For the last few days I have suffered with one of those interminable sick headaches that have plagued me through life, Christmas day I managed but in the evening I read Richard Jefferies -After London, Wild England, from cover to cover.
My feelings towards the book are mixed, I know his writing from Secret of My Heart and Life in the fields, the former book being an emotionally intense desire to reach the very essence of his soul, the latter a joyous hymn to the intricate wonders of nature.
But what of Wild England, following his mind for me is easy, so here he is constructing a fabled barbaric England from his own beloved landscape, the hero, or perhaps anti-hero, Felix is probably himself. The setting is an Iron age depiction of small territories dominated by overlords, this is not Wm Morris's utopian vision of News From Nowhere, in Jefferies book wild men haunt the forests and woods, slaves serve the illiterate noblemen, there are several castes of people. The shepherds in the hills, the gypsies, the barbaric men in the woods, and lastly small despotic kingdoms carefully guarding the remains of old iron tools, pieces of glass, fragments of manuscripts.
This is the fall of civilisation as seen from a nineteenth century viewpoint, It is a fall of the new industrial Victorian rise to power and domination. He centres this fall on London, for it is here that the worst has happened. Nature has taken over England, impenetrable forests, a great lake sits at its heart, stretching down from the City (which was once Oxford) though now it has a different name, right through the heart of the West country down to London. The lake is a beautiful place with forests down to its sweet waters but when it approaches the great city of London terrible things have happened.
A great sulphorous yellow mist hangs for miles across this last stretch of the Lake, to enter it is to court death. No animal or bird life lives, the waters are black and oily, vegetation rank and dying, great bubbles of noxious gas escape the waters every now and then. London has descended into an evil marsh land, sinking into the depths of its own sewers and basements. Felix enters this terrible landscape at one point and Jefferies eloquently describes how Felix walks across a ground black with a sooty deposit, the remains of long dead people. He touches buildings that crumble to dust, and a great sense of lassitude that is brought on by the foul air, makes him stumble and walk with his back bent.
But perhaps I should go back to the beginning of the story, I have described Felix as an anti-hero, he is the eldest son of a nobleman in Aquila, but he is no brave knight, he would rather read the few precious manuscripts that still exist, or draw his ideas for new fangled inventions. He is often bad tempered and because he is poor, miserable with his lot in life. He loves Aurora who lives in the kingdom of Thyma but he is not seen as a suitable suitor. At the beginning of the book he manages to construct a boat, for he wants to sail round the Lake, which is of course unmapped and discover its length and breadth.
The whole environment of the landscape is painted as hostile, wild dogs, there are three different types that have evolved that now haunt the woods, are liable to attack. Wild pigs and boars are also prolific in the woods and forests, and then there are the human dangers, the Bush men, who, happen to use poison on the tips of their weapons, his material for his fiction writing can be found in the books that he has read.
The Lake must centre on his beloved Coate, and its waters, and sailing on a boat there in his childhood. Here in the book he has changed Coate Waters to an uncharted large inland lake, fed by rivers, dotted with small islands and ringed with cliffs and beaches, in which he, our intrepid hero would sail around and explore. He has adventures on the way, meets with humiliations, but in the end he triumphs.
His braveness in sailing into the terrible territory of London earns him respect and leadership amongst the shepherds that live in the hills. He becomes their overlord, and can muster 8000 men to his service, but he refuses to be their leader, only asking of the tribal elders that he should be their leader in war should it happen. In the final chapter we see him heading back to Thyma to Aurora, for he has found a territory to settle in and build a tower, and the last words are of him setting out through the forest to bring her back.
My mixed feeling for the book comes from that which is brilliant in his description of the landscape and the different world he has conjured up, to perhaps some of the things that he draws upon which are rather imitations of other books. But overall the story is captivating and warrants a full reading from beginning to end to uncover a mind that rebelled against the society he lived within. A mind that constructed another world, not necessarily better, but a different world in which our hero could change some of the injustices and cruelty that abided there.
A poem by Jeremy Hooker - Landscape of the Daylight Moon
Jeremy Hooker is a great admirer of Richard Jefferies and has compiled some of his essays into a book which can be found at Green Books.