Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Norman Moore
Gilbert White (17201793)
[Gilbert White was born at Selborne, Hampshire, where his father had a small estate, on 18th July 1720. His schoolmaster was Thomas Warton, father of the Professor of Poetry, and he entered at Oriel College, Oxford, in December 1739, and was elected a fellow of the College in March 1744. He took holy orders, but never held any other preferment than his fellowship. He settled at his native place and only left it to pay brief visits to friends, filling his time with the study of the natural history and antiquities of the parish. In 1789 he published The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, and died at Selborne on 26th June 1793.]
The Natural History of Selborne was the first readable book in English on natural history, and before White no one had carried out the method of describing all that he had observed in a particular locality. The book consists of genuine letters to several correspondents. The letters are simple in style, and seldom long, and contain lucid accounts of the habits of birds and other animals. There is no attempt at decoration in the composition; the writer, in the simplest English, succeeds in arousing in others the interest which he himself feels. His sentences convey exactly what he had seen, and he never becomes either uninteresting or rhetorical. Mingled with his own observations are questions and discussions of unsolved problems of natural history, glimpses of rural society, and sufficient allusions to literature to show that a well chosen set of books had been read, so as to form part of the authors mind. White may be regarded as the founder of a new branch of English literature, and few of those who have followed him have had so much to tell, or have succeeded in conveying so much in so short a space. In the narration of the features of events so as to give a clear idea of the details, as well as of the whole, White, in the natural world, shows skill comparable to that of Cowper in the description of his domestic circle and its incidents. The letters of White are less numerous and briefer than those of Cowper, and of somewhat less literary power, but they have the same kind of merit, and while making clear what their writer saw, unconsciously furnish a portrait of his own mind.