THE EARLY NOVELS OF RICHARD JEFFERIES 1


In depicting character Jefferies uses what TSEliot was later to describe as an ‘Objective Correlative’.
The early novels deserve re-assessment.

Pre-amble

In Richard Jefferies: his life and his ideals (1905), writing about the novels, HSSalt (1851-1939 campaigner for social reform, animal rights, vegetarian, socialist, and pacifist, literary critic, biographer, classical scholar and naturalist) reflects that

…even now [1905] there are ominous signs that the book collector is on the war-path and engaged in his congenial task of assigning a fictitious value to productions that are essentially valueless…’

which puts anybody like myself, keen to have another look at such ‘valueless things’, in my place over a hundred years later! But, in spite of the fact that I am a lifetime Jefferies fanatic, it does seem to me that, on purely literary grounds, the novels are far more than ‘valueless’.

Writing in 1888, a year after Jefferies’ untimely death, Walter Besant (novelist & historian) said

He never was a novelist; he never could be one… You may put down any of his so-called novels at any time with no more regret than that this scene or that picture was not longer. As the writer never took any interest in his own characters – one understands that as clearly as if it was proclaimed upon the house-tops – so none of his readers can he expected to feel any interest…

After looking briefly at The Scarlet Shawl, World’s End and Restless Human Hearts Besant says, very influentially:

He will now write Greene Ferne Farm, Bevis, After London, and Amaryllis at the Fair. They are not novels at all, though he chooses to call them novels; they are a series of pictures, some of beauty and finish incomparable, strung together by some sort of thread of human interest which nobody cares to follow.

Not being a man of the 20th Century, (together with contemporary reviewers whom he quotes with relish) Walter Besant has to be forgiven for not knowing that Jefferies was very far ahead of his time in the way of novel-writing. Without of course realising this either, HSSalt, similarly scathing about the ‘so-called novels’, quotes Jefferies himself (maybe in Dewy Morn) asking in his own defence

…could you not let me write my scenes one after the other and supply the connecting links out of your own imagination as you do on the stage…?

which is exactly how things are worked out in their different ways by, say, Henry Green (Part Going, perhaps), James Hanley (Sailor’s Song, for example), Alain Robbe-Grillet (Jealousy, in which you have to slowly piece together the story and the emotional experience for yourself) or Iris Murdoch in many of her novels all of which I have analysed in great detail.

Rather than lacking in dramatic effect, holding up the ‘story’, Jefferies’ regular habit of expressing his characters’ thoughts & feelings through his characteristic meta-commentary, has the Brechtian effect of making us constantly aware that we are reading a novel rather than experiencing a futile attempt at conveying the quality of ‘real life’. Words themselves cannot possibly convey whatever that might be; or else, as CSPierce said about explanations of philosophical ideas, we’d have to use words to explain the words we just used, then use words to explain the explanation and so on; the same would apply to so-called ‘real’ life. ‘Modern’ novelists know this. It’s worth considering how they proceed. One can take any number of different approaches to thinking about what goes on in different kinds of novel.

In spite of all his possible ‘faults’, Jefferies is a ‘modern’.

***

Not having been aware that in 2009 The Richard Jefferies Society had promoted a reprint of The Scarlet Shawl I only recently read it for the first time; it had remained in my psyche simply as a name and an impossibility for seventy years. Reading it with enthusiasm, I was often reminded of TSEliot’s concept of ‘Objective Correlative’ which refers to the way an author uses weather conditions to depict a character’s state of mind. His example as I recall is King Lear on the blasted heath – the storm represents the self-created turmoil inside him. In The Scarlet Shawl Jefferies rather nicely represents the heroine Nora’s changing state of being in the same kind of way: he has her metaphorically battling with furious waves, being in a hothouse, burnt up in a simoom (a hot desert gale), subjected to snow & rain. We wonder what weather she will wind up with.

In one of his characteristic meta-comments Jefferies says we all drift around subject to change like the weather when we could decide to hold fast and resist the temptation to react in the same old habitual way. I used to train high-powered executives in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The first Habit he had discovered and taught was to ‘Be Proactive!’ Instead of choosing to be buffeted by weather conditions, the advice is to ‘Carry your own weather with you!’

Whether it was raining cats & dogs, snowing hard or doing a heatwave, my old mum used to say, “I can’t stand this weather…” in a negative, hopeless, down-hearted sort of way; I would say to her, “You could decide to ‘carry your weather with you’… But she thought I was screwy. In relation to The Scarlet Shawl, the question Jefferies poses, the one we are invited to think about, is – will Nora, unlike my mum, be able to carry her own weather with her eventually? It could be argued that reading the novel involves ‘audience participation’ and is even in that respect ‘modern’.

The course of life is usually little better than a drifting upon the current. Except to those bold navigators who, urged by passion, or by love of gain, stretch out straight into the pathless ocean, and so escape the tides and eddies of the shore, the greater part of the lives of most of us is spent in nothing but drifting this way and that, as the tide changes. It is only now and then that something pricks us to energy and to furious battling with the waves. Nora was drifting; heedless of whither she was going. [Jefferies exclaims:] What gigantic latent power there is in every human being if they would but use it; but they will not.

To start with Nora depends ‘entirely upon the caprices, the narrow-mindedness of others’ – she has to realise, as Jefferies says, that ‘the whole open expanse of heaven is free to you to inhale the fresh breezes of the downs, or the salt bracing air of oceans…’

Initially Nora chooses to be stifled by her situation. It’s all these men, of course…

What a forced and hot-house life, which a single frost, a single window left undone, would blast and ruin forever! Every moment spent therein more and more contracts the natural strength of the plant, [Nora] and renders a return to the open air and the real sunshine impossible. It is a weakness of the feminine mind [Jefferies quickly adds] but how much more a weakness of the masculine one!

In drifting mode, Nora can’t get out of the metaphorical hothouse; even if she did she would only find herself in another fix… When she glimpses her true man Percival with Pauline Vietri in London she is even more burnt up, thinking he’s deeply in love with this woman of the world.

What an insult to herself was this! She shivered, first with burning heat, then with a deadly cold. She was scorched with passion; it passed over her like the fiery wind of the desert, leaving all dry and arid behind it.

Already her heart was barren and arid, burnt up before the simoom. It was nothing to that woman, [Pauline] this conquest of Percival. She felt that he was a child in her practised hands.

But then, on her own in St Leonards, we find she does know how to get out of the hothouse, specially when instead of allowing her thoughts to run away with her she begins to look contemplatively at the world outside self instead of rummaging in her internal confusion. Another change.

She opened the window, and leant out into the night air. It was still and silent. The rain was falling without a sound. The ground had been covered with a crust of snow, and the drops fell on it noiselessly. It was melting; it was milder. The long frost was going. The spring was coming; she remembered the snowdrop. She looked up; it was black as a pall. The slates projected a little, and the raindrops did not fall upon her heated forehead, though she could almost, as it were, feel them pass downwards through the air.

The change outside her (spring on its way, and so on…) is an objective correlative for change of mental state. Except that, seemingly still determined to be miserable, she remembers ‘a weird and terrible old legend of German antique lore. A sinner… deserted by man and by nature and by heaven. Thus Nora felt [herself to be]…’

But when at last she becomes the ‘bold navigator’ on the ‘pathless ocean’ and finally separates herself out from all her confusion she lets the sea speak for her. She has arrived at the same kind of place that her creator does in The Story of My Heart some years later – or, time having no meaning, is it the very same moment? ‘The sea thinks for me as I listen and ponder; the sea thinks and every boom of the wave repeats my prayer…’

Nora could not sleep. The roar of the sea, usually unheard, tonight penetrated into that fashionable square – nature would be listened to. She laid and listened – the thunder of the surge filled the room with a mournful, monotonous sound. She did not think – but she felt. Silently the tears gathered in her eyes, and rolled slowly down her cheeks. She did not check them – she did not think of them.

Thinking, internal rummaging, always holds up action. Taking the thunderous surge, just the feeling of it, inside herself has her acting in a definite way. No longer drifting but as part of the sea-surge she gets up to write the little note to Percival that eventually saves the day just in the nail-biting nick of time.

Richard J

2 thoughts on “THE EARLY NOVELS OF RICHARD JEFFERIES 1

    1. Hi Ron! You could very well start with The Story of My Heart as I did in 1953!!

      Looked at your Link! The Lost Domain is a marvelous book. It’s not long since I re-read it.

      New Year Wishes

      Like

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