Richard Jefferies – Novelist? – The Dewy Morn


On 6th February 1989 I did a little chinwag in Swindon about the only four Jefferies novels I had access to then. I’ve just re-read what I said about The Dewy Morn and it still seems to make reasonable sense! There are little tweaks I’d make now. Here’s the original chinwag with a few 2022 comments in blue square brackets.


In a way a novel becomes more interesting when the writer does intervene to reveal the process of his/her thinking. In The Dewy Morn, Jefferies reveals the contrasts between the ‘organic’ characters [2022 – by which I meant those responsive to the natural world] and the barren ones with a straight authorial question:-

Is it best to have a strong imagination, or to be entirely without it?

An imaginative mind creates for itself a beautiful world; but upon entering into practical life, at every step, first one and then another portion of the structure is shattered till the entire fabric falls to pieces. Dust under foot and bitterness to the taste are all that remain; a void heart, a hopeless future, a weary present. The commonplace crushes the ideal as a cannon-ball might a statue…

Robert Godwin had never any difficulty in choosing between these two courses – the imaginative and the practical – because he had not even imagination enough to see that there were two courses…

Robert Godwin never walked by the sea nor gathered a flower…

[2022 – I would now add that Godwin

…took things as he saw them, and the idea of there being anything beyond never occurred to him. There were the hills visible from his window; he knew by experience that hills were steep, and that a horse had to pull against the collar to draw him over them. The higher they were the thinner the soil, the smaller the crops, and the less rent to be obtained. Occasionally he glanced at them to see if the descending or ascending mist, the clearness or dimness of outline, promised rain or sunshine – and so much for the hills. This practical knowledge completed his concern in these mounds of chalk.

So much for the hills – Godwin takes nothing from them in contemplation, no imaginative thoughts flow from them. He certainly does indulge in imagination but it is the ‘false imagination’ Gurdjieff talks about – that which constructs a view of things completely at variance with the way they really are – crucially, his dream of the possibility of being in a relationship with Felise which becomes ‘dust under foot and bitterness to the taste…’ He would never be able to see what Felise saw with her ‘true’ imagination

The depth of the rich blue sky, the sweep of the clouds, the sunrise, the colours of sunset, the stars so clear seen at an altitude – these mere imaginative things were invisible to him altogether. He simply did not see them, any more than if a thick curtain had been drawn before his eyes. The thoughts which flow from the contemplation of the azure, the noble hope of sunrise, the god-like promise of the stars, were to him non-existent; as he could not see the things that suggested the thought, so his mind was blind to the thought itself.

Being of his time, Jefferies is unable to make the distinction it’s possible to make between ‘true’ & ‘false’ kinds of imagination: the ‘rich blue sky, the sweep of the clouds, the sunrise’ and so on – such things are not at all ‘mere imaginative things’, whereas ‘the thoughts which flow from… contemplation…’ could well be called true imaginative constructs. That’s what distinguishes Godwin’s mind from that of Felise: full of practicality, he otherwise lives with imaginative impossibilities, whereas Felise makes natural events become part of who she is… ‘absorbs all the senses into herself – hearing, sight, all are possessed by her passion…’ And so…  on with the original lecture!…]

Felise is set in clear contrast to Robert Godwin. The novel works by these clear oppositions; they set up the impossibility of two such people ever making sense to one another; readers have to make this idea clear to themselves. It is not, of course, that difficult but what it does do is to reflect back into life: this is how people are – separate, existing in separate chapters, never able to communicate in any kind of real way, unable to bridge what Jefferies calls a ‘vacancy’ – ‘the lack of anything to lay hold of…’

In the light of this, Jefferies provides us with a very important key to his method of writing a novel. As compared with the playwright, he says:-

The unfortunate narrator has… to explain every little circumstance, or else it would appear that he was violating probability. He has to show you the why and wherefore and to tell you how certain people got into certain positions at a certain time. My arm and hand often ache with the labour of writing just to explain the simplest set of circumstances which upon the stage would not have been thought of. They would be taken for granted… Could you not let me write my scenes one after the other, and supply the connecting links for me out of your own imagination, as you do on the stage?

A very modern idea as far as novel-writing is concerned! The direct address from the ‘author’, a challenge to readers to construct things for themselves in whatever way they choose.

In contrast to Godwin, Felise ‘…thought of nothing but the sun and wind, the flowers and the running stream. She listened to the wind in the trees and began herself to sing…’

Chapter 22 is one long glorious catalogue of ‘the woven embroidery of the earth’ threaded into her being:-

She knew…
The place where the stream ran at the foot of a cliff…
The time when the fields were fullest of flowers…
The sound of the wind in the oaks and in the pines…
The light of the sun shining on the green sward…
Storms darkening the face of heaven…
The blackness of frost…
The first swallow…
The stars rising, constellation by constellation, as the year went on.

Paragraph after paragraph without a main verb all related back to the original simple statement ‘she knew’. Jefferies weaves the fabric of the world into the character, the writing and us by the simple, innocent device of cataloguing direct experience. All this had been translated for her by Goring, her guardian, whose:-

…gardening and planting was in reality only a manner of self-employment, so that he might be ever under the sun by day, under the stars in the evening, that he might be out-of-doors face to face with the wonders of the earth and sky…

[2022 – it’s worth refining this by including something about Goring who, in Gurdjieffian terms, is a well-rounded human-being with a balance of intellect, emotion and action: he has a

…calm intellect reposing in itself. Not the nervous, eager brain which seeks preferment and must thrust itself to the front; the intellect which reposes and reflects. There was almost too much mind for action behind that noble forehead; it was the thinker, not the doer. The clear, steel-blue eyes under their thick eyebrows, the set mouth and the firm chin, at the same time indicated an immovable will; a man who would have his way without the least outward noise or ostentation. His strong frame—a trifle bowed, as those of men usually are who work with their hands for pleasure or profit — and great breadth were fully exposed by his negligent costume…

Goring & Felise have a relationship very much like that of Pierce & Heloise in Restless Human Hearts.

To Felise, this man who knew so much was an interpreter – translating for her the language of the trees, the words of the wind, the song of the sun at his rising and his setting, the still calm intent of the stars. His gardening and planting was in reality only a manner of self-employment, so that he might be ever under the sun by day, under the stars in the evening, that he might be out-of-doors face to face with the wonders of the earth and sky.

This adds even more to the reason why Godwin’s false imagination is a dead thing…]

It is no wonder to us that Godwin’s passion for Felise should be barren, impossible to fulfil: he had no imagination which [2022 – as now explained more fully!] I take to be the power to enter into the spirit of things and other people much as Jefferies has allowed us, imaginatively, to enter into the spirit of Felise. Godwin was concentrated upon one fixed idea: he ‘saw nothing but mounds of chalk and pieces of timber where there were woods and hills’. For him Felise is an object of desire and possession: mere flesh where there is mystery and vivid living – into which Jefferies admits us with a sustained dramatic irony.

Godwin’s garden is an image of decay:-

…The apples had ceased to bear, and the plums, as the felt slips rotted from the nails, drooped forward from the wall, destroyed themselves with their own weight… The caterpillar had worked its fell intent, and the leaves remaining were shrivelled and brown… Mosses grew along the coping of the wall and marked with green lines the mortar between the stones…

In this inauspicious context Felise and Martial meet and talk [2022 – manipulated there by Godwin himself so he could spy on them out of his jealousy], ‘not of what was in their thoughts, but making up little speeches addressed to the audience, as it were…’ A living relationship within a dead scene.

In the following chapter Jefferies takes us straight into their thoughts:-

How well he talks – what ideas he has… his lips are well- shaped – I should like a kiss…

How fortunate I exhausted all my romance before I met her! There is no knowing to what lengths I should have gone… These are very common old Windsor chairs… What a lovely shoulder she has beneath that dress – I shall never forget it…

And so on. Brilliantly dramatic. Stream of consciousness. Ironical. Leaving us to feel for the pair of them…

[2022 – It’s the beginning of Chapter 38… Felise is thinking and Martial is thinking – both wanting to make real contact – but when they actually speak to one another it is to talk about the weather while still both ‘thinking of one thing and talking of another’… ]

And poor Cornleigh, the apparent tyrant, stage managed, like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, by his wife, living in a mansion whose privacy was now complete, ‘absolutely isolated and guarded by lodge-keepers in every direction’, shut in by high walls – all the poor chap really wanted was to be left alone to smoke his cigar in the lane:-

Whenever an important division was at hand, the Squire ran up to town, patiently sat out the debate, recorded his vote on the right side, and came down home again to his morning cigar in the lane… His morning cigar in the lane under the oak was Cornleigh’s real life…

Is Jefferies really so devoid of humour? Here the humour takes the form of a marvelous irony. And there’s a black humour, too, with Martial stuck in the mill-pond sump trying to reason with the miller to go for help when the latter has already decided that ‘Martial’s death by drowning was a foregone conclusion’…

Martial at last comes really alive in Chapter 49 where Jefferies has him make a speech that goes from faltering uncertainty to a completely confident flow demonstrating total command of himself and his audience.

Martial is certainly not a nonentity as some commentators suggest: when he makes his speech he expresses what the reader feels as a result of the depicted unfairness of Godwin and the situation of Old Abner. He performs a dramatic purpose. We don’t even know for sure what Felise feels about the speech; she doesn’t express herself nor does Jefferies bother us with the telling – we just know the fittingness of the speech and the certainty, because of what we also know of Felise, of what her reaction will be – “My hero!” We also know for sure that Cornleigh, desiring only to smoke his cigar in the lane, will be moved at last to throw off the influence of his wife.

The Dewy Morn is full of marvelous images that linger in the mind and make you want to re-read the whole whenever you dip into it. There is a sense in which it is a novel that can be read backwards and forwards or starting from the middle and radiating out in all directions. It exists in the mind as a complex network which all its elements work together to achieve; readers are encouraged to make their own thread.

In any case… ‘The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends…’ (EM Forster)

[2022 – I would add a reference to the way in which Jefferies unknowingly uses (what Eliot was to call) an ‘objective correlative’, as he does at other times in his novels.

He depicts a great scene which seems to foreshadow events to come: Martial’s financial problems, his near extinction in the mill pond, ‘saving’ Mary Shaw from suicide, and the insane Godwin’s attempt to ruin Felise’ face. ‘Thunder & lightning’ waiting to happen.

In August the loveliest day is when the thunder booms far off at sea, while over the cornfields the sun shines with increased brilliance. The sky over the wheat is blue, but in the distance some large clouds stay motionless. The upper slopes of these mount-like vapours reflect the rays of the sun; beneath they melt away in an indefinite mist which does not throw back the light. The massy ridges above have no foundation beneath, reaching to the horizon; they do not threaten; they add to the beauty of the level azure, as hills about a plain.

Rolling in from the south comes the wave of heavy sound, too distant to cause uneasiness – the boom of an immense breaker on the shore of heaven. After each burst the sun seems to glow fiercer, the warm haze thickens, the rich blue sky is richer, the insects in the air vibrate their wings more rapidly, and a shriller hum arises; butterflies are busier, and in the wheat the reapers bend, cutting at the yellow straw.

Life goes on while Felise & Martial for a very innocent brief moment are physically close on the greensward but still soul-distant, not knowing what’s to come. What happens when the distant storm comes closer?

I would also add some detail about Martial’s efforts to get over his guilt about abandoning Rosa to whom he was effectively engaged.

His growing attraction to Felise puts Rosa (whom Jefferies describes as ‘commonplace’) in the shade. He rationalises his resulting irritability into the idea that he ‘…did not love Felise, and he did not want to love her… nothing on earth should ever induce him to commit such fooleries again…’ The first love eclipses all others. In any case, with Jefferies’ usual splendid sense of irony, a

man did not need anything of the kind; a man ought to be quite independent of such fancies; a man should be quite free and independent, and walk about, and whistle, and think of nothing. Fellows who were always paying court to women became effeminate and contemptible. A woman’s servitor, such as he had been – and still was – was despicable. He despised himself thoroughly… At the same time, he was always thinking about the beautiful face of the woman he had seen but twice…

To avoid the guilt he genuinely feels about abandoning Rosa, Martial tells himself the story that his ‘admiration of Felise was purely artistic. Any other woman – if as beautiful – would have suited him as well to look at…’

Jefferies makes a meta-comment: ‘Currents of thought or emotion go on for a long time in the mind before a step is taken…’ In this case it’s around another 300 pages!

To make Martial feel happy, Jefferies often has him proclaiming indifference in the hopeful expectation that what he says will come true: ‘I have seen her, and I do not love her. My follies are over. Her beauty has only caused an aesthetic admiration. She is only a picture to me, and I have convinced myself that I can look safely upon the picture…’

There’s a long sequence where, jointly unaware, Martial follows Felise at a distance and she follows him over the hills. It reminds me of the episodes in the 1998 well-made film You’ve Got Mail in which Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan, unknown to their incompatible partners, have been engaging in a jovial anonymous email correspondence. They have never met but late on in the film they keep on passing one another in the street – a nice dramatic irony which delights the all-knowing viewer. Jefferies is doing something similar.]

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