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, that is, exactly 150 years ago today. 

Kilvert - or Frank, as I tend to think of him, since I feel I know him so well via his diary - lead an 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, and this is probably most people's introduction to his world.

I've loved the diaries for thirty years or more. 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 met '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'm not sure 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, 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 can't doubt that Mr Thomas behaved correctly in this instance, given his daughter's youth, 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 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, children 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 that he was fated to be single, and I feel for him across the century and a half that separates us. He does accept rejection by his beloveds' parents rather easily, however. His sense of honour 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.

By paying so much attention to his love affairs I'm giving a somewhat false impression of the diary as a whole. There is, it is true, a deep strain of melancholy that runs through it (not just because of his unhappy love life), and he records suffering mysterious illnesses (physical and mental), some terrifying dreams, and plenty of grim details about the living conditions of the rural poor, but there is also plenty of laughter and high spirits.

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 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 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 selling Easter eggs and hot cross buns).

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