Gilbert White lived through important political times and one of the biggest world events towards the end of his life was the French Revolution, of which events although seem far removed from Selborne were to catapult Britain into a long war with France.
On Saturday 15th we are celebrating with the Selborne Wine Society Bastille Day, but what was Gilbert White doing on the day the Bastille was stormed? We’ve put together some of the main events of the French Revolution and Gilbert’s diary to show the contrast and how eventually even French politics became part of White’s Naturalist’s Journal.
May 5th 1789
France: The Estates-General is called to discuss the issue of mounting debts in France for the first time in 175 years.
Selborne: The Fern-owl, or Goat-sucker chatters in the hanger This curious bird is never heard till warm weather comes: it is the latest summer bird except the fly-catcher
June 27th 1789
France: All three estates come together into the National Assembly
Selborne: My brother cuts his first melon, a small cantaleupe. Barley in bloom, that which was lodged rises a little.
July 14th 1789
France: The fall of the Bastille
Selborne: Benham skims the horse-fields. Rasps come in: not well flavoured. On this day a woman brought me two eggs of a fern-owl or eve-jarr, which she found on the verge of the hanger to the left of the hermitage, under a beechen shrubb. This person, who lives just at the foot of the hanger, seems well acquainted with these nocturnal swallows, & says she has often found their eggs in that place, & that they lay only two at a time on the bare ground. The eggs were oblong, dusky, & streaked somewhat in the manner of the plumage of the parent-bird, & were equal in size at each end. The dam was sitting on the eggs when found, which contained the rudiments of young, & would have hatched perhaps in a week. From hence we may see the time of their breeding, which corresponds pretty well with that of the Swift, as does also the period of their arrival. Each species is usually seen about the beginning of May. Each breeds but once in a summer; each lays only two eggs
July 15th 1789
France: The great terror
Selborne: We have planted-out vast quantities of annuals, but none of them thrive. Grapes do not blow, nor make any progress. The wet season has continued just a month this day. Dismal weather!
August 4th 1789
France: National Assembly abolishes feudal privileges
Selborne: Sedum Telephim, orpine, & Hypericum Androsaemum, tutsan, growing in Emshot lane leading to Hawkey mill.
October 5th 1789
France: The Woman’s March
Selborne: Gathered in Chaumontel pears: tied endive. Mr Ben, & Mrs Ben White left us.
December 9th 1789
France: Assignants sold according to the Church property seized a month before and money used to run the government
Selborne: The Emshot hounds kill a leash of hares on the hill.
June 21st 1791
France: the King and his family try to escape
Selborne: Mr. Richardson’s straw-berries very dry, & tasteless.
October 1st 1791
France: Newly elected Legislative Assembly meets for the first time. Radicals left, Conservatives right, Moderates in the middle.
Selborne: Nep. B. White left us, & went to London. It was with difficulty that we procured water enough for brewing from my well
September 2nd 1792
France: September Massacres spread across France
Selborne: The well at Temple is 77 feet deep: 60 to the water, & seventeen afterwards. My well measures only 63 feet to the bottom. Goleigh well to the water is 55 1/2 yrds /166 feet; to the bottom 57 1/2 yrds / 172 1/2 feet; Heards well to the water is 70 2/3 yrds / 212 feet; to the bottom 83 1/3 yrds / 250 feet. A stone was 4 1/2 seconds falling to the bottom of Heards well; & 4 seconds to the water of Goleigh. The wells were measured accurately by the Revd. Edumund White on the 25th of August 1792, in the midst of a very wet summer. Deep, & tremendous as is the well at Heards, John Gillman, an Ideot, fell to the bottom of it twice in one morning; & was taken out alive, & survived the strange accident many years. Only Goleigh & Heards wells were measured by Mr E. White.
September 21st 1792
France: Legislative Assembly becomes National Convention and France is declared a republic
Selborne: On this day Monarchy was abolished at Paris by the National Convention; and France became a republic!
January 21st 1793
France: King Louis XVI is beheaded
Selborne: Thrush sings, the song-thrush: the missle-thrush has not been heard. On this day Louis 16th late king of France, was beheaded at Paris, & his body flung into a deep grave without any coffin, or funeral service performed.
March 10th 1793
France: National Convention establishes Revolutionary Tribunals
Selborne: The sweet bells at Farnham, heard up the vale of a still evening, is a pleasant circumstance belonging to this situation, not only as occasioning agreeable associations in the mind, & remembrances of the days of my youth, when I once resided in that town: — but also by bringing to one’s recollection many beautiful passages from the poets respecting this tuneable & manly amusement, for which this island is so remarkable. Of these none are more distinguished, & masterly than the following:–
“Let the village bells as often wont,/
Come swelling on the breeze, & to the sun/
Half set, ring merrily their evening round.
– – – – /
It is enough for me to hear the sound/
Of the remote, exhilerating peal,/
Now dying all away, now faintly heard./
And now with loud, & musical relapse/
In mellow changes pouring on the ear.”
— The Village Curate
March 21st 1793
France: National Convention establishes Committees of Surveillance
Selborne: Parted the bunches of Hepatica’s, that were got weak, & planted them again round the borders.
April 6th 1793
France: Committees of Public Safety Established by National Convention
Selborne: On the 6th of last October I saw many swallows hawking for flies around the Plestor, & a row of young ones, with square tails, sitting on a spar of the old ragged thatch of the empty house. This morning Dr Chandler & I cause the roof to be examined, hoping to have found some of these birds in their winter retreat: but we did not meet with any success, tho’ Benham searched every hole & every breach in the decayed roof.
Gilbert White died on the 26th June that year, but had he lived longer would he have commented on Marat’s murder? Or the emergence of Napoleon? Very little political events make into White’s diaries, that wasn’t the purpose of them, so the references to Louis XVI’s death and the republic show how remarkable they were to White, now in his seventies living in an isolated English village.