The Diary of a Farmer's Wife (1796 - 1797).

The Diary of a Farmer's Wife is an absolutely gorgeous book I've been meaning to read for about two years now. This is the diary of Anne Hughes, a married woman in her 20s at the end of the 18th Century living, it's thought, in Herefordshire (on the English border with Wales) near Chepstow (which is in Wales). Kilvert's Diary by Francis Kilvert, interestingly enough, was partly set in roughly the same area some 75 years later. The book itself is somewhat of a mystery: the story goes that a young girl, Jeanne Keyte, was sent from her home in Gloucestershire to Herefordshire to be a companion for her cousin. There she met Mary Anne Thomas née Hughes, the daughter of Anne Hughes, who would read her mother's diary to Jeanne. Jeanne, very taken by it, transcribed it and some thirty or forty years later and in 1937 published it as a serial in the Farmers Weekly

However, the Anne Hughes' Diary research team who have been unable to find any evidence of the "lonely cousin" story. The manuscript appears to have been transcribed in Sarsden in Oxfordshire (Chipping Norton), but the original diary is either lost, or it never even existed: The Diary of a Farmer's Wife may in fact be fictional, created by Jeanne, and Anne Hughes may also have been Jeanne's creation. It's almost certain that Jeanne added parts, but how much we don't know, and furthermore we can't be certain, if Anne Hughes did exist, that she was writing her diary between 1796-97. If there is a diary, it's thought it was given to American soldiers from Alabama, either as a gift or a loan, and when the soldiers left they were never seen or heard from again. Either way, if the diary exists, it may well be in America, but no one can be sure. For more information, do check out the Anne Hughes' Diary website.

All I can do now is talk about the actual content, be it real or fictional. It begins,
Today hav John and I bin wed this 3 yere and here I do set down all that I do every day.
Today I did do my butter maken, leving Sarah to cook most of the dinner, as the butter was a longe time cummin, indeed not till John had put in a crown piece and turned did it cum. Sarah did burne the dinner, like she always do, and John was very crosse therebye, he mislyking Sarahs cooken, so I do sometimes hav to let him think it is me. Men be verry tiresome sometimes.
From here the day to day events are seemingly mundane, feeding hens, pigs, cows, and sheep, going to market, tidying the house, local gossip, clothes, recipes, and the daily challenges of farm life: grumpy husbands, occasionally ineffective maids, and, sadly, some grief. It is a portrayal of the goings on in a small rural area towards the very end of the 18th Century and, in parts, it is almost idyllic, though not without some very hard work. Despite the initial difficulty of getting into the writing, the style and spelling being more akin to early modern (Shakespeare and the like) than our own, it is a very charming and funny book. Anne Hughes, be her real or fictional, has a strong personality, is kindhearted (though she does not suffer fools gladly), and has a good sense of humour. We also learn about the courtship between her maid Sarah and the local parson and of the day to day life of her husband John. It is such a vivid and warm work.

If this is a real diary, it's an invaluable historical document, if it's not I can't deny the book is devalued, even only slightly in terms of entertainment; part of the pleasure of reading it is thinking of Anne Hughes as a real woman writing about her own life. Should it be a hoax ("hoax" would be the correct term as it was presented as fact), we do lose that part of it. Of course here is where our imagination ought to kick in, and in those terms I stand by what I said - it's a gorgeous book and quite a feat too. That said, I do well understand that it could be somewhat of a disappointment knowing their is doubt cast over its authenticity.

Whatever the case, I loved this. Here are some of my favourite parts:

John gets knocked over by a cow:
John hav bin verrie cross at the brindel cow which did knock him over and spil milk on his small cloes. Sarah seeing him did start to gigel, so I did send her to the chest for dry cloes ere John did see her laff, he not liking to be laffed at. But later in the dairy Sarah and me did laff much.
A sermon:
We to church this morne, and John did fidgett much, he not liking thee passon; which be a new one, who did tell us that hell be nere and we all going there; and that it be wronge to heard monies, for the divell will get it all. Ande he did look so hard at John that I did fear he off from the church wrothefullie. But John did staire back at the man, and fould his armes and look puffed up.
Sarah meets the Parson:
We hav made much cider these 2 dayes and John cum in to say old Joe had got a bellie ake with too much drinkeing of the newe jouice. But I pittie him not, he being a greedie old man who do want all.
Passon did go away on Mon-morne, after thankeing me and John right hartilie. He did aske much about Sarah, and I feare me he will want to cum acourten her. He shaiken her by the hand, she did go verrie pink, the sillie wenche.
The snow on December 15th 1796:
It have snowed so hard this 2 days, that we be quite cut off from every body by the deep drifts. John and sheperd did have to dig the sheep out which was buried under the snow and make a road for them to walk home to the yards. It di look verrie strange from the winders to see nought but snow, it be verrie cold and the house verrie dark with so much snow agen the walls. I be thankful there be plentie to eat. I do pray there me no dum things cast away in the snow. Carter and sheperd did have to dig their way to work, and Johns mother and Sarah did dig to the pigges and calfs. The snow do make a bad mess on my clene kitchen floors, but Sarah do clean with a will, so it not too bad. Bein bussie I cannot rite more now;.
The celebrations before Sarah's wedding:
The sillie wenches was verrie noisie and so we did not get scarce any sleep, but we did laff much at their antics. One of them did go over with a great bump when she did try to stand upon her head upside downwards.

Comments

  1. LOL! it's REAL! fascinating excerpts...

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    1. Yes, I was particularly taken by the young woman trying to stand on her head - the human race, it never changes... :)

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  2. Wow, this sounds excellent! Thanks for sharing. x

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    1. You're welcome, I hope you're able to read it one day (got a feeling it might be awkward to get a hold of) :)

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