and his circulating library are to be execrated rather than thanked for imposing upon Victorian authors, publishers and readers the uniform dress of the three-volume novel. Such things may have been hardly relevant where children’s books are concerned, but in 1882 there appeared in full triple-decker fig Bevis: the story of a boy by Richard Jefferies. (The boy had, in fact, appeared the year before as central figure in a two-volume fantasy, Wood Magic, rich in sentimental whimsy, which at least apprises us of the rural locus for its wholly realistic successor.)
Such scale and dignity
have thus given this magnificent study of boyhood an ambiguity of purpose from the start. Was it really ‘for children’? For sure they had rejoiced in long books before, but here they are confronted by eight hundred and seventy-five pages where not much happens rather slowly and that makes for something of a challenge.
When we first meet Bevis
(he’s about twelve, much older than he was in Wood Magic) he is a wayward, impulsive, domineering child and his story takes place alongside his friend Mark on his father’s Wiltshire small-holding through an almost cloudless summer holiday. The ‘people’ in the place, rather like Kenneth Grahame’s Olympians in The Golden Age, are preoccupied with their quotidian routines and the boys and their long-suffering spaniel, Pan (one of the great dogs in children’s literature), are left to engage in a climactic sequence of activities with a barely inhibited freedom which will provoke incredulity among the cotton-wool child-minders of today.
is at the heart of things. In the early stages there is much attention paid to the nearby lake (actually a reservoir), a part of the landscape that they have known all their lives but which is transformed by their imagination into The New Sea. Its shores and islands – Serendib (from the Arabian Nights) and New Formosa – are mapped and after Bevis’s governor has assured himself that they can swim they are given a boat whose fitting-out and whose management we see them undertake themselves.
In a central episode
when tropical adventurism is abandoned in favour of classical warfare, the great battle of Pharsalia is organised with a group of boys from the local hamlet (Caesar Bevis against Pompey Ted) and its dramatic conclusion, when Bevis almost falls into a quarry, opens the way for the book’s remarkable second half. Unbeknownst to their people Bevis and Mark plot an expedition to New Formosa where they succeed in looking after themselves for eleven days. They had initially worked out how to design and build a matchlock gun (we watch them do it) and that provides a source for food. Then with their new-found sailing prowess, and with the building first of a hut and then of a raft they contrive an absorbed Crusoe-esque island-life. (There is even a girl Friday in an episode where play comes to clash with the realities of rural life in the 1880s.)
The linear structure
with no sub-plots, makes of this – the first ‘holiday adventure story’ – a four-month Bildungsroman. The point is made in the text, when Mark’s older sister, Frances, realises when he returns from the island that he is no longer ‘the boy she ordered to and fro’. (The presence of Frances and the briefer episodes involving Loo, the girl Friday, and another peasant girl, introduce a perhaps unintended sexual tremor into their encounters with our two pre-pubescent adventurers.)
Of more moment
is Jefferies’s intense feeling for the ambience of his story. The farm and the Longpond are closely modelled on his father’s (not very successful) small-holding while his own, almost mystical, apprehension of the natural world give a sustained intimacy to his treatment of all the life within his text. I’m sure it’s true, as Peter Hunt says in his introduction to the World’s Classics edition of the book, that the falling-off of the last few chapters is due to the need to fill the three-decker’s third volume, but that must surely be forgiven when Bevis and Mark and Frances make their winter ride through the ice-floes of The New Sea in the final stunning paragraphs.
The presentation of the text after 1882
has often entailed much butchery (the Puffin had some disgraceful excisions) although a complete one-volume edition, with a good map of the theatre of action, came out in 1902 and had a superb successor from Jonathan Cape in 1932 with 43 line-drawings by Ernest Shepard. (Cape of course was the publisher of Arthur Ransome who had a great love of Bevis.) Hacking down the wordage which looks so easy is liable to damage Jefferies’s insights into the character of the children and the ‘people’ of his book as well as his clear-eyed reverence for both the beauties and the rough edges of a world now lost to us. You may indeed see The New Sea as you speed a few hundred yards south of it on the M4, but no naked boys will be bathing there now under the looming towers of Swindon, and street-lights everywhere forbid the ecstasy that Bevis found lying on New Formosa and watching the rising of Orion.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. His book The Ladybird Story: Children’s Books for Everyone, The British Library, 978-0712357289, £25.00 hbk, is out now.
Bevis: the story of a boy is published by CreateSpace, 978-1517076221, £7.49 pbk.