Monday, 13 April 2015

Kilvert's Diary by Francis Kilvert.

Francis Kilvert (1875).
Robert Francis Kilvert was an English clergyman who was born in 1840, and died in 1879. Between 1870 and 1879 he lived in Radnorshire (east Wales), Wiltshire (south west England), and Herefordshire (west Midlands, bordering Radnorshire), and it is during this period he kept his diary.
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 record as thing, and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me. (Tuesday, 3rd November 1874)
The diaries were discovered in 1937 by William Plomer in the offices of Jonathan Cape the publisher along with a letter from Kilvert's nephew suggesting that if the publishers found the two notebooks he had sent interesting they may care to see a further twenty volumes of the remaining diaries. Plomer wrote to the novelist Elizabeth Bowen,
It simply creates that really unknown and remote period. I showed a bit of it to Virginia [Woolf]: she was most excited. I have insisted on editing it for myself . . . But it's going to be a great deal of work, especially for some poor typist, who will probably be driven blind and mad.
The Shadow of Death by William Holman Hunt (1873).
In 1938 the first volume was published, the second in 1939, and the third in 1940. I read an edited version published by Penguin as part of their 'Country Library' series (published in 1984, and now titled A Wiltshire Diary). It is quite simply one of the most beautiful books I've ever read - Kilvert's great attention to the details of the natural world with his poetic prose is quite stunning (I was reminded throughout of the diaries of Dorothy Wordsworth). He also writes of the events and gossip in the various places he lives, giving a unique insight into mid-Victorian life, and finally, occasionally, he writes of events of historical importance, for example the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and his thoughts on William Holman Hunt's controversial 'The Shadow of Death' ("a waste of a good shilling", remarked Kilvert).

I'll share now some of my favourite parts, beginning with the first entry:
From Wye Cliff to Pont Faen. Miss Child in great force. She showed me her clever drawings of horses and told me the adventures of the brown wood owl 'Ruth' which she took home from here last year. She wanted to call the owl 'Eve' but Mrs Bridge said it should be called 'Ruth'. She and her sister stranded in London at night went to London Bridge hotel (having missed the last train) with little money and no luggage except the owl in a basket. 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. The owl went on hooting, upset the basket, got out and flew about the room. The chambermaid almost frightened to death dared not come inside the door. Miss Child asked the waiter to get some mice for 'Ruth' but none could be got. [Tuesday, 8th February 1870].
As I lay awake praying in the early morning I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost. I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of ice. The morning was most brilliant. Walked to the Sunday School with Gibbins and the road sparkled with millions of rainbows, the seven colours gleaming in every glittering point of hoar frost. The Church very cold in spite of two roaring stove fires. Mr V. preached and went to Bettws. [Sunday, Christmas Day, 1870]
My bedroom is illuminated all day with a beautiful rosy light from the glorious blossom of the pink may on the lawn. [Thursday, 27th May 1875]
The happiest, brightest, most beautiful Easter I have ever spent. I woke early and looked out. As I had hoped the day was cloudless, a glorious morning. My first thought was 'Christ is Risen'. It is not well to lie in bed on Easter morning, indeed it is thought very unlucky. I got home between five and six and was out soon after six. There had been a frost and the air was rimy with a heavy thick white dew on the hedge, bank and turf, but the morning was not cold. There was a heavy white dew with a touch of hoar frost on the meadows, and as I leaned over the wicket gate by the mill pond looking to see if there were any primroses in the banks but not liking to venture into the dripping grass suddenly I heard the cuckoo for the first time this year. He was near Peter's Pool and he called three times quickly one after another. It is very well to hear the cuckoo for the first time on Easter Sunday morning. I loitered up the lane again gathering primroses. [Sunday, Easter Day, 17th April 1870]
Gathering strawberries. As the day wore the weather became more and more beautiful till at last the evening grew the loveliest I think I ever saw. The rich golden light flooded the lawn and clean freshly cleared meadows, slanting through the western trees which fringe the Common's edge. Even the roan cows, and the Alderney especially, glowed with a golden tinge in the glorious evening sunlight. From the wide common over the thick waving fragrant grass came the sweet country music of the white-sleeved mowers whetting their scythes and the voices of children at play among the fresh-cut flowery swaths. The sun went down red under a delicate fringe of gold laced cloud, the beautiful Midsummer evening passed through twilight and gloaming into the exquisite warm soft Midsummer night, with its long light in the north slowly, softly lingering as Jupiter came out glorious in the south and flashed glittering through the tresses of the silver birches softly waving, and the high populars rustled whispering and the Church clock at Draycot struck ten and I longed to sleep out of doors and dream my 'Midsummer night's dream. [Thursday, Midsummer's Day, 1875]
Throughout Kilvert describes the light and sounds, and somehow he even invokes scent. He wrote of people who would have otherwise been lost - the every day occurrences and things important then but not now, or important only to the individuals concerned, all of which, with their deaths, would have been unremembered had it not have been for Kilvert. With this brings a sense of sadness as well - Kilvert suffered great disappointment and loss, but even without reading these diaries leaves a sense of bitter-sweet yearning as well as the awareness that Kilvert and all those he encountered are long gone. That and these beautiful passages about Victorian country life are intensely moving.

I would urge, nay, beg everyone to try and read this at some point! Happily I read the edited version, which means I have the three volumes to look forward to. There's also a children's version edited by Elizabeth Divine and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone which I'd like to see if only for the illustrations. With regards to these three volumes - they are themselves edited - before publication, as they were collected, many parts were destroyed by his niece Essex Hope. Kilvert's wife, Elizabeth Anne Kilvert née Rowland also removed a great many sections pertaining to their courtship and various other matters. This is indeed most unfortunate, however there still remains plenty to read!

Further Reading


  1. I learned about these diaries from Susan Hill's book Howards End is on the Landing, and like you I read the one - volume edition and then went on to the three - volume. It's an amazing record, and so alive with his personality!

    1. I've never read any Susan Hill but I've always meant to. Must get round to that soon! :) I'm glad you liked the three volumes - I'm going to try and get them at some point this year, hopefully soon but I've a list of books I really want to get soon. :)

  2. This find sounds just wonderful!!! I can't wait to read his diaries. It's a testimony to how boring and mundane we think our lives are, when they are actually colourful and interesting. Thanks again for yet another introduction to a unique piece of literature!

    1. No problem :) I hope you read them soon, I'd love to see what you make of them. And you're right, it's funny how we think our own lives are boring but other people's are fascinating :)

  3. When I read a published diary, I always feel as though I am intruding unacceptably into someone's life. Perhaps I need to rethink my definition of diary.

    1. I think it depends on the diarist. Woolf, for example, wanted her private papers burned so yes, reading her diaries are a bit of an intrusion (not something I wish I dwell on because I've read some and want to read the rest!) but Kilvert had an audience in mind I think, as he said "I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me." I wouldn't feel guilty for reading Kilvert :)


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