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Jefferies, Richard

Entry updated 15 January 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1848-1887) UK naturalist, journalist and author, active from around 1866. The son of a farmer, he showed remarkable powers of observation when writing about Nature, describing it in a poetic style from an animist viewpoint that was devoid of sentimentality. His grasp of the description of nature as impacted upon by human agencies (see Pastoral; Pollution) does not illuminate his two early SatiresJack Brass: Emperor of England (1873 chap), which can loosely be construed as fantasy, and Suez-Cide!; Or, How Miss Britannia Bought a Dirty Puddle and Lost Her Sugar-Plums (1876 chap), though it wells up occasionally in The Rise of Maximin, Emperor of the Orient [for full title see Checklist] (October 1876-July 1877 The New Monthly Magazine; 2012), a Prehistoric SF tale set in a deep, unspecified, idealized past, in a "continent of vast extent" "bounded" by an even vaster freshwater sea – a model for the vast inland sea that inundates the great but contaminating metropolis in After London [see below]. The culture-hero Maximin is an Inventor of genius, and his War to take control of his world is marked by his use of advanced Weapons, while at the same time his poems win the hearts of his soldiery. He then returns to his birthplace, the peninsula and dwelling known as Sandover, which will now become the capital of the world (it is possible though not likely, due to Maximin's long obscurity, that James Merrill registers this almost otherworldly capital in The Changing Light at Sandover [1982]).

An even more complex and emotionally potent portrayal of the natural world is clearly noticeable in his first outright fantasy novel, Wood Magic: A Fable (1881 2vols; cut vt Sir Bevis: A Tale of the Fields 1889). This first volume of his semi-autobiographical Bevis sequence features a young boy, accompanied and perhaps led into his adventures by his pet spaniel Pan; he has the ability to communicate with animals, birds and plants; as the tale progresses, the focus shifts to animated descriptions of the social and political structure of the local animal kingdom, climaxing in the struggles of a contender for the throne, who must topple the wicked magpie, King Kapchack [for Beast Fable and Estates Satire, plus Pan above, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. T H White knew Jefferies's work well; the first version of his The Sword in the Stone (1938) was clearly shaped in part by Wood Magic, though the Wart (young King Arthur) does not talk to animals but becomes them. Both novels are central examples of an influential British genre: the double-told story about and ostensibly for young children, but best understood by adult readers awash, it may be, in desiderium. The sequel, Bevis: The Story of a Boy (1882 3vols), emphasizes the pleasures and intrigues of childhood rather than the hero's supernatural abilities, and lacks the doubleness of its predecessor; its natural successor is Arthur Ransome's nonfantastic Swallows and Amazons sequence.

For the last six years of his life Jefferies's health was severely in decline, and his thoughts turned to the future and to speculation. The result was After London; Or, Wild England [for full subtitle see Checklist] (1885), a Ruined Earth novel which describes, initially from the viewpoint of a future historian, an England reverted to rural wilderness: the novel's first part describes the lapse into barbarism, the specific reasons for the Disaster being deliberately kept vague; the second half of the novel details the medieval-style society that has come into being and tells of a voyage of discovery on a great inland lake that, having obliterated the Pollution-ridden City of London, now covers the centre of England. The use of Pastoral models in the text is less nostalgic than assertive, in line with authors like William Morris: the assertion being that the industrial nineteenth century has had a deadly effect on civilization. The style throughout is gravely lucid, and at times singularly direct; given the fact that no real convention had been established for envisioning an aftermath world in fiction, the novel's first sentence – "The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible." – is a remarkable plunge into medias res, as well as an extremely early narratization of the gap between remembered present and lived-in future: in this case between a ruined late nineteenth century present (or very Near Future), and its description from a viewpoint decades or centuries later (see Ruins and Futurity). After London is an important example of Victorian sf and proved very popular at the time; its influence can be seen in W H Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887), and in many tales written in the aftermath of World War One, including Scientific Romances like Paul Creswick's The Turning Wheel (1928) or, as a more evocative example of Jefferies's landscape-based focus, John Collier's Tom's A-Cold (1933; vt Full Circle: A Tale). [JC/JE]

see also: History of SF; Utopias.

John Richard Jefferies

born Coate, near Swindon, Wiltshire: 6 November 1848

died Goring by Sea, West Sussex: 14 August 1887

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