Kilvert’s Diary

Kilvert’s Diary 1870-1879, edited and introduced by William Plomer 

Introduced by Oliver Balch, freelance journalist and Clyro resident 

The Reverend Francis Kilvert was curate in Clyro (just outside Hay) for seven years, from 1865 to 1872. Born in Wiltshire, he lies buried in the churchyard of Bredwardine, a quaint parish on the River Wye some eight miles downstream from Hay where he had recently become vicar. He was thirty-eight and just married.

A selection of his daily jottings found their way into print in the late 1930s. On the verge of war, British readers lapped up the simple Arcadia evoked within. Kilvert’s Diary, published in three volumes (in 1938, 1939 and 1940, respectively), quickly became a minor classic in the flowery canon of Victorian pastoralism.

Read today, the entries remain fresh and compelling, dipping as they do between anecdote and history, reflection and fact. A Romantic man in a Romantic age, Kilvert would take himself off on long all-day walks into the hills, returning in rhapsodic mood to share with his diary the sound of the year’s first yaffingale “laughing in the dingle” or the sight of fawn-coloured turkeys “mourning in the stubbles”.

I acquired an abridged copy of the Diary shortly after moving to the area a few years ago. It covers the years 1870 to Kilvert’s premature death in 1879. A longer three-volume version also exists. Both owe their publication to the handiwork of William Plomer, then a young editor at the London publisher Jonathan Cape and later a recognised poet and novelist. He would also go on to become the inaugural president of The Kilvert Society, a learned and somewhat quirky group set up to “foster an interest in the Reverend Francis Kilvert, his work, his Diary and the countryside he loved”.

In sympathy with its contents, the cover of my edition carries the sun-dappled image of a rustic church. Beneath the branches of an ancient chestnut is a wooden lychgate, which gives way to open fields beyond. A brown heifer stands alone, grazing. In the foreground, a mother with three girls in Victorian frocks sit around a picnic basket in the long grass of the graveyard.

I devoured the Diary greedily, particularly the Clyro sections. His descriptions on the landscape speak powerfully across the centuries, but it’s his depiction of village life that totally absorb and entrance me. The Clyro women who “stride about the village like storks”. The industrious blacksmith who chinks away at his forge night and day. The ‘harvest man’ absented by grog. The mole-catcher drunk on folklore.

Equipped with a university education and a common touch, the affable curate was uniquely positioned. Every layer of society lay open to him, and he submerged himself in each. So one minute he’s sitting in a pauper’s hovel, the next he’s playing battledore and shuttlecock at Clyro Court. The result is a pen portrait of remarkable breadth and intimacy.

Eccentric and ordinary, rich and poor, old and young, characters of all colours spill from the pages of his diaries. Real people. People with hopes and dreams and worldly worries. People who mourn and sob as readily as they sing and feast. People, above all, who inhabit a vital, interwoven, living community. Not a perfect one by any means. Poverty and privilege were all too common. But a living community without doubt. And one not at all dissimilar to the one I had come looking for myself.

📖

Under the Tump by Oliver Balch will be published by Faber & Faber in summer 2016. 

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