Ronald Blythe

  • The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802 by Reverend James Woodforde, edited by John Beresford
    Oxford, 364 pp, £65.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 19 811485 0
  • 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, £10.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 85613 336 1
  • 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, £10.00, June 1981, ISBN 0 85613 335 3

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in