This is a guest post from Clodagh Murphy, written in 2019 while undertaking a placement with the British Library Modern Archives team as part of the KCL Early Modern English Literature MA: Text and Transmission.
18 July 2020 marks the 300th birthday of Gilbert White (1720-1793), a parson and pioneering naturalist, whose work has been credited with establishing ecology and natural science as we know it today.
White was born at the Vicarage at Selborne, and in 1728 moved with his parents and siblings to The Wakes in Selborne. White enjoyed ‘a childhood immersed in the wisdom of hanger, beech, and stream’, and developed an interest in the natural world that he was to sustain all his life. The Wakes was to become the place where White would establish the ecological practices and methods that would eventually form his most revered work: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1789).
After graduating from Oxford in June 1743, White embarked on a series of curacies, travelling around the country until he turned his attention back to Selborne, after the death of his Grandmother in 1759 left The Wakes in his possession. White began to develop a ‘formal study of the garden’ at The Wakes, and started to log his observations in a journal titled the Garden Kalendar, which includes entries on such operations as the growth of melons and cucumbers. In 1767, White’s correspondent Daines Barrington devised a new notebook that he called the Naturalist’s Journal; a record-keeping design which appealed to White, who subsequently set aside his Garden Kalendar and begun this new journal. White’s Naturalist’s Journal was eventually published alongside his Natural History of Selbourne, and is held in the British Library.
White’s interest in the natural world at Selborne continued to develop until ‘reaching maturity’ in Flora Selborniensis (1766). This volume, consisting of further recordings of the garden at Selborne, was published in 1911 under the title A Nature Calendar and ‘convincingly demonstrates one of White’s principal strengths as a naturalist—an openness to enquiry’.
This curiosity led to White’s ‘principal accomplishment’: The Natural History and Antiquities at Selbourne.
White’s Natural History was published by his brother, Benjamin, in 1789 and is comprised of a series of letters between White and two other naturalists: Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. The Natural History was an immediate success and is considered one of the earliest contributions to natural science.
Gilbert White manuscripts at the Library
The original manuscript is kept at the Gilbert White museum in Selborne, but the Western Manuscripts collection at the British Library holds thirty letters from White to Pennant that contain the original form of most of the first part of White’s Natural History (Add MS 35139). The library also holds White’s Garden Kalendar (Add MS 35139), and a printed edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad that given to White by Pope in 1743. The edition contains autograph inscriptions, such as “Given to me by Mr. Alexander Pope on my taking the Degree of B.A. June 30th 1743” and ‘the sole authentic likenesses’ of White in two sketches: one labelled ‘Portrait of G. W. penned by T. C.’ and another of White wearing an academic cap.
Research Assistant at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL), University College London
Manuscript of Gilbert White's Garden Kalendar, Add MS 35139