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British Children Have More Fun
by Georges T. Dodds

With the critical acclaim for Susanna Clarke's tale of 19th century magicians in London (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel), the popularity of Worst Witch, a TV series set in a British private girl's school for witches, and the Harry Potter series, it is clear that British wizards and magicians are seeing a wave of popularity not experienced since the days of John Dee, and that this magic is particularly popular when placed in the hands of pre-teen wielders. However, it is a different sort of magic -- that of the outdoors, of Nature, of imagination, of play and of learning and social dynamics it brings to children -- that interests Georges.

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other British Children Have More Fun columns.

Wood Magic and Bevis
Richard Jefferies
(London, 1881, 1882)
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Richard Jefferies
(6/11/1848-14/8/1887)

Richard Jefferies Richard Jefferies was born at Coate (England) and educated at Sydenham. He began work as a journalist for the North Wilts Herald and later the Wiltshire and Gloucester Herald. He married Jessie Baden in 1874 and they had two children.

His earliest works were undistinguished histories of Malmesbury, Swindon and Cirencester. He also published a guide for journalists: Reporting, Editing and Authorship (1873). His first novel, The Scarlet Shawl (1874) and those that followed never received much acclaim and Jefferies turned increasingly to his nature writings and topical essays for his main income. The publication (in 1878) of the first chapter The Game Keeper at Home in the Pall Mall Gazette established the style of writing for which he is remembered: reflections of country life, minute observation of nature and engaging observations on life. His fantasies of childhood days Wood Magic (1881), and Bevis (1882), and his SF novel of ecological disaster After London (1885), were produced later.

Despite a life mainly spent outdoors, Jefferies was never of robust constitution, and suffered from tuberculosis in his later years. He died in 1887 at Goring by the Sea, Sussex, at the age of 38.

Bio-bibliography: 1, 2, 3, 4
Richard Jefferies Society
Richard Jefferies' House
E-TEXT: After London
Other works

Wood Magic
Bevis
Wood Magic Frontispiece
Richard Jefferies' best works were his observations and descriptions, albeit somewhat saccharine by today's standards, of the English countryside, tinged with a great deal of Nature-mysticism -- certainly today he would be termed an environmentalist. For example, no one today would mistake his description of a ruined London (Chapter 23 of After London-Wild England) as anything but that of a anthropogenic toxic wasteland (Chernobyl comes to mind). On a lighter note were the childrens novels he published in the early 1880s, Wood Magic: A Fable and Bevis: The Story of a Boy (no, no relation to Beavis).

In Wood Magic, Bevis, a young boy wanders into an enchanted woodland world, where all of Nature has stories to tell. In particular, the water flowing in the creeks and the wind whistling through the trees, have more profound truths to reveal, about life, about good and evil, and so on. With their help, Bevis can sort out the intrigues surrounding the woodland creatures' attempts to overthrow the evil autocratic regime of the magpie. Bevis a sequel to Wood Magic, where Bevis is joined by a friend Mark, is based on Jefferies own early life on his father's farm at Coate. Having "discovered" a large lake close to their home, they imagine it to be a vast inland sea surrounded by jungle swarming with savages and wild beasts. After reenacting a Roman battle with some friends, Bevis and Mark build a raft and cross to an island on the lake. There, with a few supplies, a home-made shotgun, they spend several days living in Nature, learning survival skills, and drawing much personal growth from the experience.

In both books there is the sense that only the young can grasp the essence of Nature, communicate with it, and that adulthood ruins everything. This same theme is also found in Jefferies essay "Saint Guido" in The Open Air (1885) where an innocent child roaming through a country field is the only one that can hear its many voices. Wood Magic is perhaps a bit more mystical in its approach, more like allegory or fairy tale, whereas Bevis, while it bears some of this mysticism, also portrays the very real rough-and-tumble of young boys on an adventure. I must confess to having had a much harder time getting through Jefferies Wood Magic and Bevis than his After London; as in the case of "St. Guido," there is -- by today's standards anyway -- an certain over-the-top saccharine mysticism to portions of his description of child-Nature interactions which is hard to take.

As occurs to some extent with Catherine Parr Traill's Canadian Crusoes, one sees in Jefferies' works one of the paradigms of British children's adventures, the fact that the children are largely left to their own devices to experience the world, and particularly Nature. In Bevis there is a shadowy adult, "the governor" who peeks in from time to time to check on the children, but these barely teenage boys are allowed to sail a raft across a lake, camp out on an island and hunt with a real gun they have built. This sort of thing would send most parents today into hysterics, besides getting Social Services to take away their children. It is this freedom to explore without adult interference which I think is one of the greatest losses to modern children; even I growing up in the 1960s and early 70s in Montreal Map of The Bevis Country and at my grandmother's country home in the summer was allowed to spend long hours exploring the woods, or playing largely unsupervised in the park, returning only for lunch and dinner. Besides teaching children the basics of safety -- don't talk to strangers, don't dive into water of unknown depth -- I'm not entirely sure that the fear of pædophiles, sex, drugs, drive-by shootings and the danger of accidental injury really warrant children being deprived of such experiences. I think, however, that part of this seeming disregard for children's safety in Jefferies' time, and well into the mid-20th century, relates to the large families that existed, where the death of a child by accident or disease, while certainly mourned, was far more common than today. Today with smaller families and medical and safety advances, society sees one child's death as a tragedy (not to mention a cause for litigation), one child as far less "expendable" than he/she might have been considered 100 years ago, when perhaps it was somewhat expected that the weak might be naturally weeded out. Not to take the argument too far, but perhaps it is this earlier attitude of the British to let children learn, at least to some extent, in the school of hard knocks, that won them the Empire they had.

Copyright © 2005 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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