edited by Alastair Langlands
When you think of Hampshire, you think of chalk streams and downland, military and naval enterprise, sailing and King Alfred, and Winchester Cathedral. But its literary heritage does not leap to mind. And yet Hampshire has played a surprisingly important role in nurturing the book. For the English novel reached its earliest flowering through the genius of Jane Austen, who was born and lived most of her life here. The world that she depicts in her exquisite novels, and her scintillating and detailed understanding of the human psyche, were born of the county and of her observation of her Hampshire neighbours and friends. But her Hampshire is only part of the story – the largely genteel part which disports itself in country towns and villages. For Hampshire is one of the most densely inhabited of English counties, divided, in fact, between a teeming population largely housed along the southern coast, and two sparsely populated national parks – the New Forest and the South Downs – which account for almost fifty per cent of the land mass. Many other writers have been drawn here by history, by geography and by necessity. The diarist Pepys earned his living as a naval administrator, travelling frequently to Portsmouth to work, while the poet Keats came to the Isle of Wight for his health, and took mighty inspiration from Winchester’s ripe, autumnal water meadows. Charles Kingsley was vicar near Basingstoke, and who cannot believe that the underwater world he depicts in The Water Babies is not in some way born of hours gazing into the clear waters of the local chalk streams as a fisherman? Alexander Baron came, as so many have, as a soldier, on his way to the Second World War in Europe. And it was from Hampshire that the precious poet Edward Thomas left for the trenches of northern France, never to return.
But Hampshire’s unique gift to literature is nature writing, which began here with Gilbert White in the sleepy village of Selborne. He was, said Flora Thompson, the ‘very first of English nature writers, the most sober and modest, yet happiest of men.’ A Hampshire man, through and through. From his and all the other contributions gathered here in this collection, a kaleidoscopic, complex, sometimes enchanting, sometimes wistful picture of the county through the ages gradually emerges.
Here is Alexander Baron, in his poignant novel From the City, from the Plough, imagining the atmosphere at Aldershot barracks amongst the Wessex Regiment before D Day in 1944. His hero, Private Oh-Three-Seven Smith, is from a farming community in Somerset.
They gave themselves up to summer, and passed their days in a stupor of content, drugged with sunshine, anaesthetised by the scent of blossoming flowers, lazy and languid and enchanted by the richness that was coming to life all round them. The dizzy hours and days reeled past them as they slept in the sun, lulled by the drone of bombers and of bumble-bees. Private Oh-Three-Seven Smith was a little anxious.
‘I reckon we’ll be away before the harvest, Corporal,’ he said.
‘I reckon we will.’ Corporal Shuttleworth was not very interested.
‘Going to be a good harvest this year, Mister Hodge is thinking.’
‘Is he?’ said Shuttleworth. ‘Leave me alone. I’m writing.’ He was huddled on his bed with a writing pad on his knees. The blanket was littered with crumpled sheets of paper.
Oh-Three-Seven Smith pulled his beret on to the back of his head. ‘I’ll be off down there,’ he said.
Shuttleworth looked up. ‘Down where? Hodge’s Farm again?’
‘I promised Mister Hodge I would. It’s been hard going getting the barley in in time.’
‘Christ Almighty!’ Shuttleworth exploded. ‘It’s been the hottest day in weeks, we’ve been marching our feet off all day. Look at the others…look at ’em…’
Most of the platoon were sprawling on their beds, with their boots off, smoking.
‘And you go off,’ he went on, ‘to break your back working. It’s knockin’ off time now, Smithy. Lay down and give your feet a rest.’
‘They’ll be working for three hours yet in Ten-Acre Field,’ said Oh-Three-Seven Smith, ‘till it gets dark. There’s a lot to do down there.’
Taken from Hampshire: through writers' eyes