Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Two Parsons by Virginia Woolf | The Diary of a Country Parson 1758 - 1802 by James Woodforde.

Parson Woodforde by Samuel Woodforde.
I'd first heard about Parson James Woodforde when I read Virginia Woolf's essay 'The Two Parsons' in her The Common Reader Second Series (first published in 1932) in which she writes about Parson Woodforde and the Rev. John Skinner.

She begins, in the first part, on Parson Woodforde, to question why he kept a diary:
For forty-three years he sat down almost daily to record what he did on Monday and what he had for dinner on Tuesday; but for whom he wrote or why he wrote it is impossible to say. He does not unburden his soul in his diary; yet it is no mere record of engagements and expenses. As for literary fame, there is no sign that he ever thought of it, and finally, though the man himself is peaceable above all things, there are little indiscretions and criticisms which would have got him into trouble and hurt the feelings of his friends had they read them. What purpose, then, did the sixty-eight little books fulfil? Perhaps it was the desire for intimacy. When James Woodforde opened one of his neat manuscript books he entered into conversation with a second James Woodforde, who was not quite the same as the reverend gentleman who visited the poor and preached in the church. These two friends said much that all the world might hear; but they had a few secrets which they shared with each other only. It was a great comfort, for example, that Christmas when Nancy, Betsy, and Mr. Walker seemed to be in conspiracy against him, to exclaim in the diary, “The treatment I meet with for my Civility this Christmas is to me abominable”. The second James Woodforde sympathised and agreed. 
Woolf elaborates on the intimacy present and the effects on the reader, that "reading" isn't even quite the word:
It is slipping through half a dozen pages and strolling to the window and looking out. It is going on thinking about the Woodfordes while we watch the people in the street below. It is taking a walk and making up the life and character of James Woodforde as we go. It is not reading any more than it is writing — what to call it we scarcely know.
From here she goes on to offer some biographical details - such as that he was to marry Betsy White but she jilted him for someone with "five hundred pounds a year", and that Parson Woodforde scarcely mentioned it, though his pain was very visible in the very short passage which concludes, "she has proved herself to me a mere jilt". But, Woolf asks, to what extent would this truly have devastated the Parson. His real passion was simply to live, and this we see in his diary. He was a simple man; as Woolf writes,
For James Woodforde was nothing in particular. Life had it all her own way with him. He had no special gift; he had no oddity or infirmity. It is idle to pretend that he was a zealous priest. God in Heaven was much the same to him as King George upon the throne — a kindly Monarch, that is to say, whose festivals one kept by preaching a sermon on Sunday much as one kept the Royal birthday by firing a blunderbuss and drinking a toast at dinner. Should anything untoward happen, like the death of a boy who was dragged and killed by a horse, he would instantly, but rather perfunctorily, exclaim, “I hope to God the Poor Boy is happy”, and add, “We all came home singing”; just as when Justice Creed’s peacock spread its tail —“and most noble it is”— he would exclaim, “How wonderful are Thy Works O God in every Being”. But there was no fanaticism, no enthusiasm, no lyric impulse about James Woodforde.
He records his daily activities - always the weather, always what he had to eat, and the events of the day - who said what, who he baptised, who he buried, where he went, who he saw. He played cards, went hare coursing, saw to his chickens and pigs, and he was happy and content to do so. Woolf writes,
... his house fits him; a tree is a tree; a chair is a chair; each knows its office and fulfils it. Looking through the eyes of Parson Woodforde, the different lives of men seem orderly and settled. Far away guns roar; a King falls; but the sound is not loud enough to scare the rooks here in Norfolk. The proportions of things are different. The Continent is so distant that it looks a mere blur; America scarcely exists; Australia is unknown. But a magnifying glass is laid upon the fields of Norfolk. Every blade of grass is visible there. We see every lane and every field; the ruts on the roads and the peasants’ faces. Each house stands in its own breadth of meadow isolated and independent. 
It was this that made me want to read Parson Woodforde so I looked out for his diary and eventually found The Diary of a Country Parson 1758 - 1802 in Barter Books. It is an edited version - the Parson's diary itself consisted of 72 notebooks and 100 loose sheets. He was born in 1740 in Somerset, and attended Oxford University (New College) from 1758. The diary starts in a most dull way, and I can easily quote the entire diary of that first year:
Oct. 19. A pair of Curling Tongs £0. 2. 8
Oct. 20. Two Logick Books 0. 6. 0
Oct. 25. Two Bottles of Port Wine 0. 3. 4
Nov. 6. A Sack of Coal 0. 4. 9
Nov. 7. A Musick Book 0. 1. 6
This method of diary-keeping continued to July 1759, though the passages are still very short, such as "Nov. 16. [1759] Gave away my snuff-box to a Particular Friend". From 1761 however they become more detailed and we see Parson Woodforde as a student in Oxford and follow his travels to the surrounding areas; a brief but enlightening part of the diary. For me, though, the diary really gets interesting on May 24th 1776 when James Woodforde moves to Weston Longville in Norfolk. He was joined by his niece Nancy, who was not as content with living with her uncle in Norfolk, but nevertheless she remained with him until his death. And so in Woodforde's diary we see the comings and goings of the people and the seasons. He records, for example, some frightfully cold winters, frost in the inside of the house, snow four feet deep, and then the winds, once smashing in their windows (see also 25th January 1795: "The frost this Morning more severe than Yesterday. It froze the Chamber Pots above Stairs"). It is gentle, and above all else quite simply recorded, Parson Woodforde is not one for frills. Some key events are recorded, most notably the Storming of the Bastille: this was on 14th July 1789 but the Parson did not hear about it until ten days later:
July 24, Friday. I breakfasted, dined &c. again at Cole... Very great Rebellion in France by the Papers - The Bath Paper (the only Paper taken in here) comes every Friday Morning. Mr. Robert Clarke of Castle-Cary spent the Aft. with us. He was drove in by the Rain, as he was going to Bruton, and stayed till the Evening, he did not go to Bruton.
So much for the Bastille: it may have had a great impact in European history but it did not have an impact on the Parson's day in Norfolk. On Louis XVI however he writes a little more:
Janry. 26, Saturday. I breakfasted, dined, &c. again at home. Nancy breakfasted, dined, &c. again at home. Dinner to day Souse, Veal Pye and Calfs Heart rosted. Billy Midewells People brought our Newspapers from Norwich. The King of France Louis 16 inhumanly and injustly beheaded on Monday last by his cruel, blood-thirsty Subjects. Dreadful times I am afraid are approaching all Europe. France the foundation of it all. The poor King of France bore his horrid fate with manly fortitude and resignation. Pray God he may be eternally happy in thy heavenly Kingdom. And have mercy upon his Queen, 2. children and their Aunt Princess Elizabeth, all of whom by the Papers are very ill indeed in their confinement. Their lives are in great danger now of being taken away by the French Assassins or Ruffians.
Yet, aside from these little details the Parson lives a very quiet life, and it is this that makes The Diary of a Country Parson remarkable: Woodforde shows life in all its simplicity, stillness, and beauty without the need of any kind of dramatic narrative. Not much shocks or jars in this book - perhaps the most shocking entry in it comes from 17th November 1794:
Mr. Maynard Rector of Morton called on me this Morning to ask my Advice, about one of his Parish by the name of Fisher, doing a king of Penance next Sunday for calling Mrs. Michael Andrews a Whore. He shewed me the form issued out of the Bishops Court. It is called a Deed of Retraction. A foolish kind of Affair between the parties, and the expenses of which to both must be high.
As Woolf writes,
Life and death, mortality and immortality, jostle in his pages and make a good mixed marriage of it: “. . . found the old gentleman almost at his last gasp. Totally senseless with rattlings in his Throat. Dinner today boiled beef and Rabbit rosted.” All is as it should be; life is like that. 
And she concludes her essay,
Still, if it is a dream, let us indulge it a moment longer. Let us believe that some things last, and some places and some people are not touched by change. On a fine May morning, with the rooks rising and the hares scampering and the plover calling among the long grass, there is much to encourage the illusion. It is we who change and perish. Parson Woodforde lives on. It is the kings and queens who lie in prison. It is the great towns that are ravaged with anarchy and confusion. But the river Wensum still flows; Mrs. Custance is brought to bed of yet another baby; there is the first swallow of the year. The spring comes, and summer with its hay and strawberries; then autumn, when the walnuts are exceptionally fine though the pears are poor; so we lapse into winter, which is indeed boisterous, but the house, thank God, withstands the storm; and then again there is the first swallow, and Parson Woodforde takes his greyhounds out a-coursing.
There is most certainly something about the life of Parson Woodforde that makes me wish he was alive and that those times still existed today. It was not, of course, to be; the diary ends with the inevitable "The rest of the page is blank. The Diary has come to an end". Parson Woodforde died on New Year's Day 1803, and after reading a (albeit edited) diary of whole adult life, it is a sad and moving thing to read that sentence. I do urge everyone to try and get a hold of a copy - it is pure, uplifting beauty. 

And as James Woodforde lived his life in Norfolk, a few years apart another member of the clergy, the Rev. John Skinner (1772–1839), lived his in Somerset. I haven't read his diaries, but Woolf writes of them in the second part of her essay, though I'll not dwell too much on this second part. She writes he was an altogether different man,
Irritable, nervous, apprehensive, he seems to embody, even before the age itself had come into existence, all the strife and unrest of our distracted times. He stands, dressed in the prosaic and unbecoming stocks and pantaloons of the early nineteenth century, at the parting of the ways. Behind him lay order and discipline and all the virtues of the heroic past, but directly he left his study he was faced with drunkenness and immorality; with indiscipline and irreligion; with Methodism and Roman Catholicism; with the Reform Bill and the Catholic Emancipation Act, with a mob clamouring for freedom, with the overthrow of all that was decent and established and right. Tormented and querulous, at the same time conscientious and able, he stands at the parting of the ways, unwilling to yield an inch, unable to concede a point, harsh, peremptory, apprehensive, and without hope.
He begins his diary in 1822, "fixed in his opinion that the mass of men are unjust and malicious, and that the people of Camerton are more corrupt even than the mass of men." His life was not the idyllic life of the Parson in Norfolk:
There was nothing left to live for. Yet what had he done to make everyone hate him? Why did the farmers call him mad? Why did Joseph say that no one would read what he wrote? Why did the villagers tie tin cans to the tail of his dog? Why did the peacocks shriek and the bells ring? Why was there no mercy shown to him and no respect and no love? With agonising repetition the diary asks these questions; but there was no answer. At last, one morning in December 1839, the Rector took his gun, walked into the beech wood near his home, and shot himself dead. 
I do want to read the Rev. Skinner's diaries, though clearly the contrast will be great. I love reading diaries, in them we do see real life; that on the death of Louis XVI people still had breakfast, and when Parsons are burying infants in the bleak midwinter they still feel the cold most severely. Chamber pots did freeze, people do argue, and life goes on.


  1. i'm a v.w. fan. she had an extraordinary imagination which enabled her to see more completely scenes described in literature than most readers; hence her understanding of what she was reading was also extraordinary. the contrast between the two religious figures is described in a thoroughly intensive way; she speaks whereof she knows... i found woolforde's reaction to the beheading of louis xvi to be quite a bit more effective than the one in "a tale of two cities". the one description deriving from a professional writer compared to that of a laic country squire/parson with a supposedly narrow focus is quite illuminating. sometimes the small, mundane details convey more than the epical approach, in terms of the sharper image...

    1. I love VW too, and I like what you say about how her writing abilities enhance her reading abilities. Completely agree with you about the small mundane details too. If I'm honest I barely recall The Tale of Two Cities (I think I'll try and re-read that either this month or next), but for now I'd say Parson Woodforde's account of the beheading conveys the shock and horror and the need to immediately blame. I wish I could recall what Dickens wrote... Must re-read that soon - thanks for mentioning it and making me want to revisit it :)

  2. Great review, O! I think you truly saw through to the man and could appreciate him, instead of expecting him to be someone whom you wanted him to be. I'm really disappointed with Woolf's essay. Of course, it's well-written as always, but focusing on "indiscretions" and "criticisms" seems childishly voyeuristic. So he only shared part of his life? So what? And if Woodforde is so stark in his writing, how on earth is she able to characterize him? For all we know, he chose to write his diary in this format (I could see doing it this way if one is under time constraints), but was actually a lively person. To make his character everything he shows in his diary is certainly ungenerous, if not also short-sighted. I think the happiest people are the ones who can enjoy the simplicities of life and it seems Woodforde did.

    1. I see what you mean - he isn't easy to characterise. Actually that's one of the things I loved about it - I have my own image of Parson Woodforde conjured up, no doubt different from various other people's. One thing I forgot to mention in the post - I liked how on one cold winter day he fed his chickens in his kitchen and the wild birds hovered around the door for some food too. But yes he is quite matter of fact in his diary so no, one cannot get a full character.


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