Most readers will recognize T.H. White as the author of 20th-century versions of the tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table: His "The Sword and the Stone" was Americanized in the Disney film; "The Once and Future King" provided the floor plan for the Lerner and Loewe musical "Camelot"; and sales of the recently published "The Book of Merlyn" have been good. White's appeal seems to have grown in the years since his death in 1964, perhaps because his works have found a niche among all those tales of legend, fantasy and wonder that currently enjoy wide popularity among the reading public. The essential elements of White's major fiction include characters endowed with believably quirky human traits, a world set firmly in the natural environment, and occasional supernatural overtones. But these elements can also be found in White's lesser known writings, such as "Mistress Masham's Repose," "The Book of Beasts" or "England Have My Bones," first published in 1936 and now reissued.
Why Putnam should have chosen this work for republication is a mystery, but so much the better for us. "England Have My Bones" is a delightful, rewarding, thoroughly enjoyable book, essentially the diary of one year, from March 1934 to March 1935. The events White chronicles are not the politics of that year, which he totally ignores, but the life of the English countryside around Cambridge, viewed with an alert and discriminating eye. The book opens with a description of White's pursuit of some elusive salmon on the Scottish coast and closes with a detailed account of his attempts to join the locals in organized bird hunting. During the course of the narrative, we learn about fox chasing, dairy farming, dart playing, snake raising, and--surprisingly--flying.
The shortest and most vivid section, to give an illustration of White's technique, is devoted to White's favorite house pets, snakes. "It is exciting to catch them," he tells us. "You go to a good wood, and look for snaky places in it." When you hear a noise in the grass, you grab at it without hesitation.
"When you have grabbed your snake, you pick it up. Instantly it curls round your hand and arm, hissing and lunging at you with the almost obtuse angle of its jaws; exuding a white fluid from its vent, which has a metallic stink like acetylene. Take no notice of it at all. Like an efficient governess with a refractory child, you speak sharply to the smelly creature and hold it firmly. You take hold of its tail, unwind it, roll it in a ball (it is wriggling so much that it generally helps in this), tie it up in your handkerchief, put it in your trouser pocket and look for another."
The book stands as White's contribution to a special literary tradition, the informal and genial account of English country life. As a student of the pastoral, he frequently acknowledges two important influences, Isaak Walton's "The Compleat Angler" and William Cobbett's "Rural Rides."
The thematic center of the book is not the snakes, the fishing, or the hunting; that place is reserved for an extended sequence on the art of flying. Surprising as it may seem, the main portion of the book describes White's successful efforts to solo in a biplane. Besides being a real and difficult achievement for him, the flight is essential to his variation on the pastoral tradition.
For White the ability to fly was more than a physical accomplishment, though he was clearly proud of his success; it meant a new perspective on English life, the view from the air:
"One of the things that get a new slant from the air is the agriculture of the Shire. It seems sometimes from the land, one has to admit, a bit woolly and haphazard. From the air it is incredibly neat. I should like to fly one of these urban know-alls, who laughs at Farmer Garge, over the country. I should like to ask him whether he could lay out this geometrically perfect rectangle of hedgerows, on land which is all uphill and down-dale from the human level, without the aid of a surveyor. Yet our fathers did it."
"England Have My Bones" is made additionally enjoyable through the inclusion of several of White's woodcuts. He gives us the exultant vitality of a leaping salmon; the tumultuous energy of the airplane and its element, the sky; the mysterious symmetry of the snake; the cultural centrality of the dart board in an English pub; the unnerving bird's-eye view of a hunter; and the dynamic flow of English country life in all its vigor and zest.