Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White

This book is a collection of letters from Gilbert White, a 18th century Hampshire vicar, to the naturalists Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. A keen amateur naturalist, White made a study of the flora, and particularly the fauna, around his home village of Selborne. The book was originally published in White's lifetime and has become a natural history classic. In his introduction to the Penguin edition that I have, Richard Mabey writes;

More than any other single book it has shaped our everyday view of the relations between man and nature...........he was perhaps the first writer to talk of animals - and particularly birds - as if they conceivably inhabited the same universe as human beings.

This is the third or fourth time I have read this book. I am interested in natural history but not particularly knowledgeable about it. I have to admit there are parts of the book I skip, lists of birds, the Latin bits etc. What I love about it is the enthusiasm which White shows for his subject. He was writing at a time when there was still a lot to be discovered about native flora and fauna. White was particularly interested in birds, and in those days it was still unclear whether birds migrated, and if so, where to. White spends a lot of time thinking and writing on this subject.

I also love his curiosity and open-mindedness. While on a visit to a friend he makes a detour to a town where a woman is claiming that her cancer had been cured by applying a live toad to the affected area;

I thought I discerned circumstances which did not a little invalidate the woman's story of the manner in which she came by her skill. She says of herself 'that labouring under a virulent cancer, she went to some church where there was a vast crowd: on going into a pew she was accosted by a strange clergyman; who, after expressing compassion for her situation told her that if she would make such an application of living toads as is mentioned she would be well'.

White is a sensible man and concludes that if a toad-cure for cancer were available, the 'strange clergyman' would be far more likely to disseminate the knowledge by publishing a paper on the subject, than by accosting random women in churches. Another anecdote which made me smile was this:

My musical friend at whose house I am now visiting, has tried all the owls that are his near neighbours with a pitch-pipe, set at concert-pitch, and finds that they all hoot in B flat. He will examine the nightingales next spring.

This is a lovely book, good for dipping into on a bright spring morning.


  1. This sounds like a wonderful book and one you must be sharing with your son. I often pick up favorite books of mine that I reread, sometimes just for favorite passages that give me a lift. One of my favorites is "Excellent Women" by Barbara Pym. There are certain passages that make me smile at the humor and others that make me nod with understanding at the beautiful truth about human nature.

  2. Sunday - it is a wonderful book. I am trying to encourage Billy to take an interest in nature and the natural world. He saw his first kingfisher the other day - very exciting!

  3. Ohhh: I'm putting this on my TBR list. I love natural history too. :)

  4. Eva - it's a lovely book, though as I said a lot of it goes over my head! It takes you back in time.