Kilvert’s Diary by Francis Kilvert
A wild rainy night. They are holding Clyro Feast Ball at the Swan opposite. As I write I hear the scraping and squealing of the fiddle and the ceaseless heavy tramp of the dancers as they stamp the floor in a country dance. An occasional blast of wind or rush of wind shakes my window. Toby sits before the fire on the hearthrug and now and then jumps up on my knee to be stroked. The mice scurry rattling along the wainscot and Toby darts off in great excitement to listen and watch for them.
Isn’t that the kind of passage you’d read a book like this for? The cosy and the foreign, the intimate and the far away.
It took either Kilvert or me a little while to get into it — diaries can sound so self-conscious, and be rendered so much less interesting because of it. But we both got into it and I think this really is an important document that should be better known. It’s an actually lived version of some charming, fascinating rural material more usually seen in fiction, and Kilvert is so much like both a real three-dimensional person (being a real person and all) and a stereotypical Victorian in some respects. You will need to like scenery, at least when done well, and Kilvert does do it well. What’s nice is that Kilvert appreciates his vantage point and his relatively leisured lifestyle.
It’s good to see the picturesque country setting and the quaint but changing community free of the need to fulfil the thematic demands of fiction. The diary format, working as a mosaic composed of random little slivers of colour, creates a curious, sometimes jarring effect — one minute Kilvert is in a cottage hearing some gruesome gossip of death and disaster and madness, the next he’s sauntering off down the lane noticing poetic things and about wildflowers. Some people are doomed and devastated and some people are doing just fine. Kilvert himself dies before he’s forty. I liked the older people’s stories of the olden days — it’s not just the Victorian’s present that’s different to ours, it’s the past that they’re most familiar with. Kilvert thinking sadly in the 1870s how the attendants at the annual banquet for Waterloo veterans must be dwindling. The sense of a human chain stretching all the way back, though all but a short section of the preceding chain in lost to sight.
Romance and sexual attraction is where Kilvert is most Victorian, though there is a bit about his reaction to the Prince of Wales’s illness which is pretty foreign. It’s the weird thing where sexual attraction gets mostly sublimated into waxing lyrical about rosy cheeks and angels, which, because there’s nothing in it that’s specific to the qualities of adult women, gets lavished on little girls too, even though to our eyes it seems so clearly sexual. Kilvert barely knows there are such things as little boys, but he tells us all about the little girls in his parish. This is going to give us a “You seem nice; <i>why</i> must you be creepy?” reaction as we read. It’s annoying not only because of the age element but because of the Dickensy element. All the girls he likes are made to sound like the girls Dickens heroes marry. They’re undifferentiated from each other and have no personality apart from being lusciously innocent and good. The Victorian weirdness shows up in other ways. Kilvert meets a girl and falls in love with her that same day. Two days later he and a friend are earnestly discussing whether or not he should marry her and getting all excited about what a good idea it all is. The day after that he’s announcing his intentions to the girl’s father. This happens more than once, which certainly adds a humorous element. They used to be stuck with spouses for life, yet you really notice an incredibly casual attitude with regard to choosing them in the past.
The Vintage edition has a pretty cover but seems to be a facsimile of a much earlier one. There’s just an old page and a half introduction, which really seemed pretty cheap to me. They got people to do introductions for the most minor Graham Greene novels, and this is more something that deserves putting in context.