The Rev. Gilbert White
White of Selborne and His Times. By Walter S. Scott. (West- house. 21s.)
THIS is a book about the man. It is a close-up portrait, built up patiently by a biographer who must have given years to research, tor he appears to know, and to know with affection, every stone and tree in the neighbourhood, and to have examined not only local records but to have mastered all the records that Oriel College (proud of its famous son) has collected in the course of a century and a half. The reader's pleasure, therefore, will be an old-fashioned one, the sort familiar in the days before sensational tricks of semi-fiction crept into the art of biography. Addicts of Boswell will enjoy this book, and will recognise its method of cunning addition of detail toward a fore-planned result.
So much is the author dedicated to his method that he has taken a time-colouring from the period, and his prose is that of the eighteenth century. Speaking of the childhood of the naturalist, he says, " Little Gilbert must have been very lonely at times. When a small boy is ten, one of six is but a poor companion. He may indeed be satisfactory as an admirer, but he cannot evoke the spirit of emulation which brings joy to the schoolboy's heart, whether the outcome be the thrill of victory or the poignancy of defeat." And his views are equally in harmony with those of that century, as when he says of the clergy of. White's, time that they "kept the miraculous character of Christianity as far as possible in the back- ground, and presented to the world a system of humanitarian ethics in which the supernatural was largely left out of sight—a system for which, indeed, there is a good deal to be said."
Through this approach the author introduces us to the lovable little figure and the huge family of brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces who moved round him in a sedate minuet, sometimes partnered by his friends from Oxford (such as the famous brothers Warton and the fellow-parson Mulso, whose sister, Mrs. Chapone, the Blue-stocking friend of Dr. Johnson, was once within an ace of marrying the naturalist)
The house, the adding of the large sitting-room, the travels about the country by horse or coach, the gardening and the observation of nature, the characters of relations and friends—all are introduced with a care that amounts in the end to charm, the charm of fidelity. The author has caught something of that quality of the immortal book of Selborne itself, a quality which, as he reminds us, nobody has yet been able to define. One can only say that it is the very soul of Englishness. One blemish in the biography is its format. It is of quarto size, in the manner of an edition de luxe. That it is thickly frequented with printer's errors and broken and dropped type is all the more unfortunate. The standard in these matters is sadly lowered today by the loss of skilled printers and readers.