Letters from Gilbert: 1

January 22, 2020

Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne takes the form of 110 letters, 66 of which were addressed to Daines...

Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne takes the form of 110 letters, 66 of which were addressed to Daines Barrington of London, and 44 to Thomas Pennant of Flintshire.  The correspondence with his fellow naturalists was essentially genuine, but as White compiled them years later for publication as a book, he made numerous changes in order to improve its narrative structure.  This included writing several letters that were never intended to be sent, but served as introductory material, or filled gaps in the subject matter.  While we may never completely disentangle the work and recreate the correspondence in its original form, there is no doubt that the whole work is based on his own direct and detailed observations.

On this day 252 years ago, he wrote to Pennant and among the topics covered, he returned to a subject he had mentioned two months earlier – mice.  Specifically, his suspicion that he had discovered a species previously unknown to science.  He had been brought a specimen by someone who knew them to be plentiful at harvest-time, as most rodents were.  As he investigated the species further, he decided that from the colour, size, shape and manner of nesting that it was nondescript -that is, undescribed. In the November he had written:

They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves; abound in harvest; and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles. They breed as many as eight at a litter, in a little round nest composed of the blades or grass or wheat. One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat; perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket-ball. It was so compact and well-filled, that it would roll across the table without being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind.  

On 22 January 1768 he wrote again, having found that their winter nesting behaviour was completely different: “they burrow deep in the earth, and make warm beds of grass:  but their grand rendezvous seems to be in corn-ricks, into which they are carried at harvest.”

The harvest mouse is Europe’s smallest rodent, and though familiar to country folk, had not previously been distinguished from other mice.  Later in 1768 Pennant published his British Zoology, reproducing Gilbert’s account of the species almost word-for-word.  Since the book was published by Gilbert’s brother Benjamin, we can suppose that White was happy for Pennant to be the first to describe it.  The name harvest mouse was coined by Pennant, who begins his account by stating that “this species is very numerous in Hampshire, particularly during harvest.”

Gilbert White was born nearly three hundred years ago, on 18 July 1720.  I shall be marking his tercentenary throughout 2020 with events and projects, including this ‘Letters from Gilbert’ series. 

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