Chawton House Visiting Fellowship and Evelyn’s Sylva

In April of this year I had what might be the most enjoyable and enriching experience of my academic career so far – a Visiting Fellowship at Chawton House Library. I got to spend four whole weeks living on the Chawton estate (home in the early nineteenth century to Jane Austen’s brother), studying every day in the library’s collection of books by and about women writers of the long eighteenth century.

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Working in the heavenly Upper Reading Room. Photo: Peggy Elliott

I was researching the use of the georgic mode by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and I hope to be posting more about that soon… But in the meantime, here are some thoughts on one of the other treasures I got to see at Chawton, a 1776, two-volume edition of Sylva, John Evelyn’s 1664 treatise on British trees.

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John Evelyn, after Robert Nanteuil, line engraving, mid 18th century. National Portrait Gallery, London

Evelyn quotes from Virgil’s Georgics extensively in Sylva. Most are references to the second georgic, in which Virgil describes how to look after the olive and other trees. What ‘Virgil tells us’, ‘Virgil reports’, and ‘Virgil affirms’ is either taken as true by Evelyn or confirmed by his own experience.

Evelyn does admit on occasion, however, that in one or two points ‘the noble Poet (with pardon for receding from so venerable authority) might be mistaken’. And Virgil’s pastorals are deemed less reliable. At the close of the final eclogue Virgil denounces the shade of the juniper as baneful, and Evelyn is baffled at this insult to one of his favourite trees: ‘I wonder Virgil should condemn its shade… I suspect him misreported.’

In the decades after Sylva Virgil’s technical authority was subject to greater scrutiny. In 1733 Jethro Tull (lawyer-turned-inventor-of-agricultural-instruments and namesake of the progressive rock band) was dismissive, to say the least, of Virgil’s scientific wisdom: ‘Scientists assume laws of causative reaction. Virgil’s assumptions are so contrary to one another and so jarring among themselves that all of them are false!’ Defending himself against a torrent of abuse from devoted Virgil-fans, Tull later added, ‘Yet I am sure I never said or thought there was one bad line in all Virgil’s works; but rather I believe the praise due to the prince of poets is in respect of his poetry only.’ (Tull’s attack on the Georgics is so fun that I think I might make it the subject of a blog post soon!)

Evelyn doesn’t distinguish like Tull between Virgil’s ‘scientific’ and ‘poetic’ qualities. For Evelyn, it is his knowledge and experience of nature that allows Virgil to describe the trees so beautifully, and in turn it is his skill as a poet that allows him to articulate and transmit that knowledge and experience.

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A tree-lined avenue in the park at Chawton

‘…the best of poets, and most experienced in this argument…’

Illustration is an important part of Evelyn’s scientific method, and the Georgics are quoted to paint vivid pictures of the trees and their features as Evelyn discusses them.

‘And all this the immortal Poet has so elegantly and comprehensibly described, as I cannot pass…’

The 1776 edition of Sylva held at Chawton is of particular interest as it was edited by one A. Hunter. Alexander Hunter (1729-1809) was a physician by trade, but he was also the author of Georgical Essays (1770-72), about the nature of plants and how best to cultivate them. In his own Essays Hunter quotes Virgil as an authority but is at times skeptical of the Roman poet’s advice. Editing Sylva, Hunter adds in his notes many more lines from the Georgics, often observing in which points ‘Mr. Evelyn imitates Virgil’.

This book was just one of the amazing things I got to see at Chawton. Working productively all day but also enjoying the beautiful countryside and the wonderful company of the library staff and my fellow Fellows, it really was the georgic dream:

But easie Quiet, a secure Retreat,
A harmless Life that knows not how to cheat,
With homebred Plenty the rich Owner bless,
And rural Pleasures crown his Happiness.
Unvex’d with Quarrels, undisturb’d with Noise,
The Country King his peaceful Realm enjoys:
Cool Grots, and living Lakes, the Flow’ry Pride
Of Meads, and Streams that thro’ the Valley glide;
And shady Groves that easie Sleep invite,
And after toilsome Days, a sweet repose at Night.
(Dryden, trans. Virgil’s Georgics)

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