Frequently Asked Questions
Who was Gilbert White?
Gilbert White (1720-1793) was the curate of the village of Selborne in Hampshire, England. He was a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, a farmer in a very small way, and a passionate gardener. From an early age he was fascinated by nature and recorded his observations, and in later life began to correspond with several prominent ‘natural philosophers’. These letters were eventually edited and compiled in a book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789). It has never been out of print since its publication and established the genre of nature-writing in English. Gilbert White’s commitment to close observation of the mundane and everyday in nature– what we would now call ‘field study’– was pioneering and inspired Darwin; his influence felt in pastoral English writing from The Mill on the Floss to The Wind in the Willows.
Where is Selborne?
Here! Thankfully a little too inconvenient to trains and major roads to become a commuter suburb of London, Selborne is not too different today than it was in Gilbert White’s time. Here is a very nice shot of the whole village. You can still visit his house, which is now a museum.
What the heck is St. foin, sainfoin, st foin, saint foin? What’s a chafer/Libellula virgo/fern-owl/ephemera etc. etc. etc.?
There’s a small (very small) glossary on this site for very common terms; sometimes I also address unfamiliar terms on the notes for the aggregate entries, so a site search might produce something. Otherwise you can find the answer the same way I do: google! I’m not a biologist so your search is as good as mine, generally. One of the many things I’d like to do is expand the glossary and add pictures, and a some articles on period practices; if you have suggestions for articles please contact me.
Where can I read more Gilbert White?
The Natural History of Selborne is easily found; the most readily available editions are the Penguin Classics paperback, which has good footnotes, and the Thames & Hudson illustrated edition, which is stuffed with beautiful full-colour illustrations from the period. Both are under £10 on Amazon.com.
The journals are a different matter. These are out of print, but there’s a few ways to hunt them down. The cheapest is a couple of different reprints of a 1931 edit by Walter Johnson, “Journals of Gilbert White”. Try Abe Books, they usually have a few for around a fiver. This edition covers 1768-1793 and is good for the casual fan; on the downside it’s pretty poorly laid out, and it has almost no contextual support– untranslated chunks of latin, irritating, unexplained elisions of material, etc.
On the other end of the scale is a gorgeous 1986-89 3-volume hardcover set edited by Francesca Greenoak. It’s huge; contains pretty much every scrap of text in the journals from 1751 to 1793, down to the very barometer readings; and is illustrated throughout with nice pen-and-ink drawings. It is well-footnoted and just lovely to hold. Unfortunately this set is a collector’s item and goes for £60 and up.
I have an old copy of The Natural History of Selborne– is it worth anything?
I get sent this question every once in a while. I have a few responses. First: I have no idea. What am I, an auctioneer? Second: Probably not– The Natural History of Selborne has more editions than almost any other printed book short of the Bible and Shakespeare. The Victorians were especially fond of it and printed thousands of copies; it was also commonly given out as a school prize, accounting for thousands more (I first encountered Gilbert White in a early 20th century school-prize edition on my in-laws bookshelf). Unless it’s a particularly rare, fine, early, or illustrated copy, they’re pretty common. Of course if it’s a first edition it can go for over £5000. Maybe you have one of those, I dunno. Third: You can get a more accurate sense of valuation by looking at the date of publication on Abebooks. Fourth: the best reply was my husband’s, to an email that read in its entirety, “I have a copy of “The Natural History of Selborne is it worth anything” — “If you read it, yes.”
I’ve found an error!
Please use the contact form, I’ll fix it ASAP. Or, you can leave a comment on the post in question.
I’d like to contribute something!
Hooray! I have various plans for expanding this site so there’s plenty to do. If you have photographs of Selborne or critters mentioned in the journals, Gilbert White material looking for an online home, or links that might be of interest, please use the contact form. Especially nice would be help with the ‘encyclopedia’– if you can illuminate obscure mentions of period farming practices, identify a mystery plant, or write a concise entry on fern-owls, that would be most welcome.
And if you’re a nature-loving Wordpress guru with time on their hands, please get in touch…
Who are you?
My personal website can be found here: sydneypadua.com. I’m an animator and I live in London. I’m not any kind of biologist, historian, farmer, academic, or other profession that would be more logical for maintaining this site; I just really, really love Gilbert White.