The Conversion of Richard Jefferies

The Conversion of Richard Jefferies

The alarming discovery was lately made by an ingenuous correspondent of the Pall Mall Gazette that Richard Jefferies, the prose-poet of natural history, not content with the legitimate study of gamekeepers and poachers and “Open Air”, had made a most reprehensible incursion into the domain of theology, by setting forth in an obscure volume (now in its second edition), entitled “The Story of my Heart”, the outrageous opinion that “there is not the least trace of directing intelligence in human affairs”. The discoverer of this outrage, being quite innocent of any familiar knowledge of Jefferies’ life of writings, naturally felt called upon a address a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette; and the result has been a correspondence, first on the subject of “The Pernicious Works of Richard Jefferies”, and then on the supplementary question, “Did Richard Jefferies die a Christian?” For it is argued by Jefferies’ orthodox admirers that, though he did indeed “hold sceptical opinions for a time”, as expressed in the atheistic “Story of my Heart”, he nevertheless died in the full odour of piety, and would probably, had he survived, have withdrawn the offending autobiography from circulation, or at least have added a later chapter with a wholly different conclusion – just as it was suggested by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in one of his finest moods of irony, that Shelley, if he had lived to a ripe age, would have taken holy orders and been “inducted to a small country living in the gift of the lord chancellor”.

Now, in spite of the “authoritative account of the closing scene”, which the Pall Mall Gazette has reprinted from that very suitable repository, the columns of the Girls’ Own Paper (to think that “vixi Puellis nuper idoeus” should be said of Richard Jefferies!) I greatly question whether Jefferies can be asserted to have died a “Christian”, in any but the most superficial sense. Let us first consider a far more important matter – how he lived. This, fortunately, is beyond question; we have it established on the unimpeachable testimony of his own published writings that he was a Freethinker not merely “for a time”, but during the whole period of his working life. In 1883, four years before his death, but when the prospect of death was already familiar to him, he wrote as follows in the final chapter of “The Story of my Heart”:

“I have been obliged to write these things by an irresistible impulse which has worked in me since early youth. They have not been written for the sake of argument, still less for any thought of profit, rather indeed the reverse. They have been forced from me by earnestness of heart, and they express my most serious convictions. For seventeen years they have been lying in my mind, continually thought of and pondered over.”

It is perfectly evident from this and other similar passages in the book, that in “The Story of my Heart” we have Jefferies’ intellectual will and testament, drawn up, at what he felt to be the close of his active career, with the utmost solemnity and deliberation. Note further, that the same freethinking views were again expressed and emphasised in “Hours of Spring”, and essay which appeared in Longman’s as late as May, 1886, that is, only fifteen months before the death of the writer. We may take it, therefore, as proven beyond doubt that the change in Jefferies’ convictions, if change there were, took place within the last year of his life.

Now what was his condition at this time? We learn from Mr. Walter Besant’s “Eulogy of Richard Jefferies” that when he died he was “wasted to a skeleton”, “the veriest shadow of a man”, and that “for nearly two years he had been too weak to write”. “Everything possible,” says his biographer, “of long-continued torture, necessity of work, poverty, anxiety, and hope of recovery continually deferred, are crammed into the miserable record which closes this volume”. It is extraordinary that even orthodox people should feel any satisfaction in being told that a man in this state, broken by disease, poverty-stricken, solitary, above all devoid of intellectual companionship, “died listening with faith and love to the words contained in the old Book”. “The last few weeks he suffered intensely,” writes his widow, “but I feel he was only allowed to suffer long enough for the truth to be revealed.” Here are precisely the conditions of the ecclesiastical torture-chamber, with a benevolent and economical deity to do the wrenching of the rack, and not a wrench more than is necessary to extort the desired confession. It seems that the “Dark Ages” are now wholly of the past, if there are people still living who can exult in a “conversion” of this kind!

I submit, then, that Freethinkers need apprehend no discredit to their cause from any such statements as to the “religious” utterances of a distracted and agonised man; since it is of course a notorious fact that the Freethinker, in ordinary circumstances, dies with the same calmness as the Christian, or even, to put the case more strongly, as the Chinaman himself. But for the large and growing circle of readers who are interested in Jefferies’ very singular personality, it is a matter of some concern to know the exact truth about his last hours, and to possess some more reliable data for determining whether, in the hysteria of his death-bed sufferings (for it is stated on medical authority that his case was “a very marked example of hysteria in man”), he consciously relinquished the opinions which he had held for over twenty years, and which, as he had lately avowed, expressed his “most seriously convictions”, or whether in his heart he still held these opinions unaltered, while yielding outward compliance to the affectionate importunities of those who were nearest to him. There are two published accounts of Jefferies’ conversion, the one in Mr. Besant’s “Eulogy”, the other by “C. W. M.” in The Girls’ Own Paper; but it is noticeable that both of them are based on the testimony of one and the same person. Now, with all possible respect for Mrs. Jefferies, it must be said that statements of this kind are extremely unreliable when they proceed, as in the present instance, from those who, by their own showing, were deeply concerned to produce a particular result; from such persons are dangerously apt to exaggerate trifles unintentionally, to attribute an undue significance to chance words and speeches, and to hail as the desired spiritual conversion that which is in reality nothing more than complete bodily collapse. The explanation of the whole business lies in Jefferies’ physical state during his last two years; he was very weak, and when the Gospel of St. Luke was read to him (it is not quite obvious, by the way, why Christians should claim a monopoly of that gospel) he appears to have found relief in some ejaculations of the ordinary pietistic kind. These are slight reasons for assuming that he was a serious convert to “Christianity”, or that he would not, with returning health, have put aside his morbid and hysterical imaginings like the bad dream that they were.

To recapitulate: while the full truth as regards Jefferies’ deathbed may possibly never be known, we have the utmost certainly as to the opinions he held during his practical life. As long as he enjoyed any measure of health and strength, as long as he was able to maintain that vital communion with wild Nature on which his whole being depended, as long as he could work with his body and think with his mind – as long, in fact, as he was Richard Jefferies, and not a shattered wreck – he was a Freethinker. What he was for some few months after that, is at present a matter of speculation; for my own part, I fully believe, after carefully weighing all that has been written by his biographer and relatives, that in his heart he remained a Freethinker to the end.

Henry S. Salt

The National Reformer, October 18, 1891, p. 243