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The Woodforde Diary

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

The Diary of a Country Parson: The Reverend James Woodforde. Edited by John Beresford. New York: The Oxford University Press. 5 vols. $4.25 each.

This is an age of excavations and discoveries. Fragments of the past are being everywhere revivified; Palestine, Egypt, Mexico have yielded their secrets to insistent pryers. And just as thrilling as these archaeological revelations are the diaries and journals which patient scholars and connoisseurs are constantly, publishing for the greater elucidation of past periods of history. To no one ought we to be more grateful than to Mr. John Beres-ford, who in these five volumes has given us the opportunity not only to increase our knowledge of a departed age, but also, so complete and real is the atmosphere, to live among the fields and hedgerows and cottages of Georgian England. The eighteenth century has never been poor in memorials of this kind: the literary life of London exists forever, of course, in the pages of Boswell; the upper circles will always gossip and intrigue through the mass of Walpole’s letters; and Cowper would have succeeded in giving us the reality of country life, had he been able to keep his own too interesting personality and his poetic bent more in the background. But now, thanks to Parson Woodforde and his able editor, we have what Cowper was too great to produce. Here is life as it was actually lived by the majority of the people, life as it was in the hundreds of rural parishes out of the hurly-burly of London gayety and public problems.

The diary begins when, on July 21, 1759, James Woodforde at the age of nineteen records that he was made a Scholar of New College, and immediately we are plunged into an Oxford of unregenerate days. “Hooke, Boteler and myself went to Welch’s of Wadham College, where we designed to sup and spend the evening, but our entertainment was thus, one Lobster of a Pound, a half-pennyworth of Bread, and the same of Cheese, half of an old Bottle of Ale, Half a Bottle of Wine, and a Bottle of Lisbon, and then we were desired to retreat, which was immediately obeyed. . . . N. B. A Wadamite.” On another occasion the collation was evidently more lavish: “Baker and Croucher both of Merton Coll: spent their evening in the B.C.R. [Bachelor’s Common Room]. Croucher was devilish drunk indeed, and made great noise there, but we carried him away to Peck-ham’s Bed in Triumph. Baker laid with me.” He is the normal undergraduate, by no means averse to the delights of collegiate existence but, at the same time, not unoccupied with the duty of preparing himself for the priesthood. His career, in its essentials, is like that of the majority of university-bred men of his period—four years at Oxford, ten years of curacies in his native Somerset, followed by a year or two of residence as Fellow of New College and as University Proctor, all before he is finally presented to the college living of Weston Longeville in Norfolk. By the time he goes permanently to Weston in 1776, we are thoroughly acquainted with him.

At the end of his long training he is the same innocent fellow who in his first term at Oxford gave away his snuffbox “to a Particular Friend” and went “to see the man ride upon three Horses.” No breath of scepticism has touched him. He has no doubt of Anglican doctrine. He looks upon the church, in so far as he thinks about it at all, as the natural home for men of his sort. He questions none of the duties, dislikes none of them. They do not interfere with his simple pleasures, which consist largely of living comfortably in a rural retreat, where food is plentiful, the cellar spacious and well-stocked, and the neighbors sociable. He loves sport so long as it is not too strenuous—the coursing of a hare before dinner or the dragging of a pond. There is no chance of his ever growing bored with the life that he knows, from the carefully recorded daily breakfast to the evening rubbers of whist. He loves it all. It is all a part of his simple nature. And everywhere he shows himself the wholesome, generous, affectionate, lovable gentleman who, we like to believe, is the typical country clergyman. Such he was when he arrived at his parsonage of Weston Longeville, and so he remained, in spite of the later irritations of poor health, during the twenty-six years of his incumbency. We may be amazed that so much good-nature never brought him a wife, but we soon grow accustomed to his continued state of bachelorhood.

The first half of the first volume brings us to Weston, which we come to know as intimately as if we had been of the parson’s household. The local and domestic events are all chronicled, quite without any attempt to dramatize them. “My great Pond full of large toads, I never saw such a quantity in my life and so large, was most of the morning in killing of them, I daresay I killed one hundred, which made no shew of being missed, in the evening more again than there were, I suppose there are thousands of them there, and no froggs. . . .” The neighbors begin to call, particularly the Cus-tances from Weston House, the great family of the parish, and soon the parson is happily involved in the social life of the community. Dinner succeeds dinner, each duly recorded as to partakers and menu. “We had for dinner, the first Course, some Fish, Pike, a fine large piece of boiled Beef, Peas Soup, stewed Mutton, Goose Giblets, stewed, etc. Second Course, a brace of Partridges, a Turkey rosted, baked Pudding, Lobster, scalloped Oysters, and Tartlets. The desert black and white Grapes, Walnuts and small Nutts, Almonds and Raisins, Damson Cheese and Golden Pippins. Madeira, Lisbon, and Port Wines to drink. . . .” It is small wonder that, after so many dinners of these proportions, the good parson suffered later with a variety of internal complaints.

Regularly every, summer for many years the parson returns for a long visit with his family in Somerset, where the daily routine is almost identical with that of Norfolk, except that there are no clerical duties. We renew acquaintance with the various members of the family, particularly with Brother John, whose conduct does not always conform to the parson’s notions of propriety. The Woodforde family is exhibited without any restraining of the truth (the parson, of course, never dreamed of his twentieth century readers), and we see them with all their jealousies, their humorous conceits, their pride and their affections, completely unadulterated with literary management. The parson has an innocent way of quite unconsciously laying bare the characters of his relations: “Sister Clarke and Nancy had a few words at breakfast. My sister can’t bear to hear anyone praised more than herself in any thing, but that she does the best of all.” In such entries we are presented with the real materials that lie behind the artistry of Jane Austen. Finally, in 1779, Nancy Woodforde, a niece, leaves Somerset and comes to live at Weston with her uncle, whose comforts and trials she continues to share until his death.

And life goes placidly on in Weston Parsonage, amid the round of dinners and the unceasing charity to the poor. The tithe-audit regularly takes place, and the parson regularly entertains the tithe-payers at his “Frolick.” There are mild winters and cold winters, “such Weather with so much Snow I never knew before.” Some springs are merely moist and hence productive, others “so wet that Farmers cannot plow their Lands for their Barley.” The world of great events seems more than a few miles away. The nearest approach to it lies in a hurried glimpse of Pitt, the prime minister, waiting for horses at a roadside inn, while the parson is making one of his annual journeys to Somerset. Once too, a cousin of the great Nelson proposes himself as the parson’s curate. But these are chance episodes, and they make no great figure among the daily entries. Distant rumblings, of course, are heard from America and France, and on several occasions the parson is aghast at the lawlessness of French mobs. And as England becomes more and more involved in continental entanglements, even Weston feels the shock in the form of increased taxes. But such matters do not seriously interfere with the ways of the parson and Nancy. His appetite remains unimpaired, and he is far more vexed by his niece’s chronic sauciness than by any affairs of the outside world.

We read on and on, and we wonder why this unflagging repetition of daily small beer does not grow tiresome. Perhaps we hoodwink ourselves into thinking that our hunger for a knowledge of life in a remote time is insatiable, and that it is important for us to know that cooks and housemaids received five guineas a year and that barley in 1797 brought only twelve shillings a coom. But this is not the real reason. We read on, and are disappointed that there is not more, because Parson Woodforde in his unthinking, artless way has reproduced life. He never repeats a conversation, never attempts a characterization, and yet each individual from mere reiteration emerges as a definite personality. We learn to know every guest at every dinner, so frequently do the same people reappear, and, though we hear none of the conversation, we know pretty well from a hundred previous clues what was said. We become inevitably absorbed in all the details, just as if they were details of our own lives. Everything is put down in the parson’s quaint fashion, unconscious of grammar and consistency, fact after fact, never any feelings other than mere bodily ones. But we know the emotions well enough; they lie between the lines. And as for the parson, we are devoted to him. He has become an old friend, and when in the course of the last volume he begins to fail, and the daily routine is interrupted by long illnesses and seasons in bed, we grow sad because we know that the diary will come to an end and that with Parson Woodforde we shall have lost the whole of his company of friends. And when he is gone, we can only echo the grief of the one entry from Nancy’s diary, as Mr. Beresford gives it to us: “January 1, [1803]. Saturday. Weston. Norfolk. This morning about a quarter after Ten o’clock died my ever dear Uncle James Woodforde whoes loss I shall lament all the days of my life. . . .”


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