The Reverend Francis Kilvert should be famous. He should be celebrated as one of the greatest diarists of modern times. He should, if wishing made it so, be read widely and deeply. But the Reverend Francis Kilvert is not a household name.
John Betjeman described Kilvert’s Diary as “the best picture of quiet vicarage life in Victorian England that has yet been given to us”. The Sunday Times called it “one of the best books in English”. After reading an abridged version (the original ran to 22 notebooks despite covering a period of just nine years), I wholeheartedly agree. Consider this extract from October 7, 1874:
“For some time I have been trying to find the right word for the shimmering glancing twinkling movement of the poplar leaves in the sun and the wind. This afternoon I saw the word written on the poplar leaves. It was ‘dazzle’. The dazzle of the poplars.”
Kilvert died young, aged just 38, his life cut short by peritonitis just one month after his marriage to Elizabeth Anne Rowland. He had no idea that his diary would be published more than 50 years after his death. Thankfully, it was, and Kilvert’s legacy is a beautifully written account of his day to day existence, filled with acute observations on country living in mid-Victorian times. After reading his entries, I had a strong sense of what a vibrant, trusted and enjoyable friend he must have been to many, in particular his flock. But there was a mischievous, slightly saucy side to Rev Kilvert. Imagine Dorothy Wordsworth if she had been a randy curate living on the Welsh border during the 1870s.
Take this example from Saturday, October 29, 1870: “Today I found in a book a red silk handkerchief, worked with the words ‘Forget Me Not’, and I am sorry to say that I have entirely forgotten who gave it to me. One of my many lovers, no doubt. But which?”.
But Kilvert was much, much more than an incurable romantic looking for love. He was capable of stunning descriptions of nature. I have included one of my favourite passages below. As you ponder over it, think how your life would be enriched by reading William Plomer’s edited selection of Kilvert’s Diary, 1870-1879.
From Sunday April 23, 1876: “The silver birch droops and waves her long dusky tresses as a maiden with delicate white limbs and slender arms and hands lets down her long hair and combs it to the curve of her beautiful knees shrinking from sight and hiding herself in the dusky cloud and twilight of her tresses rippling to her feet.”