Toilers in the Field

For my PhD, I had to read some of the "nature writing" of Richard Jefferies. It's good if you like that sort of thing, which I don't. I recently read The Toilers of the Field (published posthumously in 1892) where he contemplated all aspects of farm life for 200 pages. While I was bored stupid by it, he did have a few interesting or strange observations about the habits of small farmers that I had to share with you here.

Observation 1:
"By the bye, the cottagers have a curious habit, which deserves to be recorded even for its singularity. When the good woman of the cottage goes out for half-an-hour to fetch a pail of water, or to gossip with a neighbour, she always leaves the door-key in the keyhole outside. The house is, in fact, at the mercy of any one who chooses to turn the key and enter. This practice of locking the door and leaving the key in it is very prevalent. The presence of the key is to intimate that the inmate has gone out, but will shortly return; and it is so understood by the neighbours. If a cottager goes out for the day, he or she locks the door, and takes the key with them; but if the key is left in the door, it is a sign that the cottager will be back in ten minutes or so" (89).

Now, I grew up in a rural area where people rarely lock their doors, but all the same, we never alerted other people that we weren't home by leaving a key in a lock, but hey, the house is open, so please come rob us blind!

I wonder if, after this book was published, there was any increase in crime in rural farming areas–if people previously unaware of this custom suddenly discovered and took advantage of it. Rail travel to the countryside was much, much cheaper and easier by the end of the 19th century, but I don't know if criminals would go to all the effort when it was unlikely that cottagers would have many expensive possessions just lying around.

Observation 2:
"As soon as ever the child is old enough to crawl about, it is sure to get out into the road and roll in the dust. [I read this sentence and went, "The hell?"] It is a curious fact that the agricultural children, with every advantage of green fields and wide open downs, always choose the dusty hard road to play in. They are free to wander as they list over mead and leaze, and pluck the flowers out of the hedges, and idle by the brooks, all the year round . . . Yet, excepting a few of the elder boys birdnesting, it is the rarest thing to meet a troop of children in the fields; but there they are in the road, the younger ones sprawling in the dust, their naked limbs kicking it up in clouds, and the bigger boys clambering about in the hedge-mound bounding the road, making gaps, splashing in the dirty water of the ditches. Hardy young dogs one and all" (124).

Observation 3:
"no one sleeps like a farm-wench
" (133).

I don't want to know how he knows this.
"I dreamt that there was a man outside my window!"
"You weren't dreaming, Bessie. It was just that Richard Jefferies spying on us farm wenches sleeping again."

If you feel like reading this book, the link is here.

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One Response to Toilers in the Field

  1. leia131 says:

    You want to know what’s bizarre? Heather and Emalee and I used to play in the ‘road’ at the farm, especially in the puddles. It’s just easier to walk on the packed down dirt than to try to wade through the knee to waist high grass, and there’s fewer bugs.


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