Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Saturday 18 January 2020

Kilvert's Diary - 150 years on

The Rev. Francis Kilvert began his diary on January 1st 1870, but the earliest surviving entry is for the 18th of that month and year. Let us celebrate this 150th anniversary.

Kilvert - or Frank, as I tend to think of him, since I feel I know him so well via his diary - lead an outwardly entirely ordinary life. He was a curate and vicar in rural Wiltshire and the Welsh Marches, born in 1840 and died in 1879; he performed no notable acts, wrote no books, had no influence on the world at large, met no one famous,* was present at no historic events, wasn't an original thinker, didn't even leave any children to perpetuate his name. Were it not for his diary his name would be utterly forgotten now, as is the future fate of almost all of us. But his diary, although it records his very ordinary, mundane life, has made him immortal.

Nearly sixty years after his death his nephew sent his diaries to the publisher Jonathan Cape, and William Plomer was given the job of going through them to see if they were of any value. Luckily, Plomer immediately realised that he had a treasure on his hands, and selections from them were published in three volumes in 1938-40. Almost immediately they were a success as readers were enchanted by Kilvert's picture of country life in the 1870s. A single volume abridgement was published in 1944.

I've loved the diaries for thirty years or more. I first became aware of them in 1977 when a dramatised version was broadcast by the BBC; I didn’t see the programme (not having a television at the time), but Penguin published a paperback of the abridgement to accompany the series. I was then working (I use the word loosely) on a student magazine; Penguin used to send many of their books to us for review. None of them ever received one, to the best of my knowledge, but they kept coming nevertheless and a constant supply of new books was a very welcome perk. The diary fell into my hands; I didn’t read it at the time (would I have appreciated it in my early twenties?), but it sat on my shelf and must have planted a seed. Some years later I picked up a secondhand copy of the hardback because it had a John Piper drawing on the title page (what a shame he never fully illustrated it), and, when I opened it, within the first few pages the seed had grown into a beautiful blossoming tree.

I think my attraction is a result of three main factors: Kilvert's personality, his skill as a writer, and his portrayal of an interesting transitional period in English and Welsh history.

He was undoubtedly a very loveable man. His parishioners held him in great respect and affection, and it's easy to see why; he was gentle, compassionate and devoted to them (many of whom lived in extreme poverty). He lacked self-importance, and was happy to be in the company of the poor and uneducated (we might say 'Well, that was part of his job', which is true, but he took this duty much more seriously than some other men of the cloth). 

He had a sense of humour and was sometimes amusing (though rarely witty). For example, on May 24th 1876 he meets 'a stout elderly lady with fierce eyes and teeth' (what a penetrating phrase!) who tells him of her late husband's last words to her. '"Anne," he said, "whatever you do be sure you always job your horses."' I’ve got no idea what 'jobbing' horses was, but it hardly matters; Kilvert comments 'I was so much surprised at his selection of a topic upon which to spend his latest words and his last breath that I did not know which way to look, and some other members of the company were in the same condition.' This description of his trying not to laugh as the stout lady describes her husband's deathbed is very endearing.

He was curious about the world around him, including new developments. He liked to collect folklore and dialect words. The very first surviving entry in the diary, January 18th 1870, records a visit to the Crystal Palace exhibition hall (in south-east London, where it had been moved from Hyde Park) which he praises enthusiastically.** On October 4th 1870 he sent his first postcards, calling them 'capital things, simple, useful and handy. A happy invention.' He frequently took an interest in archaeological excavations, and although he was an Evangelical Christian he seems to have been open-minded on one of the hottest topics of the day, evolution and the age of the Earth. (On September 9th 1873 he visited a cave in Cheddar Gorge and writes of the 'countless ages' it has taken the stalactites to form.) 

One of the most striking aspects of his personality is his tendency to be attracted to, and fall in love with, pretty younger women. (He also sometimes writes gushingly about the charms of young girls, and anyone who reads his diaries will find a handful of passages which will make them feel a bit, and occasionally more than a bit, uncomfortable.) On September 8th 1871 he writes 'Today I fell in love with Fanny Thomas.' He was 30, while she was 19, the daughter of a well-off local vicar with private means. (Her real name was Daisy; Fanny was a nickname. She had four sisters.) The etiquette of the day and their social class required that he initially couldn't make any declaration to her, though they saw quite a lot of each other and it does seem from Kilvert's description that she was fond of him. Five days later he writes of proposing for her (not proposing to her; he asks her father for permission to court her):

So I started off for Llan Thomas on foot rather nervous. As I crossed the bridge over the Digedi I wondered with what feelings I should cross the bridge an hour later. The whole family came into the drawing room to see me and I was wondering how I could get Mr Thomas away for a private talk, when he said suddenly, "Come out into the garden." Daisy came into the room. I thought she coloured and looked conscious. . . . Then we went out into the garden, her father and I. I said, "You will be very much surprised but I hope not displeased at what I am going to say to you." "What is it?" he said eagerly, "have you got the living of Glasbury?" "No, something much nearer to you than that." "What is it?" I was silent a minute. I was frightfully nervous. "I-am-attached-to-one-of-your-daughters," I said. Just as I made this avowal we came suddenly round the corner upon a gardener cutting a hedge. I feared he had heard my confession, but I was much relieved by being assured he was deaf. Mr Thomas said I had done quite right in coming to him, though he seemed a good deal taken aback.

He said a great many complimentary things about my "honourable high-minded conduct", and asked what my prospects were and shook his head over them. [At this stage of Kilvert's life, and for years after, he was simply a low paid curate.] He could not allow an engagement under the circumstances, he said, and I must not destroy his daughter's peace of mind by speaking to her or showing her in any way that I was attached to her. "You have behaved so well that I don't know which of them it is, unless it is Mary." "No, it is your youngest daughter." "Poor little child, she is so young." "She is nineteen." "Yes, but a mere child, and so guileless and innocent. . . . Long engagements are dreadful things. I cannot allow you to be engaged but I won't say 'Don't think of it.' Go on coming here as usual, if you can put constraint on your feelings and not show you like her more than the others." . . . 

I felt deeply humiliated, low in spirit and sick at heart. . . . I was comforted by remembering that when my father proposed for my mother he was ordered out of the house, and yet it all came right. . . . 

On this day when I proposed for the girl who will I trust one day be my wife I had only one sovereign in the world, and I owed that.

Alas, it never did all come right, though he continued to moon over her. As late as July 3rd 1874 he writes:

I think continually of Daisy. She is seldom out of my thoughts now. I remember her best and she comes to me most often as I saw her at home in March 1873 when I spent a night at her house. I see even now her beautiful white bosom heaving under the lace edging of her dress, and the loose open sleeve falling back from her round white arm as she leaned her flushed cheek upon her hand looking anxiously at me as I coughed. "Does your cough hurt you?" I see her start up and fetch a lamp shade to keep the light from hurting my eyes. Sweet loving Daisy, sweet loving patient faithful Daisy.

Of course, it's impossible to tell whether he was misinterpreting her friendly concern as love. Either way, it all came to nothing. As a postscript, although we probably feel that Mr Thomas behaved correctly in this instance, given his daughter's youth and Kilvert’s precipitate ardour, it is notable that none of his five daughters ever got married; we can only guess to what extent his normal fatherly protectiveness became controlling behaviour. It may well be apocryphal, but it's said that Daisy was asked in old age why she'd never married, and she replied 'No one asked me.' Did she know how close Kilvert had come to asking her?

On August 11th 1874 (a mere month after he’d last mooned over Daisy) he met Katharine Heanley at a wedding. He was 33, she ten years younger, the daughter of a well-to-do Lincolnshire farmer.

This may be one of the happiest and most important days of my life, for to-day I fell in love at first sight with sweet Kathleen Mavourneen [his fanciful name for her]. . . . I fell in love and lost my heart to the sweetest noblest kindest bravest-hearted girl in England . . . How sweet she was, how simple, kind, unaffected and self-unconscious, how thoughtful for everyone but herself . . . She spoke of her favourite In Memoriam [i.e. Tennyson's poem, also a favourite of Kilvert's] and told me some of her difficulties and how deeply she regretted the enforced apparent idleness of her life, and I loved her a hundred times better for her sweet troubled thoughts and honest regretful words.

They kept up a friendly relationship, mostly by post. There's some suggestion that her mother raised objections to her writing to an unmarried man (though I'd have thought that her writing to a married man would be even more suspect). They probably became engaged in 1876 (we don't know for sure, for reasons I'll mention later), but eventually it all petered out and once again Kilvert's hopes of a wife and a happy family life came to nothing. 

On September 6th 1875 Etty Meredith Brown came into his life. She was the daughter of a very well-off man who owned several houses, and who had been a vicar but who had resigned his post, perhaps as a result of some kind of disagreement with the Church (the details are murky). He writes that she was: 

. . . one of the most striking-looking and handsomest girls whom I have seen for a long time. She was admirably dressed in light grey with a close fitting crimson body which set off her exquisite figure and suited to perfection her black hair and eyes and her dark Spanish brunette complexion with its rich glow of health which gave her cheeks the dusky bloom and flush of a ripe pomegranate. . . And from beneath the shadow of the picturesque hat the beautiful dark face and the dark wild fine eyes looked with a true gipsy beauty.

Unfortunately, the section of the diary dating from September 9th 1875 to March 1st 1876 was missing by the time the manuscript reached Plomer, so the progress of the affair is mysterious. However, it seems that they met sometimes in secret in Bournemouth, and their relationship was probably passionate, perhaps even sexual to some degree. In retrospect Kilvert writes of their 'wild sad trysts', and when, on April 20th 1876 he received a letter from Etty's mother telling him to cease communicating with her he lamented 'I have been, alas, very very wrong.' 

It seems almost as if he was fated to be single, and I feel for him across the century and a half that separates us. He longed to have children. On July 7
th 1875 he noticed some children playing on a beach. He writes:

Oh, as I watched them there came over me such a longing, such a hungry yearning to have one of those children for my own. Oh that I too had a child to love and to love me, a daughter with such fair limbs and blue eyes archly dancing, and bright clustering curls blown wild and golden in the sunshine and sea air. It came over me like a storm and I turned away hungry at heart and half envying the parents as they sat upon the sand watching their children at play.

Poor Frank.

He does accept rejection by his beloveds' parents rather easily, however. His sense of honour and propriety was evidently acute, but perhaps he should have fought his corner more persistently; after all, as he pointed out himself, his own father had overcome initial rejection. He did however eventually marry, which I'll come to a little later.

Quite apart from his dismal love life, there is a strain of melancholy running through the diary. He records mysterious illnesses – ‘face ache’ features quite often, for example – and has some terrifying dreams, which might be indicative of depression or worse. For example, on October 14th 1872 he records ‘a strange and horrible dream’, or more exactly a dream within a dream, in which the Reverend Venables (the vicar with whom Kilvert lodged and who was effectively his boss) tried to murder him, and he in return tried to murder Venables: 

I lay in wait for him with a pickaxe on the Vicarage lawn at Clyro, hewed an immense and hideous hole through his head, and kicked his face till it was so horribly mutilated, crushed and disfigured as to be past recognition. . . . When I woke I was so persuaded of the reality of what I had seen and felt and done in my dreams that I felt for the handcuffs on my wrists . . . Nothing now seems to me so real and tangible as that dream was, and it seems to me as I might wake up at any moment and find everything shadowy, fleeting and unreal. I feel as if life is a dream from which at any moment I might awake.

This seems more than a common or garden nightmare, and the reader is perhaps inclined to fear for the balance of his mind. On January 23rd 1875 he records laconically:

When I went to bed last night I fancied that something ran in at my bedroom door after me from the gallery. It seemed to be a skeleton. It ran with a dancing step and I thought it aimed a blow at me from behind. This was shortly before midnight.

On at least one occasion he seems on the verge of some sort of breakdown, or at least an early mid-life crisis. On June 19th 1872 (a few months before the dream) he was travelling to Liverpool; on the train he met ‘two merry saucy Irish hawking girls’ (it’s not at all clear how old these ‘girls’ are). He was very attracted to them (and especially the younger one) by their physical beauty and by their liveliness and sense of fun, and they struck up a conversation. They alighted from the train while Kilvert remained aboard, but continued to talk through the carriage window.

A porter and some other people were looking wonderingly on, so I thought it best to end the conversation. But there was an attractive power about this poor Irish girl that fascinated me strangely. I felt irresistibly drawn to her. The singular beauty of her eyes, a beauty of deep sadness, a wistful sorrowful imploring look, her swift rich humour, her sudden gravity and sadnesses, her brilliant laughter, a certain intensity and power and richness of life and the extraordinary sweetness, softness and beauty of her voice in singing and talking gave her a power over me which I could not understand or describe, but the power of a stronger over a weaker will and nature. She lingered about the carriage door. Her look grew more wistful, beautiful, imploring. Our eyes met again and again. Her eyes grew more and more beautiful. My eyes were fixed and riveted on hers. A few minutes more and I know not what might have happened. A wild reckless feeling came over me. Shall I leave all and follow her? No – Yes – No. At that moment the train moved on. She was left behind. Goodbye, sweet Irish Mary. So we parted. Shall we meet again? No - Yes – No.

Kilvert, a 31 year old curate, was apparently on the verge of walking away from everything he’d known to follow a working-class ‘girl’ he’d known for less than an hour. How powerful his longings for a kind of life that was quite out of his reach must have been. He was evidently torn between these and his equally strong desire to be a good Christian and respectable gentleman. Perhaps this explains his writing, apropos of nothing immediately evident to the reader, on May 6th 1874 ‘Though I be tied and bound with the chain of my sin yet let the pitifulness of Thy Great mercy loose me.’

Possibly by dwelling on this aspect of his personality and life I’ve given an unbalanced portrait. He had dark moments, certainly, but many readers will be mostly attracted to the abundant passages of fun and high spirits, of dinners, picnics and croquet parties, and of his rapturous responses to nature.

He was far from being a plaster saint. He had his human foibles; on April 5th 1870 he visited Llanthony Abbey in the Black Mountains of Wales, and writes:

What was our horror on entering the enclosure to see two tourists with staves and shoulder belts all complete postured among the ruins in an attitude of admiration, one of them of course discoursing learnedly to his gaping companion and pointing out objects of interest with his stick. If there is one thing more hateful than another it is being told what to admire and having objects pointed out to one with a stick. Of all the most noxious animals too the most noxious is a tourist. And of all tourists the most vulgar, illbred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist. No wonder dogs fly at them and consider them vermin to be exterminated.

So much for sympathy for his fellow man. I prefer to have historic sites to myself (and perhaps a friend) when possible, but this attack on tourists, quite apart from overlooking the fact that Kilvert himself was a tourist on this occasion, is immoderate to an almost deranged degree. (There are occasions in the diary when the reader almost fears for his sanity.) The only crime the people he saw committed was that they were enjoying and talking about the ruins of the abbey, and yet they're castigated as 'noxious' and 'loathsome'. 

The diary entry goes on to say that 'The most offensive part of their conduct however was that they had arrived before us and had already ordered their dinner, so we had to wait till they had done.' Unintentionally a bit irritating, perhaps, but 'offensive'? All this, I realise, makes it hard for me to sustain my claim that he was compassionate and lacked self-importance, especially as it's not an isolated incident. On May 29th 1871, for example, he records walking on the Black Mountains and imagines being 'stunned by the prattle of the Woolhope Club [an amateur archaeological society], or be disgusted by the sight of a herd of holiday-makers and sight-seers cutting bad jokes and playing the fool or straddling and dancing upon the grave [a recently excavated barrow].' He loved mankind when they were individuals, but, on the whole preferring his own company, had a blind spot when it came to people in groups. I acknowledge this as a fault in him (one I'm sometimes inclined to share), but to me this makes him more interesting and human.

In the diary as a whole he writes with such precise observation. There are what we might think of as big set-piece passages, where he pulls out all the stops (and which are perhaps rather overwritten for some 21st century tastes), as on April 20th 1876 (the day his relationship with Etty came to an end):

How beautiful is the descent into Bredwardine from Browbury. Especially as I saw it this afternoon, the lovely valley gleaming bright in the clear shining after rain, the thickly wooded hillsides veiled with tender blue delicate mists through which the brilliant evening sun struck out jewels of gold where he lit upon the upland slopes and hill meadows, while the poplar spires shot up like green and gold flames against the background of brown and purple woods and the river blazed below the grey bridge with a sparkle as of a million diamonds. 

There are many dozens of rhapsodic passages like this, a delight for the reader. But just about every page contains wonderful little nuggets. Just now I opened Volume One at random and found this, from April 19th 1871: 'All day long I heard the children's voices going to and fro and the ceaseless chipping of the chisels as the masons were working at the Swan and repairing the steps.' How wonderfully evocative this is.

It's easy enough to make a case for every decade being historically significant, but the 1870s probably have a stronger case than most. Kilvert's diary is a valuable record of a country that was in some ways much as it had been for centuries, but was also undergoing far-reaching changes. For example, railways had made travel far easier than before, and Kilvert is forever taking trains. Communications were similarly accelerating in the form of the telegraph, effectively the Victorian version of email. I've already referred to evolution, which was beginning to revolutionise the way people viewed the world. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 had made school attendance more easily available (though not quite compulsory) for children aged between five and twelve; Kilvert was very involved in the village schools and writes about them frequently. The diary gives us an unforgettable picture of life on the cusp between old and new.

I've already written at perhaps too great length about some of the unhappinesses in Kilvert's life, but I'm sorry to say that I can't give you a happy ending. There are indeed two desperately unhappy finales to this story.

The first concerns his eventual marriage. He met Elizabeth Rowland in 1876, but the relevant diary entries are once again missing, so we know no details of the progress of their relationship. They married on August 20th 1879, when he was 38 and she six years younger. By this time he had at last been given his own parish (previously he had just been a curate, that is an assistant priest) in Bredwardine, Herefordshire. It must have seemed that at last he had found security and happiness. They returned to the parish on September 13th, to a grand welcome from the parishioners (including two 'triumphal arches'), testimony to the affection and respect in which he was held. On September 23rd, he died of peritonitis. Five weeks of happiness was all that fate allotted him. This is very hard to bear.

When the diary reached the editor William Plomer in the 1930s there were 22 manuscript volumes. Several volumes had already been destroyed, probably by Mrs Kilvert, who removed all references to herself. Possibly some had also been destroyed by Kilvert himself, for example one that recorded his affair with Etty (as we've seen, he believed that he had been 'very very wrong', and it's plausible that he would have not wanted it to survive). So Plomer didn't have a complete text to work with, which is unfortunate.

It would have been commercially impossible to publish the complete diary in the late 30s. Plomer made a selection from the first 20 months, which sold well, and consequently two further selections were published. In all, Plomer published about one third of the contents of the 22 diary volumes. He prepared a typescript (and presumably a carbon copy) of the text to be published for the printers to work from. (He once gave the impression that the typescript was of the whole of the diary, not just the selection that was printed, but this seems unlikely to be true.) The typed copies were lost, perhaps destroyed in wartime bombing, but the 22 original diaries still existed, in the possession of Kilvert's niece, Mrs Essex Hope.

In 1958 Plomer visited Hope. He was astounded to be told that she had destroyed 19 of the volumes. Later he said that he 'could have strangled her with my own hands'. Her motive for doing this are unclear; she claimed that she was concerned for the family's privacy, but it's also been suggested that she was jealous of Kilvert's belated literary success (she was herself the author of some moderately well-received light novels). The only consolation is that she had previously given away three volumes as presents (two to Plomer). These survive (in the libraries of the Universities of Wales and Durham) and have been published complete.

Consequently, only a little more than a third of the diary as it existed into the 1950s survives. Almost two thirds has been lost forever, irretrievably, destroyed perhaps in a fit of pique. This too is very hard to bear; at least we have the consolation of the existence of what remains, one of the most enchanting, heart-breaking, loveable, intriguing, beautiful diaries ever written.

* This isn't absolutely true: he did spend a few hours in the company of William Barnes, the Dorset poet, but he probably hardly counts as 'famous' either then or now.

** Incidentally, he mentions the 'Christmas decorations'. We complain about Christmas starting early nowadays, but at least it no longer goes on until the third week of January (probably because the shops are already full of Easter eggs and hot cross buns).


  1. A really good synopsis of the diaries. Thankyou