A voice from the opening years of the twentieth century. The love of nature does not require any formal religion to give it spiritual meaning. The setting is Devon in south-west England, home to my mother and her forbears.
George Gissing was an established part of the literary scene in later Victorian Britain, though less well-known to the public than his friends Arthur Conan-Doyle and H.G. Wells. Indeed, he struggled both with his health and his finances throughout much of his working life, and died of TB whilst living in the south of France in 1903, aged 46. His themes include the professional and social consequences of embracing Darwinism and religious scepticism. His last and most popular novel, the Private Papers of Henry Rycroft, was published in the year of his death.
Rather poignantly, the private papers of the title are presented as the musings of an older writer who inherits enough money from an admirer to retire to a cottage just outside Exeter in Devon. He has nothing to do but enjoy himself in the countryside of his native land. The papers are arranged by the four seasons, moving from spring to winter. The passages below are late in the spring section, marking the transition to summer. My mother is from Exeter, and her parents were adults when this book was written.
MORNING AFTER MORNING
“Morning after morning, of late, I have taken my walk in the same direction, my purpose being to look at a plantation of young larches. There is no lovelier colour on earth than that in which they are now clad; it seems to refresh as well as gladden my eyes, and its influence sinks deep into my heart. Too soon it will change; already I think the first radiant verdure has begun to pass into summer’s soberness. The larch has its moment of unmatched beauty – and well for him whose chance permits him to enjoy it, spring after spring.
“Could anything be more wonderful than that fact that here am I, day by day, not only at leisure to walk forth and gaze at the larches, but blessed with the tranquility of mind needful for such enjoyment? On any morning of spring sunshine, how many mortals find themselves so much peace that they are able to give themselves wholly to delight in the glory of heaven and of earth?”
WALKING IN A FAVOURITE LANE
“Walking in a favourite lane today, I found it covered with shed blossoms of the hawthorn. Creamy white, fragrant even in ruin, lay scattered the glory of the May. It told me that spring is over.
“Have I enjoyed it as I should? Since the day that brought me freedom, four times have I seen the year’s new birth, and always, as the violet yielded to the rose, I have known a fear that I have not sufficiently prized this boon of heaven whilst it was with me.
“I recall my moments of delight, the recognition of each flower that unfolded, the surprise of budding branches clothed in a night with green. The first snowy gleam upon the blackthorn did not escape me. By its familiar bank, I watched for the earliest primrose, and in its copse I found an anemone. Meadows shining with buttercups, hollows sunned with the marsh marigold held me long at gaze. I saw the sallow glistening with its cones of silvery fur, and splendid with dust of gold. These common things touch me with more of admiration and of wonder each time I behold them. They are once more gone. As I turn to summer, misgiving mingles with joy.”
George Gissing The Private Papers of Henry Rycroft in The Complete Works of George Gissing Delphi Classics, Kindle edition 2012.