I’ve just started Bevis, by Richard Jefferies. Published in 1882, it apparently a classic – both according to the Wordsworth Classic paperback version I’ve got, and the websites I found when looking it up. I’d gone this long without having heard of it, and didn’t realize it was a sequel, or that W.H Auden had called it “the only tolerable book about boyhood”. That’s quite a recommendation, and convinced me to spend 10p on it very happily.
It begins thus:
“One morning a large wooden case was brought to the farmhouse, and Bevis, impatient to see what was in it, ran for the hard chisel and the hammer, and would not consent to be put off the work of undoing it for a moment. It must be done directly. The case was very broad and nearly square, but only a few inches deep, and was formed of thin boards. They placed it for him upon the floor, and, kneeling down, he tapped the chisel, driving the edge of it under the lid, and so starting the nails. Twice he hit his fingers in his haste, once so hard that he dropped the hammer, but he picked it up again and went on as before, till he had loosened the lid all round.
After labouring like this, and bruising his fingers, Bevis was disappointed to find that the case only contained a picture which might look very well, but was of no use to him. It was a fine engraving of “An English Merry-making in the Olden Time,” and was soon slung to the wall. Bevis claimed the case as his perquisite, and began to meditate what he could do with it. It was dragged from the house into one of the sheds for him, and he fetched the hammer and his own special little hatchet, for his first idea was to split up the boards. Deal splits so easily, it is a pleasure to feel the fibres part, but upon consideration he thought it might do for the roof of a hut, if he could fix it to four stakes, one at each corner.”
In the opening two paragraphs we have a sympathetic narration of a child’s sense of urgency, the same child using real tools with skills and mild injury, his plan to build a fort – and the earliest example I’ve seen of the old adage of the box being “better than what’s in it”.
Over the next few pages Bevis roams the estate he lives on freely, cutting down reeds and a tree for his hut, then abandoning the idea in favor of building a boat. After much thought, the boat becomes a raft which necessitates the scavenging of all sorts of materials – including some rope stolen from the end of a cart line. He seeks something else from “his mamma’s room, the drawer in which she kept odds and ends, and having upset everything, and mixed her treasures” he finds the bit of rag he was looking for and pinches some.
Bevis really labours for this raft, and at the same time is distracted by all manner of other joys. Having hit a technical snag, he decides to “go indoors and sit down and play at something else”. He watches a fire, and considers mending his fishing rod, making bullets or pulling apart an old gun “to see how it worked”. He reads for awhile, becoming deeply absorbed into the narrative, but “his mind, as soon as he had put down the grey book, ran still on his raft, and our he raced to see it again, fresh and bright from the rest of leaving it alone for a while.”
There is so much here that is familiar to those interested in children at play, so much that seems simultaneously universal and tragically lost. The urgency of his needs and the vital importance of what he is doing in the moment would been observable to anyone watching children today. What has been lost is the freedom to do it, the availability of tools and time and chances to get it wrong and try again, unobserved and untutored by adults. Bevis demonstrates a level of skill that very few children in the West would have, and in his play he draws on a degree of mastery of his surroundings, and of basic carpentry.
These are not the only forms of “mastery” that now seem out-of-date, as shortly after leaving his book Bevis commandeers “the carter’s lad” to help him drag his raft to the river, with the following exchange:
“Stop, said Bevis, “stop directly, and hitch the chain on my raft.”
The boy hesitated; he dared not disobey the carter, and he had been in trouble for pleasing Bevis before.
“This instant,” said Bevis, stamping his food; “I’m your master.”
“No; that you beant,” said the boy slowly, very particular as to facts; “your father be my master.”
“You do it this minute,” said Bevis, hot in the face, “or I’ll kill you; but if you’ll do it I’ll give you – sixpence.”