Book review: ‘Kilvert’s Diary’ by Francis Kilvert

The diary of a Victorian country curate.
Kilvert’s Diary

I’d known about this classic for years, but had somehow never got round to reading it. Francis Kilvert was a country curate, and later vicar, who began keeping a diary in 1870, which he maintained until shortly before his tragically premature death nine years later. During this time, Kilvert moved between various parishes, but the majority of the time covered by the diary was spent in his beloved Welsh village of Clyro near Hay-on-Wye on the other side of the Welsh-English border.

I thought the diary took a little while to get going, but once Kilvert hits his stride, this book is an absolute joy. It’s packed full of observations about local characters and customs, with occasional references to national and international events. There is also plenty of gentle humour contained in its pages, and reminiscences from older generations.

Passages I particularly enjoyed included: memories of encounters with William Wordsworth; Kilvert receiving one of the newfangled post cards; a woman in labour being made to move to a different room in the house so that her child would be born on the English side of the border; a funeral where the lead-lined coffin proved difficult to lift; an accidental visit to a pornographer; some scathing comments on bagpipes; a parishioner wishing the vicar good health when receiving the communion wine; a visit to an aunt in a private lunatic asylum; and an unexplained ‘splendid romp with Polly Taverner’.

“Why do I keep this voluminous journal?” wonders Kilvert in a rare moment of self-reflection. “I can hardly tell. Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it almost seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record as this, and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me.”

Amuse and interest it certainly does.

On a less happy note, several passages in the diary make uncomfortable reading for people with modern sensibilities. Kilvert certainly had what we would nowadays consider an unhealthy preoccupation with young girls, and seems to have been titillated by the idea of flagellation. It seems clear from the diary that nothing untoward ever happened, but his evident enthusiasm for these taboo subjects is disquieting.

Other than that, Kilvert’s Diary is an absolute joy to read. Highly recommended.

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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