment than the loss of their crops. The temptation is irresistible; for most men are sportsmen by constitution: and there is such an inherent spirit for hunting in human nature, as scarce any inhibitions can restrain. (Letter VII)

The book’s structure mirrors these concerns. It takes the form of short letters. They flit about from subject to subject as you would if you went for a walk and observed what lay round you. As he writes, White seems to address his two correspondents, Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington, as if he were outside with them, deep in conversation.

It’s not clear how White came to know Thomas Pennant, the historian, travel writer and naturalist of Downing, Flintshire. His first dated letter to Pennant was sent on 4 August 1767. By then Pennant had just published his British zoology (in 1766-7), of which Gilbert’s bookseller brother Benjamin later (1768-70) published an octavo version. Probably the two had known each other, through Benjamin, for some time before (Pennant began writing his book in 1761). Whether the two ever met, though, is uncertain (perhaps the current Curious Travellers project, which is publishing all Pennant’s correspondence, may tell us more).

Pennant’s letters to White don’t survive. We just have the occasional quote, reference to British zoology, and echoes of what he wrote in his correspondence: that he gained ‘satisfaction from my correspondence on account of my living in the most southerly county’; that his work on reptiles and frogs is going well; that he is returned from his extensive tour of Scotland. White’s last letter, dated 30 November 1780, starts, ‘Every incident that occasions a renewal of our correspondence will ever be pleasing and agreeable to me’ (Letter XLIV).

The letters to Daines Barrington, a lawyer and amateur naturalist, contain fewer personal remarks, and you get the impression that this relationship was not as warm as that with Pennant (many of these letters may not actually have been posted). Barrington had an unusual interest in Wales and other Celtic parts of Britain (his role as a circuit judge often took him to north Wales). A member of the Cymmrodorion, he was the first to publish Sir John Wynn’s History of the Gwydir family, drew attention to the imminent demise of crwth playing in Wales, and met Dolly Pentreath, one of the last native speakers of Cornish. He presented papers to the Royal Society about Arctic exploration, and published a suggestion that it might be possible to reach the North Pole from Spitzbergen by reindeer-pulled sledges.

Gilbert White never married, but he was close to his family.  He gave a home to his nephew John, known as ‘Gibraltar Jack’, and he was specially attached to his niece Mary (‘Molly’). She helped him by reading the proofs to The natural history of Selborne and seems to have taken over the preparation of the book’s index, when Gilbert tired of the job:

… I am still employed in making an Index; an occupation full as entertaining as that of darning stockings, though by no means so advantageous to society.

It’s disappointing, to a devoted book indexer, to come across such a crabby comment from someone who didn’t mind spending hours making detailed recordings of the Selborne weather. But we should be thankful to Molly for taking the job over, and for producing some delightfully eccentric entries. Hazel K. Bell, in her entertaining book Indexers and indexes in fact and fiction, quotes many of them. Here’s my own selection:

August, the most mute month respecting the singing of birds
Birds, in the season of nidification, tame
Boy, an idiot, his strange propensity; eats bees, &c.
Castration, its strange effects
Cats, house, strange that they should be so fond of fish
Dispersion of birds, pretty equal, why
Echo, a polysyllabical one
Echoes occasioned by the discharge of swivel guns
Fly, bacon, injurious to the housewife
Herissant, Monsieur, mistaken in his reason why cuckoos do not use incubation
Hogs, would live, if suffered, to a considerable age
Slugs, very injurious to wheat just come out of the ground, by eating off the blade; and by their infinite numbers occasioning incredible havock
Snake, stinks se defendo
Tortoise, a family one
Worms, earth, no inconsiderable link in the chain of nature, some account of

(The entry for ‘slugs’ has a long, four-line footnote: not recommended practice in indexing manuals.)

From The Wakes we walked down the main street to the village church. Its famous yew tree, said to be 1,400 years old, fell in a storm in 1990, and only the stump remains. On the other, obscure side the church is Gilbert White’s grave, marked by a simple low stone bearing the initials ‘G W’ and the dates of his birth and death. He wished to be buried ‘in as plain and private a way as possible, without any pall bearers or parade’. Later generations disobeyed the spirit of this injunction: inside the church are two mediocre stained-glass windows commemorating him, one showing Timothy the tortoise.

On the way back from the church we noticed a blue plaque on a house wall. It commemorates another Selborne resident and contemporary of Gilbert White, Sullivan Black. Whereas White has attained near sanctified status in some eyes, Black was a bit different. Blue plaques normally remember people with at least some positive attributes, but Black seems to have none:

Sullivan Black, 1720-1793, libertine, opium-eater, drunkard, duellist, gambler and wastrel, lived and died here.

These days Sullivan has been reborn and issues tweets (the electronic sort, not White’s avian ones). Or rather he did: the last one is dated December 2017, so maybe he’s died a second desperate death.

(Both lives are fictitious, of course. Consider: White/Black, Gilbert/Sullivan).


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