Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Richard Jefferies and the Northern Lights

There's a Twitter account that's currently retweeting the whole of Bevis by Richard Jefferies. I thought I knew the book pretty well, but Jefferies has still surprised me.

The tweeting has reached the chapter Bevis's Zodiac, which breaks off from the young heroes endless camping and shooting adventures to give an awed description of the night sky.

All the stars from Arcturus to Capella came about the elms by the orchard; as Arcturus went down over the place of sunset in autumn, Capella began to shine over another group of elms—in the meadow to the north-east. Capella is sure to be seen, because it begins to become conspicuous just as people say the sky is star-lit as winter sends the first frost or two. But Capella is the brightest star in the northern sky in summer, and it always came up by the second or north-east group of elms.

Between these two groups of tall trees - so tall and thick that they were generally visible even on dark nights - the streamers of the Aurora Borealis shot up in winter...

Jefferies writes as though seeing the Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights - was an annual or even a nightly experience.

And though it can be misleading to read Bevis as a simple reconstruction of Jefferies's own boyhood - he spent a significant part of it with relations in London - it's clear that the setting of the book is Coate Farm, just outside Swindon.

I grew up thinking of the Northern Lights as something that might occasionally be glimpsed in the North of Scotland,  but never in England.

But as we have been reminded in the past couple of years, the solar activity that causes them occurs in 13-year cycles (more or less). We are at the peak of one of those cycles, and the lights have been seen as far south as Cornwall.

Richard Jefferies was born in 1848, and if we look at the records we find there was a peak of solar activity in 1860, which (though we are never told) is about the age Bevis is in the book. So I suspect this reference to the Northern Lights comes from a memory of one Wiltshire winter in Jefferies own boyhood.

The whole chapter, incidentally, is a good example of what Charles Masterman said about Jefferies:

He did not find a Presence which disturbed with the joy of elevating thoughts. He found a Glamour - inimitable, inexplicable - which excited to passionate emotion. Others have demanded Order, Understanding, evidence of Purpose or Compassion. He asked only for Beauty. And that Beauty is not denied to the supplicant.

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