Claire Tomlin’s biography of Jane Austen called Jane Austen A Life begins with:
The Winter of 1775 was a hard one. On 11th November the naturalist, Gilbert White saw that the trees around his Hampshire village of Selborne had almost lost all their leaves. “Trees begin to be naked,” he wrote in his diary. Fifteen miles away, higher up in the Downs, in the village of Steventon, the rectors wife was expecting the birth of her seventh child from day to day as the leaves fell.”
And thus we have the first introduction to Jane, still inside her mother’s womb, with a reference to the reverend Gilbert White of Selborne.
Selborne is a village about five miles to the east of Chawton. Gilbert White was in his 55th year just as Jane began her first year. His writing was to become the most continuously published piece of writing in the English language. It has been published more often than Jane’s own writing and the Bible. It is still on the shelves of all good bookshops today and new editions are always being prepared.
Gilbert White was born in 1720. He was educated in the town of Basingstoke, the town Jane knew well. Thomas Wharton was his schoolmaster. He then embarked on an academic career at Oriel College Oxford. Following his grandfather and uncle into the church, he became ordained as a church of England priest. From an early age he took a deep interest in the natural history and the plants and animals in his native Hampshire.
Gilbert White is best known for his collection of letters compiled in a volume called Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, (1789) The book comprised his correspondence with two of the leading naturalists of the time, Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. In the letters White discussed his theories about the local flora and fauna.
Gilbert White was also a keen gardener and grew many species of flowers, vegetables and fruit. What made him different and unique and applicable to naturalists today was that he observed things closely in their natural state. Naturalists, during his lifetime and before him, tended to examine the dead carcasses of animals brought to them.
They would dissect and examine in detail the animal or plant before them; dead, cut off, out of it’s natural environment, there, on their table or desk. White performed some of this type of research, but what really made him different was his observations of animals and plants in their natural habitat. We would not think of studying an animal today without knowing it’s habitat, life cycle, and breeding habits. This is what made White unique for his time. His records are unique also in the length of time he kept them and the systematic detail of his observations. Darwin quoted some of Gilbert White’s observations in his own research.
Gilbert White especially studied the species known as hirundines. These are what we know as swallows, house martins and swifts. He observed them flying, soaring, whirling about the great hanger that stood behind the village of Selborne . The base of the hanger was literally at the bottom of his garden. A hanger is a large, very steep hill, with almost vertical sides. Trees adorn its face and seem to ”hang” there. The hanger at Selborne was home to a vast variety of flora and fauna. It is very much the same today as it was in Gilbert White’s time.
In fact, by using his letters as guides, you can follow the very same paths and walks he took all those years ago and see the plants and wild life he observed. And, yes, you can still see his beloved hirundines, whirling and twirling and flickering , darting and swooping about the hanger in the springtime and summer months.
Most of Gilbert White’s contemporaries were convinced that swallows hibernated during the winter months in hollows and under the mud of local ponds. White disputed this and tried throughout his life to gain evidence to prove or disprove this. Unfortunately he never reached a definitive conclusion.
Gilbert White’s brother, Benjamin, who was a publisher of natural history, introduced him to Thomas Pennant, the foremost zoologist of the time, and to Daines Barrington. He corresponded with them and other naturalists, such as Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.
In his first letter to Thomas Pennant, White describes Selborne and it’s situation.
At the foot of this hill, one stage or step from the uplands lies the village, which consists of one straggling street, three quarters of a mile in length, in a sheltered vale and running parallel with the hanger. The houses are divided from the hill by a vein of stiff clay (good wheat land), yet stand a rock of white stone, little in appearance removed from chalk; but seems so far from being calcareous, that it endures extreme heat.”
Just in this short extract we can see White’s eye for detail, his wondering mind, and his clarity of recording.
In LetterXL to Thomas Pennant on September 2nd, 1774, White writes:
Nightingales, when their young first come abroad, and are helpless, make a plaintive and jarring noise; and also a snapping or cracking, pursuing people along the hedges as they walk; these last sounds seem intended for menace and defiance.”
You can imagine Gilbert White being hounded and bothered in this way as he walked the lanes around Selborne, and being utterly fascinated and engrossed in this behaviour. Maybe our beloved Jane experienced such sights with the same wildlife too on her daily walks in Chawton five miles away?
In a letter to Danes Barrington November 20th, 1773, Gilbert White writes about house martins.
A few house- martins begin to appear about the sixteenth of April; usually some few days later than the swallow. For some time after they appear the hirundines in general pay no attention to the business of nidification ( the act of building a nest), but play and sport about either to recruit from the fatigue of their journey, if they do migrate at all, or else that their blood may recover it’s true tone and texture after it has been so long benumbed by the severities of the winter.”
Gilbert is not sure, do they migrate or do they hibernate? This is the crux of his life long investigation.
Every Spring, Gilbert White looked forward to the return of the hirundines and when reading his letters at that time of the year you can sense his uplifted spirits. His friends have returned.
Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen A Life, Penguin Books, 1998 (revised edition 2000). Read Chapter One here.
Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (First published 1788-9). Reprinted by Penguin Classics, 1987.