In 1789, as war and revolution raged in Europe, a country parson published his observations of the wildlife in his parish of Selborne in Hampshire. From its modest beginnings, The Natural History of Selborne has become an enduring classic of English literature, believed to be the fourth most published book in the language after Shakespeare, the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary. Both a pioneering work of natural history and a tribute to the English countryside, it fundamentally changed the way we see the natural world. This new edition, beautifully bound and illustrated, has been modelled on the large quarto editions produced in the late 18th century: a fitting homage to this much-loved work.
The Reverend Gilbert White was born in Selborne in 1720, and lived there for most of his life. The gentle pace of life in a village of fewer than 400 inhabitants allowed him to pursue his passion: observing the birds, insects and animals around him. From the peregrine falcon captured by a neighbour to the humble dormouse, all creatures were of interest to White. He longed to share his discoveries with like-minded people beyond the confines of his parish, and his correspondence with the naturalist Daines Barrington and the traveller Thomas Pennant forms the basis of The Natural History of Selborne.
The late 18th century was a great age of scientific discovery, in which scientists like Carl Linnaeus and John Ray attempted a grand taxonomy of nature. White was familiar with their theories, but rather than confine himself to classifying specimens, he preferred to observe animals in the wild. He coaxed field crickets out of their burrows with a blade of grass, watched the migrating swifts flying over his church tower, and noticed the soft spines and ‘little hanging ears’ of baby hedgehogs. By studying his local wildlife in their habitat rather than in the laboratory, White became the first true field biologist and the founding father of nature writing as we understand it today.
A lifetime’s study and many hours of patient watching reaped their rewards. White was the first person to note the aeration of the soil by earthworms, and he identified several British species including the harvest mouse and the noctule bat. His powers of observation are united with a wonderfully vivid literary style. White notes that his old tortoise feels ‘as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire, shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner’. Rooks in the breeding season, he says, ‘attempt sometimes in the gaiety of their hearts to sing, but with no great success’.
Reading Selborne today, we come to know the place and all its creatures, from the bats on his lawn and the sparrowhawks that are ‘a terror to all the dames in the village’, to White’s great favourites, the swifts and swallows. It is an intimate, bucolic account, enhanced here by contemporary illustrations including the 12 beautiful watercolours by Hieronymous Grimm which White commissioned for the first edition. It is as if we are riding with White through his parish, a place filled with ‘the wonders of Creation, too frequently overlooked’.
This edition has been modelled on the large quarto editions of scientific works common in the 18th century. It is set in Baskerville, a font designed by the printer John Baskerville (1706–1775), a contemporary of White. The 70 pages of illustrations include the 12 watercolour views of Selborne by Hieronymus Grimm as well as illustrations by Peter Mazell from Thomas Pennant’s British Zoology (1766). The main text is supplemented with two additional letters: ‘Timothy the Tortoise to Miss Hecky Mulso’ and ‘On the Sense of Hearing in Fishes’. A detailed new index is a testament to the breadth of White’s interests, while a newly commissioned introduction by Sir Keith Thomas explores the nature of White’s genius.