The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802 
by Reverend James Woodforde, edited by John Beresford.
Oxford, 364 pp., £65, June 1981, 0 19 811485 0
Show More
The English Countrywoman: Her Life in Farmhouse and Field from Tudor Times to the Victorian Age 
by G.E. Fussell and K.R. Fussell.
Orbis, 221 pp., £10, June 1981, 0 85613 336 1
Show More
The English Countrywoman: Her Life and Work from Tudor Times to the Victorian Age 
by G.E. Fussell and K.R. Fussell.
Orbis, 172 pp., £10, June 1981, 0 85613 335 3
Show More
Show More

James Woodforde’s diary retains its lumbering, unremitting interest. The obvious question is: what made him keep it? To tell us about his times, or to tell his page about himself? These are the reasons why most men keep diaries, but neither was the compulsion behind this one. This is perhaps why, with this latest edition of Parson Woodforde, we push along beside a writer who, one imagines, would not have cared to be designated social historian or confessional writer, but who nevertheless, deliberately or artlessly, reveals himself and his age with a starkness akin to the hard Norfolk light falling on a ditch. Here is life in its abundance, here is clear-cut order, here is every local specimen, the admired and the despised, here the useful and the worthless, and here the nasty, with everything swirling along on the slowest of currents. The Rector of Weston is a realist with no great literary skill to lead him into deeper waters, and so (in the study where he wrote all those sermons whose contents he never divulges?) he records the rural Georgian surface, bland reflections, delightful encounters, painful discoveries and scummy edges. And why? Perhaps to provide an affidavit of his existence.

His housekeeper – niece Nancy kept a journal too. Did they read bits aloud to each other? If so, it should be added that there appears to be nothing overtly discreet about Parson Woodforde: the reader of his Diary never gets the sense that he is holding back on anything.

We read Woodforde for his ample domesticity. His was never the odour of sanctity but of kitchen fumes. That little rectory with its half-dozen boy and girl servants, ceaseless roasts, week-long wash-days once every five weeks, and countless callers, was no place for a contemplative. Its owner flings open its door on a far from spiritual scene. In any case, ‘duty’ was the password for himself and his household. If one had done one’s duty, there was no need to say more than that. Not once in the course of these five volumes does he so much as mention the name of Christ, and it is clear that his calling induces anxiety and inhibition the moment it threatens to burst from its professional bands. His great virtue is that he rarely moralises. When so many country clergy were not so much Christians as state-licensed moralists, Woodforde’s rejection of this easy business is an attractive trait. It could have been inertia, of course. His response to anything except dinner is apt to be low-key. Yet, whilst he can take all kinds of gruesome 18th-century deaths and entrances in his stride, and knows a lot about ‘real life’ and the incorrigibility of those who live it, there is an admirable humanity in the way in which he is never shocked or condemning. To balance this, it must be added that the constant hanging of young men for this or that on Norwich’s Castle Hill doesn’t disturb him either. Woodforde is the classic mild Tory gentleman who condemns little and examines nothing. For him, this world is the antechamber to somewhere happier, though not necessarily more reasonable.

On the credit side, Woodforde is modest, affectionate, and wholly without snobbery, and while some may say that in a self-portrait he is bound to be so, it has to be remembered that in a diary stretching across nearly fifty years a great many unflattering lines will usually have crept in to balance any attempt by the writer to present his good side only. And then there are things which are sins to us but which were nothing to be ashamed of in the 1780s and 90s – gluttony, for instance.

John Beresford, who edited the Diary just after the First World War, sees it all quite differently, and his Introduction and Notes are a period piece in themselves. For Beresford, the Norfolk parson was ‘that very rare and beautiful bird – a typical Englishman ... who loved his father and his family and his home with a completely contented love; he loved good food and good drink; he loved sport, especially coursing hares and fishing; he loved a country life; he loved established institutions – therefore he will be found, on the one hand, reverently keeping the religious anniversary of the ‘martyrdom’ of King Charles I, on January 30th of each year, and, on the other, on the side of liberty and against King George III in the Wilkes controversy ... he liked Lords but he is no snob; he liked women but not in the amorous way ... and he is merciful to all animals; finally in religion he loved the quiet way ... ’ This we discover at the end of the Introduction is how Beresford wanted Woodforde to appear, for these five volumes are but a fraction of the whole and have been arranged ‘so as to present a complete story of the principal events in his life, and I have endeavoured to select passages which throw a particular light either on his own character, or the character of his family and his neighbours, or on contemporary events, or on the social life of his time.’ Thus, with the best will in the world, and considerable editorial skill, Beresford, a turn-of-the-20th-century man with his generation’s ‘robust’ view of the countryside and Anglicanism, in introducing the Rector of Weston to us, partially obscures him. This, of course, is bound to happen when any diary, however tedious long passages of it seem, is trimmed. The latest reader to come to James Woodforde is unlikely to find him ‘that very rare and beautiful bird – a typical Englishman’. He will find him cautious and, from what he knows of the Georgians, all too commonplace. What will impress him is the purity with which the soul of such a clergyman and his parish is revealed. The novels and plays of the period, in which such figures abound, certainly fail to provide anything as intense. Paintings alone catch a glimpse of it, the complacent ordinariness, and the expressions which people wore before the Industrial Revolution fixed the national features in an altogether different mould. Woodforde is capable of effects which in their domestic actuality take on a species of glory, like a jug in a Chardin. He also has a style which is so unadorned as to be a kind of scrubbed-kitchen English, fresh, sweet and useful.

The Diary begins in October 1758, when Woodforde became an undergraduate at Oxford, and closes on 17 October 1802, three months before he died, its last words very suitably being ‘Dinner to day, Rost Beef, &c’. Although most of it is now identified with the college living of Weston, Norfolk which he accepted in 1774, it is by no means confined to this village, and takes in extensive views of Bath, London, his native Somerset and particularly Norwich. Both the Somerset and the Oxford entries give a remarkable and colourful picture of what it was like to be an ordinand by birth, as it were, for this descendant of a long line of clergy was assumed to have a genetic vocation. So no spiritual self-examinings at the university, only drink, boisterousness, bear-baitings, and the beginnings of the fascination with hangings, and with the theatre, which was to last him all his life. One or two girls intrude, but quite asexually. And he hasn’t been writing his Diary for more than a year or two when the reason for its hypnotic power becomes apparent – its ceaseless statement of sharp little facts:

  Gave away my snuff-box to a Particular Friend ... I laid in Mr Nicholls rooms with Mr Hearst, who turned me out of Bed, and locked me out of the room naked ... My great Aunt Ann Woodforde died of the small-pox at Bicester this morning ... The Bursars gave us Scholars 8 Bottles of Port Wine to drink at dinner time ... Went and play’d Crikett being the first time of our Clubb’s playing ... Hearst, Bell and myself, being in Beer, went under Whitmore’s window, and abused him very much ... I began the Epistles of the G[reek] Testament to learn and read for Orders ...

Very soon a preoccupation with certain themes begins to crop up and because of Woodforde’s simple accuracy and indifference to analysis and philosophical elaboration, let alone literary effect, we know that on some subjects we shall conclude by knowing nearly as much as if we had been alive in his day. In the first place, everything to do with the Church is stiflingly dreary. It is God in a full-bottomed wig, legalistic, fusty, frowning. Woodforde does his duty by Him, and no more. There is never a hint of that divine enchantment which we get in Herbert or Kilvert, or, though a little on the dreadful side, in Hardy. Woodforde does a few good things which we might resuscitate, such as always having six poor people at his table for Christmas, but he can’t be called holy.

When you live unmarried with a niece and five servants it is not like living with your own big family, and the Diary is often at its most comically eloquent when dealing with Nancy, Ben, Elizabeth, Will, Lizzy, Jack and their successors. Though the master-servant relationship is quite unequivocal, there is not a hint of that reciprocal class-consciousness which was to preoccupy the Victorians. To Woodforde and Nancy the servants are ‘our folks’, and the only reason for firing them, and then with no great wrath, is when the boys get cheeky and the girls pregnant. There was something about Woodforde which brought out sauce in young men, and, presumably, something in the food-ridden climate of Weston Rectory which made the maids breed. His favourite servant is Briton Scurl, who, although now and then dismissed – his reaction was to go ‘into the garden to work singing out very loud’ – stayed on until his last duty was to lie on the sofa beside his dying employer. Briton (real Christian name ‘Bretingham’, but too fanciful for a servant) emerges over the years as the indispensable one, and quite unlike little John, who is thrust out of the Rectory as ‘the most saucy swearing lad that ever we had!’ But there is pride when Tim joins up to fight the French and returns home in uniform, and common sense as much as humility when the Parson himself takes a hand in preparing the dinner as the maids are away scouring the church after its whitewash. An entry towards the beginning of the incumbency suggests that everybody forgot his place now and then. ‘Nancy and Betsie Davie locked me in the great parlour and both fell on me and pulled my wig almost to pieces. I paid them for it however.’ Also everybody got very drunk and it was all very well to write that ‘Nat Webb pushed about the bottle pretty brisk’ – so did Briton and his Reverence.

Soon there was Nemesis. Bleeding piles, ‘gout flying about me’, and much else that did not respond to copious swallowings of rhubarb. Woodforde is an authority on the general malaise which follows guzzling and inertia, and a great writer on dyspepsia. As he never considers cause and effect, and never says anything about trying to diet or give up the sixth glass, it seems that he didn’t equate the state of his health with what he ate and drank, which was normal in middle-class 18th-century England but scarcely understandable to us. ‘Everything is very disagreeable to me. I don’t know what occasions it.’ This from a man who eats pounds of meat and drinks pints of port every day. No wonder the ‘Mince Pye rose oft’ and there is so much mention of ‘going to Jericho’ – the bog.

The social round is charming. The same characters move in and out of each other’s lives every day of the week. It is like some rich novel: the more one encounters them, even in trifling matters, the more beloved they become, the squire and his lady, the Bacons, the Donnes (descended from the poet), the Du Quesnes, the Howes, his Sister Pounsett, and hundreds more – all immersed in farming and shipping and parties and funerals and talking very little about money. Naturally, Parson Woodforde is at his very best when commenting on the rural year, which as part-farmer himself he does with authority. This is where his Diary flowers, not at the altar. But he is not an idyllist. Horrible things happen. He has to bury ‘a Mrs Towers who killed herself by raking’, pray for labourers who are ‘almost dead by drinking’, kill 200 toads by pouring boiling water over them, and feed the starving. But when things are good, he can rise to the occasion and show us a rural civilisation which was infinitely better than it was to be a century or so later. England is less crowded. Everybody, even city-dwellers, was essentially informed and motivated by the rural cycle. Woodforde’s genius of a sort was to transcribe this country progress with humdrum fidelity, with no conception that his own orthodoxy might look odd when set out on such an extravagantly unthinking scale, and with an almost alarming ability to thrust his readers up to their eyes, ears and nostrils into the reign of Farmer George. The Diary is less a documentary than a deceptively simple key to long-closed rooms. Although he believes that he is a recorder, the way Woodforde writes makes us join in talk, work, travel, weather, politics, parties, illnesses which are happening, rather than once happened. But what went on in him emotionally below all this is anyone’s guess. He is his time’s clerical façade personified. Go to Woodforde for tithings, news of crimes, ‘spurious’ children, rough pastimes, raree-shows, Church of England smugness, 18th-century prices, village administration, and the latest about riots, the King’s madness, the French Revolution. People who drink a lot soon learn how to shut their eyes to what alcohol reveals, and Woodforde draws a decent veil over the deeper motives of human nature, his own included.

The Fussells’ English Countrywoman was first published nearly thirty years ago, to be followed soon after by their English Countryman, and the reappearance of these now celebrated books is a very necessary one. For not only is it a relief to discover that what was said then needs no editing now, and that its impact is as immediate as ever it was, but it remains a salutary matter to find out what a debt so many subsequent agricultural economists, social historians, and village writers generally, owe to this modest husband-and-wife team. In their work, as in that of the Hammonds, can be traced the seed of attitudes and stances which have found their way into countless rural studies ever since. One reason must be that the Fussells’ own long lives – George was born in Hardy’s Dorset before the publication of Jude the Obscure and is happily alive at this moment in Gainsborough’s Suffolk – made them witnesses to as much agrarian change as any man is likely to experience, thus providing a degree of authority and insight which gives their work its special advantage. But there is, besides, the graceful literary handling of their stackyards of material. The narration really moves. Harvests come and harvests go, as do kings and wars and fashions, but the fields themselves remain and each generation gives them pretty well its all.

Our farming fathers and mothers had a hard slog, one way and another: the exquisite Stubbs haymakers and reapers on the jackets of these volumes are an artistic licence, if you like. Life was indeed simple, though intricately so in a way we can now scarcely comprehend. Confronted by its barely altering rules over four centuries, we can see its admirable, awful strength. A good test of the Fussells’ authority is to set their Georgian chapters alongside some of Parson Woodforde’s pages and to note how imperceptibly their evocation and his artless contemporaneity blend. Maybe because it has always been the farmer and labourer who have hogged the daylight from Tusser onwards, it is their wives and daughters, the English Countrywoman, who have inspired the more impressive of these two excellent studies. The heights and depths of their condition escape the critique of today’s feminism, but are challenging enough for all that.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences