Amy M. King, “Publication of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, 1789″

Abstract

In 1789, Gilbert White publishes The Natural History of Selborne, which encapsulates in epistolary form his natural history observations of a single parish for forty years. Selborne’s way of looking at nature—attentive, local, and reverent—popularizes a way of looking at nature that persisted in popular natural history throughout the nineteenth century. The importance of White’s natural history, both in itself and through its afterlife as a canonical text, depends on our understanding its key orientation: nature as seen through the lens of ecology and reverence.

illustration to White's Natural History

Figure 1: Half-title oval illustration where the hermit hangs his straw-clad cell in the 1813 edition of Gilbert White’s _Natural History of Selborne_


Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne was published without fanfare in 1789, a year otherwise famous for event. Besides seeing the extraordinary aims and actions of the revolution in France, 1789 was the year in which Britain marked the publication of White’s quiet and local text. In the same year a natural history more in line with the heroic ambitions of the French Revolution also appeared: the fourth and fifth of what would end up being the twenty volumes of John Trusler’s The Habitable World Described. Trusler’s text intended to describe the entire known habitable world—a project diametrically opposed in scope to White’s natural history, which proposed instead to describe “the parish of Selborne” (1; Letter I to Thomas Pennant).[1] Not that White himself saw his scope as small; he describes his parish as “being very large and extensive . . . it abuts on twelve parishes, two of which are in Sussex” (1-2; Letter I to Thomas Pennant). He describes it additionally as being in “the extreme eastern corner of the county of Hampshire” and (rather quaintly) as a “vast district” whose circumference would take three days to walk (14; Letter V to Thomas Pennant). White’s description of the natural history of a single English parish neither strived for nor effected an instant revolution, and indeed Selborne would only slowly achieve popularity—but eventually it, unlike Trusler’s work, became for natural history what David Elliston Allen has called the “one literary classic, universally acknowledged, that the subject in all its years of existence has so far managed to produce and (apart from On the Origin of Species) its one native sacred text” (44). We might hypothesize that the reason it becomes so celebrated is that the text anticipates and establishes ways of looking at nature—ecologically, environmentally, and indeed reverently—that continue to resonate in our modern moment.

The permanent renown of White’s text arguably has little to do with any lasting scientific achieve­ment per se but rather with its literary style as well as the ecological orientation his text brought to natural histories.[2] Its canonicity is clear: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has been one of the most frequently published titles in the English language, and rarely out of print. Originally published in 1789, it was not until an 1827 edition appeared that Selborne became a popular success, indeed widely read by a middle-class audience. It had taken more than a decade for Selborne to enter into a second edition (1802), followed by a third in 1813. The 1827 edition was a watershed moment, for afterward, new editions regu­larly appeared, now some three hundred editions in total (Foster “Introduction,” vii – xxxi).[3]

It is relevant that White’s object of analysis was a parish, an ecclesiastical structure very much about place—especially the concept of a boundary as defined by human interests. The parish was the basis of social order and community in eighteenth-century Britain for its human inhabitants, so White’s choice of the ecclesiastical boundary as his text’s organizing principle makes the human an implied part of every natural history observation. Selborne’s innovation is more than structural—its observational mode turns inward to the parish, using that boundary to then describe elements of the natural world contained within that community. This is particularly evident in White’s decision to include the “antiquities” of Selborne as well as its natural history. Although the antiquities section was sometimes dropped in later editions, it is relevant that White saw his project as including both natural and man-made objects. If Selborne models an ecological notion of the interconnection of human history and the natural environment, it is nowhere more so than in the antiquities section, where White describes the ancient Yew tree adjacent to the village church alongside Selborne’s status as a royal manor during Saxon times (Antiquities 311, 319; Letters III, V). Moreover, he conjectures about Selborne’s ancient past—a history that imagines Selborne in “remote” ages as uninhabited except for “bears and wolves” (Antiquities 305; Letter I). White imagines the “swift decay” of the priory as a direct result of the disastrous fall of Selborne into the hands of Magdalene College in 1459, an event that he vividly imagines in terms of both human and natural history: “no sooner did the priory. . . become an appendage to the college, but it must at once have tended to swift decay. . . . [Even] the very foundations have been torn up for the repair of the highways: so that the site of this convent is now become a rough, rugged pasture-field, full of hillocks and pits, choked with nettles, and dwarf-elder, and trampled by the feet of the ox and the heifer” (Antiquities 412-4; Letter XXVI).

In describing the elements of the natural world contained within a human community, an ecological orientation towards nature is implied by Selborne. Ecology, a term not coined until 1866 by Ernst Haeckel, is nevertheless an orientation one sees in the way Selborne understands the interdepen­dence of living things in an environment, where humans (observers or otherwise) are not understood as separate from nature but embedded within it. The presumption that nature is not other and separate from the human world of the parish that he manages and inhabits is what has given White his reputation as the father of modern ecology.[4] This is not to suggest, however, that White understood his descriptive project as a revolutionary orientation towards nature—he saw his own project in line with Virgil, who he cites, as well as Milton and Thomson. The latter in particular seems an inspiration to White, who admiringly quotes lines from James Thomson’s The Seasons (1730) when he is describing the habit of cows standing in ponds during the hottest hours of a summer day. Thomson, whom White calls “a nice observer of natural occurrences,” is a forebear of White’s ecological relevance, and because the poem was the most widely read poem in eighteenth-century Britain, it is important to acknowledge its influence (28; Letter VIII to Thomas Pennant). That is, however influential White became as  a foundational figure of modern ecology, this is not to suggest that White’s orientation towards nature was wholly unprecedented. Like Thomson’s Seasons in the eighteenth century, White’s Selborne would become a text of immense popularity in the nineteenth century.[5]

It was the 1827 edition that turned Selborne into a best-selling text, one that established “White of Selborne” as a figure whose form of reverent observation modeled a way of seeing—both reverently and scientifically—that would have staying power deep into the nineteenth century, despite the inroads of scientific naturalism. The popularity of White’s Selborne might be traced to its orientation towards nature—attentive, local, and reverent—as well as the context in which it was received, especially by the early nineteenth century. Richard Mabey, White’s biographer and editor, defines the influence of White in this way: “his first-hand bulletins from his native woods and fields changed the whole focus of natural history—from dead specimen to living community, from remote prospect to intimate close-up, from a view of nature as a separate, hostile order, to one which is engaged with humans at the most local and everyday level” (Introduction xvi).[6] In this description of White’s influence, one should hear echoes of Henry David Thoreau, who was one of the most important adopters of White’s focus and methods. Perhaps the immense popularity of White’s natural history in the nineteenth century might be attributable to the same cultural forces that, in a different national context, drove Thoreau to the woods: the acceleration of time as a result of modernization, and the extent to which nature had become instrumentalized by the early decades of the nineteenth century. White’s reverence for the local, and his attentive attitude towards nature, proved popular in the nineteenth century, which was reeling from the environmental and cultural dislocations that came about generally as a result of the industrial revolution and more specifically as a result of the Enclosure Acts and poor laws. (On the Enclosure Acts, see Ellen Rosenman, “On Enclosure Acts and the Commons.”) Selborne, a natural history based on the concept of the parish, would have appealed to readers who would have understood that the parish as the basis of community was becoming eroded. Whether we can trace the later success of White’s volume entirely to these cultural forces is uncertain, not least because this perhaps underestimates the descriptive power of the prose itself; but these cultural forces are nevertheless important to consider when we think about the popularity of Selborne in the nineteenth century, and beyond.[7]

A classic of English natural history, Selborne is at once exactly what it purports to be—a natural history of a single English parish—as well as a text that might be understood as modeling a style of everyday observation that gives rise to an entire genre of popular non-fiction prose in nineteenth-century England. That the text’s ecological orientation is also imbued with a natural theological sensibility is striking. Selborne makes cognate religious reverence and an ecological approach (to looking at the natural world), and in so doing contributes to our modern environmentalist perspective that understands nature, in all its complexity of interrelationships, as deserving of reverence. White’s text is also significant because it models everyday observation of the local natural world, which is a mode of natural history that stands somewhat in contrast to the gaze of some natural histories done alongside British colonizing endeavors in the nineteenth century. White’s ecologically oriented natural history is closely tied, as I will suggest, to his theological worldview, which makes the everyday natural object as important as the one that produces wonder.

White achieved his ecological orientation not through abstract theorizing but rather through subordinating himself to the infinitely more interesting details of the natural world of his parish.[8] Beginning in 1751, White observed and wrote down daily the goings-on of the animal and plant life of his parish; intermittent but considerable, White’s observations become daily records in 1768 when he begins keeping what later becomes known as the Naturalist’s Journal.[9] His field notes, which he ceased only ten days before he died in 1793, encompass some 10,000 entries, even though the epistolary natural history that he distills from it is quite slim. The natural history is a condensation of multiple observations across many years, and yet it rarely if ever succumbs to generalizations or abstractions. White’s native natural history combines two narrative practices: a first-person vantage-point and, complementarily, a geographical restriction to the supposed range of that first-person observer.

White’s observational project was at odds, in some ways, with the spirit of his age: as Alan Bewell and others have described, the late-eighteenth century saw an explosion of colonial natures that came from expeditions such as Captain Cook’s. White’s example displays an observational project of a different, even contrary, scale than those natural history expeditions that took in vast new parts of the globe. By turning to a finite and local space within the boundaries of England, White established a practice of quotidian discovery that many later nineteenth-century British naturalists would take up within the confines of England. In an age that saw the attempt at universal natural histories or natural histories that took in large parts of the globe, White’s restricted locale established a different way of observing that had ramifications on some of the most important practitioners of natural history—not least Charles Darwin, who, like White, limits his observations to a series of discrete spaces (and who traces his epiphany to the observations he makes in studying variation in finches in the likewise contained area of the Galapagos Islands). Instead of delimiting White’s sense of subject, the geographical restriction of the parish actually seems to have produced a sense of boundlessness of subject for White, which echoes with the later naturalists: “it is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that the district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined” (70; Letter XX to Thomas Pennant).

White’s subjects are thus as heterogeneous as one might expect from the world of southeast England. He finds variety, that is, in the everyday examined minutely: his subjects are numerous and difficult to catalogue, though they would include worms, the fossils embedded in freestone, frosts, blossoming times, hedgehogs, the copulation of frogs, morning fogs, spider-webs, the migration of swallows and numerous other birds—even the particular kind of flies that hatch from the maggots in the bacons that hang from his neighbors’ chimneys. The diversity of his subject matter has nothing to do with the scope of the observation—it is geographically bounded, as previously mentioned, by the parish. His natural history did not reach, as many (what we might call) macro-natural histories of the period did, to encapsulate the natural world of ever-larger subject matters or regions of the globe. The object of study here is nature but organized knowingly around a finite space with deep social (and specifically human) meaning. Other nineteenth-century natural histories that followed White’s did not necessarily organize themselves around the parish, but those local English natural histories that White inspired did stick to the local (what we might call) native natural history model that his text established.

This is not to suggest a spurious contrast between native natural histories and all natural histories performed beyond English shores, some of which differed in scale and sensibility from those modeled after White’s but some of which focused in much the same way White did on discrete local spaces. The contrast between the naturalist focusing on natural history in England and the macro project of mapping new worlds in new locales is evident primarily at the level of scale, but also in relation to wonder: the imperative towards comprehensiveness would play out differently in larger fields of study and with the pressure of new experience. And yet for some naturalists, the young Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle chief among them, there is awareness that there isn’t a categorical difference between examining minute particulars in a discrete location in South America versus one in England. (On Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle, see Ian Duncan, “On Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle.”) In the following correspondence between Charles Darwin and his friend and cousin William Fox, the sense that the two correspondents are cognizant of the importance of scale and new experience is evident in their teasing tone about their respective naturalist practices. In the following, Darwin is writing to Fox in May of 1832 from Botofogo Bay (near Rio de Janeiro), plaintively teasing Fox that “when you are picking insects off a hawthorn hedge on a fine May day (wretchedly cold I have no doubt) think of me collecting amidst pineapples and orange trees.” Fox’s reply seems to cheerfully, if self-mockingly, affirm the difference evident in their naturalist endeavors: “I pottering in hedgerows to watch the proceedings of the Whitethroat and you surrounded by the noble trees of a South American forest with every luxury of Vegetation and life around you.” Darwin, though he is reveling in that spring of 1832 letter in having discovered “several new genera” and in the “sublime forests, surrounded by views more gorgeous than even Claude ever imagined,” also writes plaintively of home and inquiringly of Fox’s “own stationary slow sailing craft of a Parsonage”; as he tells him, “remember minutiae become more not less interesting, as the distance increases.”[10] The sense that minute particulars of the localist are just as, if not more, interesting at a distance reminds one that White was not read as a simple localist in his own moment. He was, as Tobias Menely has said of White, part of his period’s cosmopolitan natural history”—that is, his parochialism was fully cosmopolitan (48).

One of the two naturalists to whom White addresses his letters in the epistolary Selborne is Thomas Pennant, whose Indian Zoology (1769) and Arctic Zoology (1784) are the converse geographically and in terms of scale to White’s text. But this is not to suggest that White played the parochial naturalist to his correspondent’s sophistication.[11] White was neither naïve in his approach nor unengaged with the complicated discourse of natural history in his moment; White, as Menely has shown, was correspondent of several prominent naturalists and was published by his brother, Benjamin White, a prominent publisher of natural history in London. Despite being a country clergyman pursuing a native natural history project, White had numerous connections; in any case, in the age of Captain Cook, when natural history was entwined with global travel as well as imperial ambitions, White’s kind of natural history—its choice especially to restrict its scope—was a deliberate choice.[12] As White opines in a letter from 8 October 1770, “men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with. Every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer” (154; Letter VII, Letter to Daines Barrington).[13]

The proliferation of popular natural history in both monograph and periodical form in the nineteenth century was part of a broader popularization of science that included natural history lectures for the middle-class and lectures sponsored by workingmen’s institutes, as well as the natural history fads of the first half of the nineteenth century: fern collecting, fossil hunting, seashore study, and aquaria building (Allen 108-25). We might understand the turn to what I’m calling native natural histories in part as a response to the very imperial natural histories that were going on simultaneously; as recent work by the scholars James Buzard and Jed Esty have suggested, England turns in on itself to produce knowledge of itself in an imperial context where most have assumed that the English were those who ‘knew’ and the colonies objects to be ‘known.’ British natural history through mid-century and beyond was not all about the Galápagos tortoise or other such previously unknown species. Native natural histories that followed in the tradition of White’s Natural History of Selborne focused on Britain’s own tide-pools, hedges, and fields, claiming that these quotidian and familiar places contained more than enough of interest if one looked closely enough.

Selborne’s claim to being one of the first modern ecological texts is due in no small part to White’s observational procedures, which were so rigorous that his journals are considered among one of the two earliest examples of what ecologists now term phenology. Phenology is the study of the first occurrence of annual biological events—when a species of plant blossoms year to year, or the first appearance of a specific migratory bird, or the recording of the date of the appearance of fall foliage in a specific tree species. Climate, as White learned over time, affected the time frame for when certain natural phenomena occurred. White’s structural choices also contribute to his ecological orientation; most typical eighteenth-century natural histories organized content around classifications, which had the effect of foregrounding conceptual systems of organization: “Of Plants,” “Of Rocks,” “Of Insects” would have been typical ways of organizing natural history content. White instead chose to write Selborne in an epistolary style, which was more typical of later eighteenth-century novelists than naturalists. The effect of this is to personalize nature, to render the observer self-consciously situating himself amidst the creatures and plants and phenomena about which he writes. As he writes in a letter to Thomas Pennant on 12 May 1770, it has been so cold as to delay the regular migration of birds:

Last month we had such a series of cold, turbulent weather, such a constant succession of frost, and snow, and hail, and tempest, that the regular migration or appearance of the summer birds, was much interrupted. Some did not show themselves (at least were not heard) till weeks after their usual time, as the blackcap and whitethroat; and some have not been heard yet, as the grasshopper-lark and largest willow-wren. As to the fly-catcher, I have not seen it; it is, indeed, one of the latest, but should appear about his time . . . .  (95; Letter XXIX to Thomas Pennant)

White here registers the long winter and stretch of bad weather in April that has delayed the regular coming of these common species of warblers (blackcap, whitethroats, and willow-wrens); it’s easy to imagine White out in the inclement weather, straining to hear the song of birds who have delayed their arrival. In contrast, the classificatory model seems imperious and theoretical, as if the observer were above and apart from the subjects—there is no mistaking White as anything other than an observer of nature, one whose orientation towards nature is surprisingly modern in its awareness of nature as a network of interrelationships.[14]

The long-term effect of Selborne is worth considering. Not only did it model for other nineteenth-century natural histories a way of representing the natural world by closely examining it in its local context, but it also, more speculatively, may have set in motion an orientation towards the natural world that has a distinct ethics and politics. Selborne innovatively reflects the interdependence of living things in an environment, with human beings not necessarily privileged but rather simply as part of the natural world. White does not theorize ecology per se, nor lend it much rhetorical weight, but rather just puts (what we now call) ecological assumption into motion in his observations; here, in his description of the royal Forest of Wolmer, “three-fifths” of which “lie in this parish,” he emphasizes what no longer is to be seen because of the “parties of unreasonable sportsmen” who killed many “nobler species of game in this forest, now extinct, which I have heard old people say abounded much before shooting” (17; Letter VI to Thomas Pennant). White on other occasions gratefully accepts dead specimens to study, so this is not to suggest that his ethics is based on a refusal to kill other sentient creatures. Rather, his innovation—what I am calling his “quiet revolution” in its orientation towards nature—is to suggest that the human and the animal/vegetable world are one world, and that human destruction of the natural world is senseless (and indeed self-destructive). One can see, without straining too hard, a modern environmental ethics in such a position.

That The Natural History of Selborne is also imbued with what is clearly a natural theological point of view is striking, for it implies that there is a connection between an ecological approach to looking at the natural world and a reverent attitude towards that world. The possible connection between reverence and an ecological/environmentalist ethics is compelling to think about, and the text itself worth revisiting because of the way in which it establishes a seemingly natural correlation between reverence and an ecological approach to looking at the natural world. Reverence in White’s text should not be mistaken for pantheism or a vague “love for the earth” kind of environmentalism. For White, natural theology—knowledge of God based on observed facts and experience—is what drives his reverence for the natural world, and that reverence always implies a Christian context. White’s references to natural histories informed by natural theology are direct. White repeatedly references both John Ray and William Derham, the first of whom is thought of as the father of natural history in Britain—the author of The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691)—and the second the author of perhaps the central text of early eighteenth-century natural theology: Physico-Theology; or, a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from His Works of Creation (1713). When White invokes a theological impetus for observation, his rhetoric is doctrinaire natural theology: “how wonderful is the economy of Providence with regard to the limbs of so vile a reptile!” (63; Letter XVII); or, “we may advance this extraordinary provision of nature as a new instance of the wisdom of God in the creation” (71-2; Letter XX). His most direct invocation of natural theology occurs in a letter  about the behavior of rooks in the autumn, when he remembers the anecdote of the faith of a child listening to the calls of birds:

we remember a little girl who, as she was going to bed, used to remark on such an occurrence, in the true spirit of physico-theology, that the rooks were saying their prayers; and yet this child was much too young to be aware that the Scriptures have said of the Deity, that ‘he feedeth the ravens who call upon him.’ (296; Letter LIX to Daines Barrington)

Like Ray’s and Derham’s texts, Selborne represents a natural world that is not only observed but testifying to the existence and characteristics of God; although primarily it looks like a natural history, the tacit assumption behind those observations is the theological tradition of natural theology.[15]

An important consequence of White’s natural theological world-view is that he sees value in close observation of the quotidian; White’s religious orientation encourages the nature of his observation, for every natural object and creature is of interest to the naturalist seeking to testify to what he understands as wonders created by God. Natural theology, one could say, makes interesting the everyday and quotidian nature within easy reach, even as interesting as the natural wonders sought abroad. White’s choice to look at a bounded and quotidian nature—his parish in southern England—was driven in some part by natural theology. For White—who believes that the area that seems richest is because it has been most observed—reverence for nature requires that one examine it closely and understand how all the parts relate to each other. One could say that our modern ecological orientation, and especially the language of reverence we ideally have for nature and living things, owes no small part to the quiet revolution of 1789—a revolution in the way we began to see nature ecologically, and continued to see it reverently. That this was made possible by the quiet and persistent observations of an eighteenth-century Anglican naturalist named Gilbert White is worth noting, and perhaps celebrating. However far we have come from the assumption that God is revealed in nature’s details, we remain faithful to an understanding of the natural world as both interconnected and worthy of our reverence.

Amy M. King has published widely in the field of the long nineteenth-century novel, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between literature and science. Prof. King is the author of Bloom: The Botanical Vernacular in the English Novel (Oxford UP, 2007, 2003). Her current book project, “Seeing the Divine in the Commonplace: Natural History, the Theology of Nature, and the Novel in Britain, 1789-1865,” examines the relationship between natural history and natural theology in relation to the novel. Her essays most recently have appeared in Victorian Review, Common Knowledge, and Novel.

HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)

King, Amy M. “Publication of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, 1789.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

WORKS CITED

Allen, David Elliston. The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994. Print.

Bewell, Alan. “Romanticism and Colonial Natural History.” Studies in Romanticism 43.1 (2004): 5-34. Print.

Browne, Janet and James Secord, eds. Darwin Correspondence Project. University of Cambridge, 2012. Web. 11 June 2013. <http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/>.

Buzard, James. Disorienting Fiction: The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005. Print.

Carnochan, W. B. and Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook. Cultural Landscapes: Gilbert White and the Natural History of Selborne. Stanford: Stanford University Libraries, 1989. Print.

Damrosch, Leopold. Fictions of Reality in the Age of Hume and Johnson. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989. Print.

Esty, Jed. A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Foster, Paul G. M. “An Introduction to Selborne.” The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne: Facsimile of the 1813 Edition. By Gilbert White. London: Ray Society, 1993. vii–xxxi. Print.

Fulford, Tim, Debbie Lee, and Peter J. Kitson. Literature, Science, and Exploration in the Romantic Era: Bodies of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007). Print.

Johnson, Walter, ed. Journals of Gilbert White. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1971. Print.

King, Amy M. “Quietism and Narrative Stillness.” Common Knowledge 16:3 (Fall 2010): 532-551. Print.

Mabey, Richard. Gilbert White: A Biography of the Author of The Natural History of Selborne. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2007. Print.

—. Introduction. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. By Gilbert White. London: J.M. Dent, 1993. xv-xxvii. Print.

Menely, Tobias. “Traveling in Place: Gilbert White’s Cosmopolitan Parochialism.” Eighteenth-Century Life 28.3 (Fall 2004): 46-65. Print.

Peterfreund, Stuart. “‘Great Frosts and . . . Some Very Hot Summers’: Strange Weather, the Last Letters, and the Last Days in Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne.”Romantic Science: The Literary Forms of Natural History. Ed. Noah Heringman. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003. 85-108. Print.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Trusler, John. The Habitable World Described; or, the present state of the people in all parts of the globe, from north to south; shewing the situation, extent, climate,…including all the new discoveries:with a great variety of maps and copper-plates. 20 vols. London: Library-Press, 1788-1797. Print.

White, Gilbert. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne: 1813 Edition. Facsimile with an Introduction by P.G.M. Foster. London: The Ray Society, 1993. Print.

—. The Natural History of Selborne. Richard Mabey, ed. London: Everyman, 1993. Print.

—. The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. Ed. James E. Harting. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co, 1875. Print.

White, Gilbert, and Paul G.M. Foster. The Natural History of Selborne. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. “White’s Selborne.” The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950. Print.

Worster, Donald. Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.


ENDNOTES

[1] Citations for The Natural History of Selborne come from the Swan Sonnenschein 1875 edition by page and letter number; because The Natural History of Selborne is in two parts, “Letters to Thomas Pennant” and “Letters to Daines Barrington” are indicated. Citations from the section on antiquities are from the facsimile of the 1813 edition, which will be referred to as Antiquities.

[2] Selborne consists of 110 short letters, the first forty-four addressed to the zoologist Thomas Pennant (1726 – 98), and the remaining sixty-six to the philosophical natural­ist Daines Barrington, FRS (1727 – 1800). In the first edi­tion, twenty-six letters on antiquities, unaddressed, also appeared. In later editions of Selborne, the antiquities sec­tions were sometimes dropped.

[3] See also, Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, Cultural Landscapes: Gilbert White and the Natural History of Selborne (1989).

[4] Though the word ecologist did not appear in English until 1873, it is often said that White invented what we now understand as an ecological orientation to the world. There is disagreement about who inaugurated ecological thought; some historians trace ecological perspectives back to Theophrastus and Aristotle, while others trace it more definitively to the eighteenth century. Alexander von Humboldt, who put forth the idea of vegetation “zones,” or the idea that species existed in relation to their climactic environment, was a near contemporary of White, and is often spoken of in the same breath with White.

[5] White was influential even before the watershed edition of 1827. He is known to have influenced a number of Romantic poets, especially John Clare—an ardent observer of the natural world, his publisher suggested he write a “Selborne” for his native Helpston—and Charlotte Smith, who footnotes Selborne in her 1807 poem “Beachy Head.”

[6] See also Richard Mabey, Gilbert White: A Biography of the Author of The Natural History of Selborne (2007).

[7] The Natural History of Selborne has been in continuous print since 1789, and has been the object of numerous admirings—not least Virginia Woolf, who, in her essay “White’s Selborne” in The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays, applauded the text’s opening as novelistic.

[8] Some critics account for the disinterested tone of White’s text by suggesting that natural history demanded a kind of dispassionate objectivity, while still others put pressure on what they can intuit about White’s psychology; Leo Damrosch, for instance, calls him “the self-effacing White” (175). An alternative reading that I have recently put forth understands White’s natural history as a quietistic narrative. See, Amy M. King, “Quietism and Narrative Stillness.”

[9] White’s journal was based on the natural calendar that Benjamin Stilling Fleet introduced in 1762, which kept a record of the year’s natural occurrences, seasonal changes, planting, and harvesting. What had been intermittent (if still copious) observations change in 1768 to a daily practice of writing down observations of his local world. He opened the blank volume on 1 January 1768, and he made his initial record; the final record is for 15 June 1793. The Naturalist’s Journal was a preprinted notebook organized to hold daily observations for a year; occasionally White had to insert additional sheets of paper when he had more to say than the space allowed. When he was away, White had someone else keep at least the basic data that comprised the records (date and weather notes, including barometric pressures, tem­peratures, rainfall, wind). For additional information on White’s journals, see “The ‘Naturalist’s Journal’: Its Genesis and History,” xxxvii-xlviii, in The Journals of Gilbert White, ed Walter Johnson.

[10] See Letter 168, May 1832, Darwin to W.D . Fox, and Letter 175, W. D. Fox to Darwin, 30 June 1832; Darwin Correspondence Project: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-168, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-175.

[11] It is worth noting that Thomas Pennant composed his natural histories of the Arctic and India despite not traveling to these places himself.

[12] See, for instance, Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992); Tim Fulford, Debbie Lee, and Peter J. Kitson, Literature, Science, and Exploration in the Romantic Era: Bodies of Knowledge (2007).

[13] This general claim is made after praising fellow-naturalist Giovanni Scopoli. According to the White scholar and biographer Paul Foster, Giovanni Scopoli was a doctor and naturalist who wrote the 1769 volume Annus I Hisotrico-Naturalis that White is alluding to in letters 6 and 7 of Letters to Barrington. Scopoli was the first to write a natural history of what White calls “Carniola,” which is now part of western Slovenia. As Foster writes, Scopoli “was valued by White as a monographer, as someone who restricted his observations to a limited field in an age which, generallly, attempted universal natural histories” (“Biographical Notes” 300).

[14] For a nuanced discussion of this distinction in relation to Gilbert White and ecology, see Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (1994).

[15] Stuart Peterfreund goes considerably further by suggesting that White is writing not only in the long religious tradition of natural theology, but is (more specifically) writing providentially. Peterfreund’s argument is that the combination of severe weather White records and the political upheavals in France and America contribute to a catastrophic narrative, one in which White becomes to believe that the “last days” are upon them.