By Haydn Brown.
In the winter of 1932, Charles David Abbott observed that it is “Through the diaries of Parson Woodforde, that readers are given the opportunity to not only increase their knowledge of a departed age, but also to live among the fields and hedgerows and cottages of Georgian England.”
He does not say that his comment rings particularly true to those living in Norfolk where much of his diary was based. However, he does tell us that Woodforde’s 18th century was never poor in having literary memorials: London exists forever in the pages of Boswell; the upper circles will always gossip and there is much intrigue in Walpole’s letters; 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 thanks to Parson Woodforde, we have ‘what Cowper was too great to produce’. The Parson paints a life as it actually was in hundreds of rural parishes throughout England.
The Parson Woodforde Diaries begin on 21 July, 1759 – when, at the age of nineteen years, he records being made a Scholar of New College – readers immediately 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……”
On another eventful occasion, the evidence was 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 Peckham’s Bed in Triumph. Baker laid with me.”
Abbott, in his own words, goes on to say that James Woodforde was 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 was 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.
He remains 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 touched him. He has no doubt of Anglican doctrine, and 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 neighbours 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, and it is all a part of his simple nature. Everywhere he shows himself the wholesome, generous, affectionate, lovable gentleman who, we like to believe, is the typical country clergyman. We may therefore be amazed that so much good-nature never brought him a wife, but we soon grow accustomed to his continued state of bachelorhood.
It was on the question of Woodforde’s love life that Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) had a particular view, as expressed in The Common Reader, Second Series:
“The Parson’s love affair, however, was nothing very tremendous. Once when he was a young man in Somerset, he liked to walk over to Shepton and to visit a certain “sweet tempered” Betsy White who lived there. He had a great mind “to make a bold stroke” and ask her to marry him. He went so far, indeed, as to propose marriage “when opportunity served”, and Betsy was willing. But he delayed; time passed; four years passed indeed, and Betsy went to Devonshire, met a Mr. Webster, who had five hundred pounds a year, and married him. When James Woodforde met them in the turnpike road, he could say little, “being shy”, but to his diary he remarked — and this no doubt was his private version of the affair ever after:
“she has proved herself to me a mere jilt”.
But he was a young man then, and as time went on, we cannot help suspecting that he was glad to consider the question of marriage shelved once and for all so that he might settle down with his niece Nancy at Weston Longeville, and give himself simply and solely, every day and all day, to the great business of living. Again, what else to call it we do not know.”
Such was the Parson’s disposition when he arrived at his parsonage of Weston Longeville in 1776, and remained there, in spite of the later irritations of poor health, during a twenty-six-year incumbency. At Weston Longeville, we come to know it intimately, as if we had been part of the Parson’s household. The local and domestic events are all chronicled, quite without any attempt to dramatise 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 frogs…….”
The neighbours begin to call, particularly the Custances 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 was to suffer 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 his daily routine is unaltered, 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 restraint on truth – we see them with all their jealousies, their humorous conceits, their pride and their affections, completely unadulterated. Woodforde 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 anything, 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.
Life, of course, goes placidly on in the 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.
Distant rumblings, of course, are heard from America and the Parson is occasionally aghast at the lawlessness of French mobs. As England becomes more and more involved in continental entanglements, even the Parson feels the shock of increased taxes. But such matters do not seriously interfere with his ways – including those of 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!
Abbott wonders why the Parson’s unflagging repetition of daily small beer does not grow tiresome, and perhaps we are hoodwinked into thinking that our hunger for knowledge of a remote time is insatiable; but this is not the real reason, for we read the Diaries and are disappointed that there is not more, because Parson Woodforde in his unthinking, artless way has reproduced real life. He never repeats a conversation, and yet each individual from mere reiteration emerges as a definite personality. We learn to know every guest at every dinner, so frequently do they 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.
Finally, Abbott concludes by saying that 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 words of his last entry in his diary, and the grief of the one entry from Nancy’s diary’:
“17 October 1802: We breakfasted, dined, Very weak this Morning, scarce able to put on my Cloaths and with great difficulty, get down Stairs with help – Mr. Dade read Prayers & Preached this Morning at Weston Church – Nancy at Church – Mr. and Mrs. Custance & Lady Bacon at Church – Dinner today Rost Beef & Lamb.”
“January 1, . Saturday. Weston. Norfolk. This morning about a quarter after Ten o’clock died my ever-dear Uncle James Woodforde whose loss I shall lament all the days of my life…….”
A full written text by Charles David Abbott, available at:
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