BEVIS: THE STORY OF A BOY
by RICHARD JEFFERIES
In Approaching Arthur Ransome Peter Hunt claims that Richard Jefferies' novel of 1882 played a large part in establishing the tradition that Arthur Ransome called upon in the Swallows and Amazons series. Both Bevis and Mark (in Jefferies) and John, Nancy, Susan and the rest (in Ransome) set great store by practical skills: lighting fires and cooking on them, swimming, sailing boats, building shelters, and even – in Jefferies – building a gun and using it to kill assorted wildlife; both sets of children are allowed considerable freedom by their parents (in Jefferies the 'governor' is a shadowy figure who observes, but rarely intervenes in, the action1); and, above all else, both sets of children re-invent their roles and their surroundings according to literary models, Robinson Crusoe being a crucial text for the Walkers, Treasure Island playing a similar role for the Blacketts, and Homer's Odyssey for Bevis. Chapters 10 and 11 shows Bevis and Mark searching for and finding an appropriate role, their experiments with 'savage-talk' in 10 recalling Titty and her mother in Swallows and Amazons and the Eels in Secret Water. At the same time there are clear differences between the two authors and the children they created. Those differences are in some cases matters of detail (thus the code of the Walkers and Blacketts requires that the lighting of a fire should not involve newspaper, while for Bevis and Mark it even proscribes the use of matches), and in other cases more fundamental. At times Bevis and Mark lose their tempers and squabble, childishly, in a way that would have shocked the well-behaved Walkers. Throughout the book they rush about, restlessly, in a manner that would nowadays be classified as hyperactive. And at times we are reminded (as for example in the scene in Chapter 11 where they come across the haymakers) that they are approaching adolescence, Jefferies allowing himself to touch on matters that Ransome would not or could not handle.
For a general assessment of the life and works of Richard Jefferies go here. Most of his books are now out of print, but a few are beginning to appear on the Internet: I particularly recommend After London, a remarkable vision of England after the collapse of civilisation.
You may also be able to access the two books about Bevis on Google Books, at Try Wood Magic and Bevis: The Story of a Boy. Be aware that these links only work properly as of March 2008 for IP addresses originating in the United States.
1 He does, however, check carefully that both boys are able to swin before thay are allowed to use the sailing-boat. Commander Walker, please note!