Kilvert's Diary: 1870 to 1871

I've loved the diaries of Francis Kilvert, ever since I got a copy of the much condensed one volume version, edited by William Plomer, a few years ago (bought from the snootiest book seller I've ever met deep in Kilvert country at Hay-on-Wye). And I've wanted to read the more complete set (although still edited) ever since, and so am now slowly working my way through them, beginning with the diary for 1870-71.

Kilvert was a curate at Clyro, on the Welsh-English border - the picture above is of Colva, another Kilvert locale nearby. He kept a series of diaries through his time as a curate in Radnorshire and Wiltshire, where he assisted his father, who was also a clergyman, and then back to Radnorshire and Herefordshire, where he was a vicar at Bredwardine. The diaries span 1870-1879, ending around the time when Kilvert married, tragically he died just 5 weeks after his marriage. It's believed that his widow expunged large tracts of his diaries, including anything of romantic interest, but what's left is fascinating.

Kilvert comes across as a wonderfully innocent character, who's equally at home playing croquet with the local nobility, transporting chickens by train, or chatting to poverty-stricken parishioners. The diaries were edited by William Plomer (Benjamin Britten's librettist), who did a wonderful job with them, editing them as little as possible but letting Kilvert speak through them, and were published just as the Second World War was declared. They were an immediate success, and it's easy to understand why. They have a wonderful lyricism about the countryside, a sort of Vaughan Williams of literature, and they're just fascinating showing how dramatically the world had changed in such a short time. Many of the old traditions and legends of the border regions were still current during Kilvert's time there, and he mentions them avidly.

There's much here that would have fascinated Thomas Hardy, and would have been familiar to him. But it's not all nostalgia, the harshness and brutality of life in the late nineteenth-century is not overlooked either. Some of the medical treatments make you gasp, as does the sad litany of lives cut short.

In spite of that or perhaps even because of it, it's a wonderful portrait of a rural landscape that has now to a great extent disappeared. I think I also love it, because I grew up in the valleys of Monmouthshire, and at least some of my childhood was spent in Kilvert country, so it always makes me feel rather homesick. And oddly there is the occasional bit of folklore, or strange quirk of language that he mentions that I can relate to from my own experience, growing up 100 years after Kilvert's writings. He's sometimes overly sentimental - very much a product of his time, but the diaries are wonderful - nostalgic, funny (the description of Maria Kilvert's funeral procession and the "confirmation" of the curate had me in stitches), and is one of the great portraits of the British landscape.


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