“This instant,” said Bevis, stamping his foot

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.”

 And Matias?  The title of this opening chapter – Bevis at Work.

10 thoughts on ““This instant,” said Bevis, stamping his foot

  1. Sounds great! I recently started “Kim”, by Kipling. I haven’t finished it, so I can’t “recommend” it completely…But as a story about children’s agency, and the combination of work and play in a child’s life in the majority world, it’s pretty spectacular 🙂

    1. Ooh, excellent recommendation.

      These are so interesting as documents, aren’t they, of a particular time and place? It gets my inner anthropologist going. 🙂

      UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that I was not perhaps clear on my understanding of Kipling or key issues of Imperialism/oppression/etc. I meant that I find Kipling’s works interesting as documents within the context of his massive popularity at the time, and in terms of understanding the people who read him, agreed with him, and perhaps felt their thinking represented by him. Not that I thought he accurately depicted the lives of, you know, real local people or actual children.

  2. Hmmmmm, fishy; the title of the chapter might be “Bevis at Work”, but I don’t see any work in your description of Bevis’ doings, which, if consistent with the rest of the chapter/book might suggest that Jefferies was a precursor of that disastrous thought, already sanctified in the 1920s by Susan Isaacs and still a common currency today, that “play is the child’s work”. And so play is made part of what we should call The Cursed Trinity, not because of each of its individual parts, but because of the resulting combination: Play – Childhood – Irreality (aka “the cracks of reality”), as opposed to that “loftier” trinity of: Work – Adulthood – Reality.

    1. You can’t see, but I’m gleefully clapping my hands!

      When I first heard the phrase that “play is the child’s work” I disliked it because it seemed to be forcing one thing (play) into the shape of another (work) because only the latter is taken seriously by the wider adult public. It made me uncomfortable as well because it seemed to base that worth in financial transactions – though I realize that this is based in MY associations of the word ‘work’ with a sad and alienated slogging away for wages. I did know of course that some work is pleasurable and that some play can be extremely difficult, but I saw a clear distinction between their respective extrinsic and intrinsic value systems.

      Can you then, for me and other readers, start to unpick some of this and to explore more of what you were saying previously about the blurring of distinctions between work and play, and why that can be good for children?

      1. Je,je (that’s a laugh in Spanish, though most people use “ja, ja”, which is louder and more histrionic); you are asking me to summarize my PhD dissertation, and I am terrible at summarizing things, especially when I have to summarize things that still don’t exist.

        So, just to complement my previous comment and hopefully trigger further thoughts: The infamous Cursed Trinity can also be upgraded to The Horrible Cuaternity: Play – Childhood – Irreality (aka “cracks of reality”) – Becoming (aka “developing”), against The Noble Cuaternity of: Work – Adulthood – Reality – Being.

  3. I’ve been reading the exchanges between you, Morgan, and you, Matias…and I’m certainly no sociologist. But, to add to some of the concepts you’ve raised, indeed I agree that capitalist society values a certain type of workforce and expresses “value” in money. In so doing, I think it has separated the interdependence of adults and children.

    A few generations ago, in the Canadian Arctic (where I’m from) even very young children were expected to help and contribute. 4 year old Inuit children were soaking seal skin in freezing water to make rope – and probably playing with seal skin, rope, ice and water in the process.

    Now the Canadian Inuit have been colonized and more or less “assimilated”, through residential schools, forced settlement and insidious (in my opinion) religious teaching. Parents work in offices and Canadian society tells them that children should be “free to play”…where play is fully separate from work.

    So whereas once these children contributed to the survival of the family, now they are simply considered burdens (“expenses”), who will not be able to contribute anything worthwhile – until, we assume, they start their own households. It’s a strange concept, really, and I don’t think it’s particularly healthy.

    So my question is…in a society dominated by capitalism, by work=money=power, how do we re-establish an interdependency between children and adults?

    1. Very succinct and cogent. Have you read Liedloff? Leidloff? Can never remember her spelling – ‘The Continuum Concept’. Advocates childrearing based on tribe which doesn’t have/make the distinction between work and play.

  4. Hi Kcb, maybe the question should be reframed in these terms: why, if capitalism (read colonialism, read development) helps to cause, among other disasters, the separation of (adult) work from (child) play, do we insist in taking it as a given?

    In other words, the struggle for children’s emancipation, as embodied by the Working Children and Youth organizations in the majority world, is not against adult oppression, but against oppression, per se; they do not claim just the right to work, but the right to work in dignity; they fight not as CHILD workers, but as child WORKERS, and as such, they do not limit their demands to those below 18.

    Yet in other words, did you know that in the UK more than half of the children below 16 work for a paid employment outside their family? (JIM McKECHNIE and SANDY HOBBS [1999] “Child Labour: The View from the North”, Childhood 6; 89) How is their working experience reflected in their play, and their play experience in their work? How is their working experience dealt with by society at large?

    In sum: at this stage, when the spirit of TINA is still all over us, I think that the relevant things are 1) to have our eyes wide open, that is, to get naked, in order to be able to learn from people like Working Children and Youth, and 2) to thrive in getting the questions right.


  5. Ms Le Play, you are very good at taking a playwork nostrum and slamming it on the lab bench and dissecting it. Some nostra squirm and twist, alive and struggling to evade your grasp; some succeed. Others are lifeless and when the scalpel sinks in they crack open like a rotten pecan to reveal black dust and decay.

    Have a go at ‘play is freely chosen’. I reckon it won’t squrm, it will crack.

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