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

Sunday 7 June 2020

Kilvert's Diary - Notebook No.3


The story of the sad fate of most of the twenty-two manuscript notebooks of Kilvert’s diary from which William Plomer made his selection has been often told. (See here, for example.) Only three now remain, (numbered by Kilvert 2, 3 and 4), two in the National Library of Wales, the other in Durham University Library. In this article I shall focus on one of them, No. 3, which covers the period from 11 June – 18 July 1870.

The National Library of Wales bought this manuscript volume from Charles E Harvey in 1985, and published it in 1989; it was edited by Dafydd Ifans, who supplies a valuable introduction and footnotes. It’s a very attractive little book, printed on good-quality paper and well illustrated with a useful selection of black and white photographs.

It’s often said, following Plomer, that about a third of Kilvert’s original diary was preserved in the three volumes printed in the 1930s. Ifans repeats this in his introduction. However, the back of my envelope suggests that, as far as Notebook No. 3 is concerned, the true figure is more like a quarter. The original runs to approximately 29,000 words, as opposed to the abridgement’s 7,500.*

Plomer, and the publisher Jonathan Cape, were taking a risk when they contemplated publishing the diaries. 1938, when the first selection was issued, was not the happiest or most prosperous of times, with the ever-present threat of war and unemployment not far short of two million. There was no guarantee that the sixty-year-old diary of an unknown rural curate would find an audience. Publishing the unabridged diary, or even an unabridged part of it, was out of the question. Plomer had to take some harsh decisions about what to exclude.

In preparing to write this article I went through Notebook No.3, trying my best to forget what I remembered about Plomer’s selection, putting a pencilled tick (or occasionally a double tick) against the passages I’d particularly like to preserve. I had the luxury, denied to Plomer, of choosing as much as I wanted. Then I drew lines down the margins denoting the passages that he had chosen.

My selection is of course just as subjective, perhaps even as arbitrary, as his. Probably no two people will ever entirely agree on what to include. Unsurprisingly, the majority of Plomer’s chosen passages have been ticked by me. Surprisingly, however, there are a few things he includes that I’d very willingly sacrifice in favour of passages he excludes that I regard as far superior. Among these are the first paragraph Plomer choses from Notebook No. 3, from 15 June, concerning a child with ‘the itch’, whom Kilvert recommends treating with ‘sulphur and hog’s lard’. I can only think that this was included because of the quaint medication. Another is from 8 July, mentioning a letter from Mrs Venables on the (to me) less than gripping topic of ‘caps for the Confirmation girls . . . at her own expense’.

Much that Plomer excludes is just as good as anything else in the published three volumes. His statement that he took ‘the cream’ from the manuscripts must be taken with a pinch of salt (which sounds quite tasty, actually). He ruthlessly cuts eighteen whole days, and never includes a whole day’s entry (the closest he gets is on 4 July when just the final paragraph is omitted).

He sometimes reduces a day’s entry by snipping out paragraphs, or a few lines, here and there, for example the description of a fishing expedition Kilvert takes with his father and brother on 22 June. He includes the opening sentence but cuts the rest of the paragraph and the whole of the next five. Then includes most of one, cuts two, includes two, cuts two, includes one, cuts one, includes one, cuts most of one, includes one and cuts the last six. More than two-thirds of the whole entry is lost. What’s especially galling about this is that Plomer contrives to end the day’s entry with Kilvert’s observation that the occupants of another boat were ‘screaming and laugh[ing], as if a great romp were going on and as if the girls were being kissed and tickled.’ This gives a false emphasis to Kilvert’s predilection for ‘romps’ with girls, which isn’t really at all prominent in this entry (or Notebook No. 3 as a whole).

More importantly, Plomer should have continued for one more paragraph, because it’s one of the most exciting descriptions anywhere in the diary:

Then a sudden noise swept over the lake growing louder and louder as if a great wind were rushing swiftly towards us. I thought it was a squall sweeping down from the mountains, but it was the rushing sound of starlings’ wings. A vast flock of them swept by us and wheeling about, settled like a black cloud upon the trees by the lake shore. Again and again they took wing and we heard the rushing noise growing louder and then fainter in the distance. When the starlings had perched, they chattered for a while and then the chatter rose into a crescendo scream till the excitement seemed to become insupportable and irrepressible, the climax was put to the confusion by the whole flock rising again like a black cloud with a whistle and rush and relieving their overcharged feelings by whishing and sweeping in a short excursion about the lake.

I’d give a whole congregation of Confirmation caps for this marvellous bit of vivid, empathetic writing.

Here is a brief chronological summary of some other parts of the diary cut by Plomer:

11 June. Kilvert uses the delightful phrase ‘a sad hamper all round’ to describe a minor difficulty. He and his brother Perch go on a walk during which ‘a pheasant sprung from the roadside, so close that we could have knocked it down with an umbrella.’ ‘Through the dark valley wound the S of the Wye like a silver serpent in the gloom.’

12 June, Sunday. ‘Knocked at the Tall Oaks and there came to the door the peat reek and a handsome, dark gipsy-looking girl with black eyes, rosy cheeks and a low broad brow.’

13 June. A four-page description of a walk with Perch, eminently quotable. ‘. . . an old woman was watching three horses watering. She had a fine grey and white sheep-dog with her, and a pretty little white and tabby cat with a great tail trotted on before.’

14 June. A five-page description of a walk, as above. ‘Pigs wandered up and down the street, white and hideous as lepers.’

16 June. ‘Gipsy Lizzie’ ‘opened her large eyes wider under her clear dark pencilled eyebrows and long lashes, and gave me an arch look and a pretty smile with a gleam of her white teeth.’ Kilvert watches ‘a herd of cattle fording the Wye from Herefordshire into Radnorshire, England into Wales . . . hoping I suppose to find some better grass in Wales than in England’.

20 June. Perch accompanies him on a walk to baptise a baby. ‘A funny little old-fashioned woman, trim and tidy, came to the door, a sort of Mother Hubbard or Mother Goose.’

23 June. A four-page description of a fishing expedition, almost as quotable as that on the previous day. ‘As we landed a bell from the church and village of Llangorse was wheeling rustily and wheezily, and a flock of geese paddling and pluming round the landing stage in the green broad reeds.’

24 June. A seven-page description of a walk to Llanthony, of which Plomer includes only a page and a half.

26 June, Sunday. Preaches at Bettws. ‘Two red cows with white faces came and looked at me through the window whilst I was reading prayers.’

30 June. Visiting. ‘From the Lower Bettws I went on to see her mother at the Old House, a slatternly-looking, brown woman and she was suckling a baby at her sinewy, withered breast.’ ‘Going up the ladder to see the old bed-ridden grandfather Jones, I found I could not have chosen a more utterly unfortunate moment and I came down the steep ladder a great deal faster than I went up.’

11 July. The ‘gathering and parade of the Foresters.’ ‘Two men on horseback dressed to represent Robin Hood and Little John in green tunics, white capes, white breeches and large red boots, with flat black caps and bugles slung over their shoulder, rode and rolled about on their carty bay horses looking very foolish and uncomfortable in fine borrowed feathers and false beards.’

There are numerous other examples I could have chosen. There are, it is true, some entirely routine, rather dull paragraphs (28 June: ‘Mr Venables came home at 9 o’clock this evening. He goes to Presteign to Quarter Sessions tomorrow’), but many of these are enlivened by a sudden Kilvertian turn of phrase (such as ‘a sad hamper all round’, quoted above). Despite these occasional lapses, on the whole the reader’s interest is sustained, with many passages that bring delight. It’s marvellous that three notebooks escaped destruction, but their survival also brings home the scale of the tragedy of the loss of the other nineteen. The missing two-thirds must have contained much that we would treasure.

The unabridged diary reveals the full extent of Kilvert’s social life at this time. Over the 38 days covered by the diary, as well as attending Hay Fair, the Foresters’ parade and ‘Mrs Preece’s sale’ of her effects after her death (all major events by local standards) and paying social calls not previously arranged, he is invited to supper, breakfast, tea and a picnic lunch once each, lunch twice, dinner four times, and to croquet and/or archery parties (which usually involve a meal, sometimes ‘high tea’) no fewer than thirteen times (once every three days on average). Croquet and archery were evidently highly fashionable, and Kilvert enjoys them as much as anyone. Once he comes close to complaining about their becoming routine (8 July: ‘It was the usual thing – croquet and archery, and much the same party as at Wye Cliff on Wednesday’), but much more often he relishes them, as much for their social interactions as for the love of sport. On 14 July he comes perhaps the closest to expressing hilarity and joy to be found anywhere in the complete diary:

Croquet in a field, the ground rough and lumpy, the balls leaping over other balls, hoops and everything. Capital fun it was, screaming fun. And then tea – high tea. I sat next to Mrs Oswald and we laughed so that we spilt the salt. We were told that we could not be allowed to sit together again. Mrs Oswald is superstitious and made me throw the salt over my shoulder. Mrs Allen said that next time we should both sit below the salt.

Not much can be determined from the complete diary about Mrs Margaret Oswald; she’s included in a list of ‘young ladies’ but is old enough to have a son who is clearly old enough to have opinions of his own. The most fascinating fact about her is that she has a ‘story of the swearing parrot and the chicken’ (6 Nov 1871), which Kilvert tells to a party mixed in age and sex who are ‘enchanted’ by it (perhaps Victorians weren’t as prudish as is often believed**), but sadly that’s all the information we get. (Surely Plomer can’t have cut this anecdote if Kilvert had written it down?) He obviously shared an affinity with her, in particular a sense of humour.

In one rather curious incident, on 14 July, a children’s choir have been invited to an adults’ garden party. There is a table of presents for the children, and Kilvert waits until Mrs Webb, who is overseeing the giving of ‘prizes’, has her back turned and then ‘stole a prize, a photograph frame, and offered it first to Margaret Oswald and then to Lucy Allen as a token [of] my esteem. However they both declined it.’ Assuming that he is serious when he relates this rather than making some sort of joke, it doesn’t reflect well on him. He is willing to steal from children to try to ingratiate himself with women. Plus he thinks that the gift of a probably not high-quality frame, perhaps all too obviously purloined, is just the job for making himself attractive. His occasional naivety is sometimes endearing, but not here.

He is clearly attracted to several other women too (presumably all younger than him). Over the 38 days of the diary he describes the physical appearance, and sometimes the character, of at least five women (I’ve not counted simple passing references). For example, on 17 June he meets ‘Sir Joseph’s sister, a nice-looking, healthy, red brown and white girl, spirited and full of fun and I should think a very nice girl. . . . I took a great fancy to her’. (He calls her a ‘girl’, which then as now can be ambiguous; in this case I take it to mean a younger adult.) On 13 July he describes Miss Lyne as ‘a very nice, simple, unaffected girl, rather pretty with dark curls, grey eyes and a rich colour, and pretty little white hands.’ Two days later he is wondering ‘Shall I confess how I longed to kiss that white little hand, even at the imminent risk that it would instantly administer a stinging slap on the face of its admirer.’

However, he is particularly keen to describe younger girls (again, it’s hard to know exactly how old most of them are, but they’re presumably prepubescent). I’ve counted 26 of these occasions, on average about two every three days. Several of the 26 involve one girl, ‘Gipsy Lizzie’ (aged nine), when he’s at his most rapturously effusive, most of which are included by Plomer. But Kilvert meticulously describes the attractive features of many others. On 13 June he meets ‘a rosy-cheeked, dark-curled, grey-eyed child’; on 22 June ‘a tall girl in black, with reddish hair and a small black hat, rather good looking’; on 25 June ‘Mary [Williams, aged 16] came to the door fresh and rosy from milking, her light sunny brown hair ruffled and tangled by the wind, and such a smile in her clear, lovely, liquid, grey eyes and such a radiance on her beautiful broad brow. . . . Mary stood by the door in her beauty’; on 14 July ‘one pretty young girl with a fine rich complexion and bright curly fair hair in windy fly-away curls, a grave mouth and face – but merry, pretty blue eyes, and when she smiled her whole richly rosy face lighted up like sunshine with a gleam of her white even pretty teeth.’ All readers of the three abridged volumes edited by Plomer are aware of this aspect of Kilvert’s personality, but it’s verging on shocking to find how frequently it makes itself known in the unabridged original. Plomer has cut all of these references, except two lengthy ones concerning ‘Gipsy Lizzie’ and one about Mary Williams, and we must wonder how many he cut in the diary as a whole.

We might also wonder how welcome Kilvert’s attentions were. Usually he simply looks, or perhaps stares, maybe making the girl uncomfortable. But twice he records touching ‘Gipsy Lizzie’s’ hair, firstly on 7 July: ‘At the school no child in the reading class knew the meaning of the word “tresses”. “These pretty things” stroking back and lifting some of Gipsy Lizzie’s dark silky curls. She will never forget what tresses are now.’ And then on the following day: ‘my darling was working diligently and looked up with a sweet radiant smile on eyes and mouth as I put back the clusters of soft dark curls from her brow and temples.’ Who can say if what Kilvert interprets as a ‘radiant smile’ wasn’t a nine-year-old’s nervous reaction to having a bushy-bearded man pawing her.

When reading the abridged diary as published by Plomer it’s hard to escape the impression that Kilvert lives a mostly leisurely life. He seems to be able to suit himself most of the time (except on Sundays, of course, but even then he has time to relax). Naturally, this could be because Plomer thought (probably correctly) that the details of Kilvert’s working life would not be as interesting to the general reader as, for example, his descriptions of nature and his emotional ups and downs. Two of the surviving complete volumes of the diary give us a chance to see how far this is true (the third describes a holiday, and so isn’t relevant for this purpose).

Notebook No. 3 covers 38 days, about five and a half weeks; on eleven of those days he does nothing that can fairly be called work. This is roughly the equivalent of having modern two-day weekends, and, although the standard at the time was for most people to have only Sundays off, doesn’t make him seem unduly casual in his job.

I have, however, been generous to Kilvert when counting his workdays. On the six Sundays he of course officiates at services, often preaching morning and evening, and usually taking a confirmation class too; on one occasion he teaches at Sunday school twice in one day. He spends parts of six more days at the village school, where he teaches (on 4 July, for example, he takes a ‘reading class’). (On one of these six days he also helps run the village Savings Bank.) He records once writing a sermon (11 June). On 5 July he spends some of the morning helping Mr Venables with parish admin.

In addition to these fourteen days he sometimes visits parishioners, usually when they’re ill or otherwise needing help. (Writers about Kilvert usually describe this as ’villaging’, but the word Kilvert uses, at least in Notebook No. 3, is ‘visiting’.) He does this on seven days, sometimes seeing more than one parishioner on the same day. On two days he officiates at a baptism, and on another (when he also went visiting) a funeral. On a further two days he speaks to a parishioner about confirmation.

Most of these tasks don’t take much time. For example, on 28 June ‘At 3.30 Mary Williams of Penllan came down to see me nicely dressed before she went milking and we had some nice quiet talk about her Confirmation.’ By 4.30 he and his mother were setting off on a social visit to Cae Mawr. On 7 July he ‘went to Hay by the fields, [and] sat at the Savings Bank from 1 to 2’, and then went to lunch at Hay Castle, then went home where he wrote a personal letter, after which he left for a dinner party at Clifford Priory where he stayed till night-time. On 12 July ‘At 12.15 John Bowen of the Bird’s Nest came down to say his father-in-law old Thomas Meredith, was very ill. . . . I went up to the Bird’s Nest immediately as fast as possible.’ On the journey he notices ‘a fresh-coloured, dark-haired young girl, straight and slender and supple, dressed in black with a coquettish white straw hat.’ Despite this distraction he is ‘Home again soon after 1’, and by 2.30 he is off to a croquet party at Clifford Priory, which occupies him for the rest of the day, not leaving until after 10pm.

I think a fair assessment would be that Kilvert, although he responds quickly and willingly when asked for help, doesn’t work very hard. On only fourteen days out of the 38 recorded in the diary does he undertake any sustained tasks, and on most of those fourteen he still has plenty of time for leisure. On 4 July, for example, he takes a reading class in the morning (apparently spending most of it mooning over ‘Gypsy Lizzie’), but in the afternoon pays social calls first to Wye Cliff, then to Hay Castle (where he enjoys a good gossip), then to Pont Vaen.

On 24 of the 38 days he either does no work at all or only brief tasks. (Plomer’s abridgement includes only three examples of Kilvert working in this period, making him seem even less industrious.) It might be, of course, that Kilvert hasn’t recorded all his official commitments, thus giving us a false impression.

Although the title I’ve chosen for this article isn’t entirely representative of Notebook No. 3, (most if his pleasures in it are much more placid and sedate), it is noticeable that the illnesses, melancholy (occasionally bordering on mania) and hopeless love affairs of the later diary are almost entirely absent. Kilvert is in his twenties with his whole life ahead of him. He shows little if any sign of being discontented with his rather lowly status as a curate, and hasn’t yet (so far as we know) fallen in love. He has plenty of leisure time. He is, we might say, an innocent, still full of wonder at the world. This part of the diary is carefree and sunny (metaphorically and literally, as much of it was written in a heatwave); he spends plenty of time with his mother, father and brother, calls on friends who as he says ‘entertained me with scandal at luncheon’ (7 July), and goes to dinners and croquet parties, where ‘everyone . . . is so pleasant and friendly that we meet almost like brothers and sisters’ (12 July). He admires good-looking young women, rejoices in nature, gets plenty of healthy exercise and generally enjoys himself. He doesn’t seem to worry about the future. On 20 June he and Perch walk across the fields to Penrheol; as he goes off to baptise a baby Perch snoozes in the sunshine, and when Kilvert has finished he wakes him with a vigorous whistle. I very much like the thought of a whistling Frank.

As subsequent volumes of the diary progress he suffers setbacks in love, makes slow progress professionally, suffers illnesses and gloom. Experience teaches him some tough lessons. It’s hard to imagine him whistling later in the decade. Presumably the now lost final volume or volumes of the diary would have corrected this impression to some extent as it or they must have happily recorded his courtship and marriage. However, as it is, the diary ends in limbo. But at least at the beginning there is some fun.

* The figure of one quarter is borne out by a page count too: the printed version of the original diary is 101 pages long, of which Plomer omitted the equivalent of about 77. In the abridgement the 38-day period is covered in about 22 pages. He was much more generous in his selection from Notebook No. 2 (which is about the same length as No. 3), which is allotted as many as 39 pages. Notebook No. 4, describing Kilvert’s Cornish holiday with the Hockins, is shorter than the previous two (Kilvert has torn out the final four leaves in order to make a self-contained book), and, like No. 3, is reduced by Plomer to about 22 pages. No. 3 draws Plomer’s short straw, being the most drastically shortened of the surviving notebooks.

** It’s conceivable that ‘swearing’ is used here in the sense of ‘taking an oath’, but I think it’s much more likely that the intended sense is ‘using profane language’. Presumably though the parrot’s profanity would be exceedingly mild to 21st century ears.

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