“Kilvert’s Diary”: A Selection Edited and Introduced by William Plomer

Why do I keep this voluminous journal? I can hardly tell. Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it almost seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record as this, and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me.

Kilvert’s Diary is another work I have to thank Susan Hill for (https://annabarbermyartisliving.wordpress.com/tag/susan-hill/). It is a treasure: an affectionate, vivid portrait of rural life in England and Wales in the latter half of the nineteenth century written by Reverend Francis Kilvert. Kilvert kept the diary in the nine years preceding his premature death, and in it records the almost fairytale qualities of his life with sensitivity, humour, and a deep love of the natural world. It is a great shame that much of it is now lost, thanks in part to the edits undertaken by Kilvert’s wife, and more significantly because a descendant – herself a minor novelist – burned most of his notebooks in the 1950s. What remains was expertly edited by the poet, William Plomer – and happily there is still a huge amount to enjoy.

My 1980 Penguin edition begins with the entry for Tuesday 8 February, 1870. Rather wonderfully, this first passage describes the misadventures of one Miss Child, who had tried to spend a night in a London hotel with a brown wood owl. The owl hooted all night in spite of their putting it up the chimney, before the looking glass, under the bedclothes, and in a circle of lighted candles which they hoped it would mistake for the sun. What a brilliantly batty introduction to our diarist – proving that, as is so often the way, real life is invariably stranger than fiction. There are several passages like this that demonstrate a keen sense of humour – the one which is frequently quoted being the description of a relation’s funeral, during which the weighty coffin nearly crushed the poor bearers. Once or twice I thought the whole mass of men must have been down together with the coffin atop of them and someone killed or maimed at least. But now came the time of the fat chief mourner… Throughout his diary, Reverend Kilvert demonstrates a love of life in all its strangeness and absurdity, and though he is generally extremely affectionate, he is not above gently pocking fun at his fellow man: High tea at 7 just before which someone managed to shoot a chicken with an arrow, or it was said so, and Margaret Oswald told me that as I put my head through the railings to rake a croquet ball out of the field on to the lawn, my head looked so tempting that she felt greatly inclined to shoot at it. Certainly there would have been this comfort that if she had shot at me I should have been very much safer than if she had not, because wherever else the arrow might have gone it certainly would not have hit me.

I loved the almost gothic strangeness of many of the vignettes, in a world in which life and death walked so closely together. There are descriptions of suicides and murder; winds so ferocious that it takes four men to carry a lady safely indoors from a carriage; ship-wrecks; Miss Sylvester, who has legs like a frog; soldiers scaring off wolves by snapping the locks of their flint muskets; and an old woman who punishes a dairy thief by making him sit by her fire with a hot ale in his hand, so that the stolen butter seeps through his hat and into his eyes. On Easter Eve, the entire village makes its way to the graveyard to dress the graves of loved-ones with flowers. The sun went down in glory behind the dingle, but still the work of love went on through the twilight and into the dusk until the moon rose full and splendid. People believe in fairies and ghosts; the distinction between the real and the supernatural is blurred at best, and Reverend Kilvert observes it all with fascination and love. There’s almost something Mervyn Peake-like about some of the more bizarre details – One day, Perch skinned an owl in London and from midnight till one o’clock he roamed about the streets seeking where he might bestow the body of the owl, fearing that the carcase of the owl might be found and described in the papers as the body of a fine full grown male child. Eventually he whirled the corpse over a garden wall. What a wonderfully strange tapestry.

In keeping with that vivid appreciation for life’s oddities, Kilvert also seemed to live his life at an extraordinary emotional pitch. Several times through the diary he declares himself to be desperately in love, feeling as though his world has been thrown upside down by an encounter with a pretty woman. He spends “feverish” nights fretting about his love for Daisy, and then Kathleen, and at one point describes himself as being exhausted with emotion. He nearly breaks down in Church when the King is ill, and when giving his final sermon in Clyro, gives himself up to his tears. It is unusual and bewitching to read the words of a man who felt everything so keenly – his orbit may have been narrow in some ways, but that does not mean that he did not experience things on a grand scale. Rather like Jane Austen, he demonstrates perfectly that there is nothing automatically limiting about a small community or a parochial life.

The only issue I had with that flood of feeling was the way in which Kilvert appeared to experience female, particularly pre-pubescent, beauty. Generally speaking this is mentioned by reviewers as being a sometimes awkward susceptibility, but I have to confess I found it more difficult than that. Perhaps it is because I am a product of my time as much as he is a product of his, but the way he lingers over descriptions of schoolgirls or young, naked bathers occasionally made me deeply uncomfortable. The fact that he was so ready to share his diaries with others suggests that he felt he had nothing to hide, and the descriptions never stray beyond a kind of breathless wonder at the girls’ innocent perfection, but still – it isn’t always easy reading. I think every reader probably has to find a way of fitting these passages into the context of the diary, and to make up his or her own mind about what they say about the man.

Putting that slight hesitation to one side, for me the most captivating thing about these diaries is the way in which Kilvert experienced, and talked about nature. The combination of his eye for detail and lyrical turn of phrase result in some truly exquisite passages. I love the description of his beard freezing to his mackintosh after a February walk; trees dripping from early showers, the tears of the morning; the sound of frogs croaking, snoring and bubbling in the pool under the full moon; and his assertion that it was a positive luxury to be alive. A tender haze brooded melting over the beautiful landscape, and the peaceful silence was only broken by the chuckling and grumbling of a squirrel leaping among the acacia boughs overhead, and the clear sweet solitary notes of a robin singing from the copper beech. Rather like Laurie Lee, Kilvert is extremely good at holding a mirror up to the British countryside, and showing us what treasures we are surrounded by if we will only stuff our pockets with biscuits and flasks of wine, and stride out into the hills.