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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XI. Letter-Writers

§ 16. Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne

Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) holds a unique position in English literature as the solitary classic of natural history. It is not easy to give, in a few words, a reason for its remarkable success. It is, in fact, not so much a logically arranged and systematic book as an invaluable record of the life work of a simple and refined man who succeeded in picturing himself as well as what he saw. The reader is carried along by his interest in the results of far-sighted observation; but, more than this, the reader imbibes the spirit of the writer which pervades the whole book and endears it to like-minded naturalists as a valued companion.

For some twenty years or more (1767–87), White wrote a series of letters to Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington, giving a remarkable account of the chief instances of the special habits of animals and of natural phenomena which he was daily observing. Although these correspondents asked him questions and remarked upon his observations, they learned much more from White than he from them. Pennant is severely criticised by Thomas Bell, one of the editors of White’s work, who writes: “The man to whom the vain and self-seeking author of ‘British Zoology’ was so greatly indebted is almost entirely ignored.” The late Alfred Newton, in his notice of Gilbert White in The Dictionary of National Biography, however, exonerates Pennant, noting that “In the preface he generally but fully acknowledges White’s services.” White’s friendship with Barrington appears to have begun about the end of 1767, the first published letter to him being dated June, 1769. Barrington, in 1770, suggested the publication of White’s observations; but, although White thought favourably of the advice, he was diffident and did not prepare his materials for press until January, 1788. Even then, there was more delay, so the book was not published until 1789.

White seems to have collected largely, with the ultimate object of forming a naturalist’s calendar; for, writing to Pennant on 19 July, 1771, he expresses his diffidence in respect to publishing his notes because

  • I ought to have begun it twenty years ago.—If I was to attempt anything, it should be somewhat of a Natural History of my native parish, an Annus Historio-Naturalis, comprising a journal for one whole year, and illustrated with large notes and observations.
  • Eventually, he did not make any considerable alteration in his letters but left all the vivid pictures in their original setting and The Naturalist’s Calendar did not see the light until two years after his death—in 1795.

    A Quarterly reviewer, speaking of White, describes him as “a man the power of whose writings has immortalised an obscure village and a tortoise,—for who has not heard of Timothy—as long as the English language lives.” The life history of Timothy may be read in White’s letters, and in the amusing letter to Miss Hecky Mulso, afterwards Mrs. Chapone (31 August, 1784), written by him in the name of Timothy. The tortoise was an American, born in 1734 in the province of Virginia, who remembered the death of his great-great-grandfather in the 160th year of his age. Thomas Bell disputes the American origin and believes the animal to have belonged to a north African species, naming it testudo marginata; but Bennet held that it was distinct and he described and named it T. Whitei, after the man who had immortalised it.

    Selborne may be obscure; but it is a beautiful village in a beautiful country eminently suited for the purpose of White in making it the centre of a life’s work of zoological research and observation. The book was immediately popular both with the general public and with all naturalists, many of the most eminent of which class have successively edited it with additional and corroborative notes.

    White’s was an uneventful life as we usually understand the phrase; but it was also a full and busy one, the results of which have greatly benefited his fellow men. He was born and died at Selborne; and that delightful neighbourhood was the centre of his world. But it would be a mistake to forget that he was a man of capacity equal to the duties of a larger sphere. He was for fifty years a fellow of Oriel college, Oxford, and, for some of these years, dean of the college. In 1757, there was an election for the provostship, when, although Musgrave was chosen, White had many supporters. He quitted residence at Oxford in the following year, with the intention of settling permanently at Selborne. He refused several college livings for this reason, although he held the living of Moreton Pinckney in Northamptonshire as a non-resident incumbent. Notwithstanding this apparent indifference to duty, he worked successively in several curacies, the last being that of his beloved Selborne.