In praise of Francis Kilvert

A heartfelt tribute to Francis Kilvert in this excerpt from my book on Hay-on-Wye…

The Curate of Clyro’s Diaries are well known and greatly loved. He being dead, yet speaketh is the apt inscription on his grave at Bredwardine. He records many visits to Hay and his affection for the surrounding countryside and its people make moving reading: “Good Friday, 15 April 1870. The walk across the fields in the glowing hot sunshine, the country basked lovely and peaceful. I saw one man ploughing on Ty-yr-mynach and met no one else till I came to Hay Bridge where the long empty sunny white road stretched away straight over the river to the town, the picturesque little border town with its slate-roofed houses climbing and shining up the hill crested by the dark long mass of the old ivy-grown castle with its huge war-broken tower.”

Kilvert is certainly one of the great English diarists and his writing has been compared favourably with that of Proust, Pepys, Amiel, Gerard Manley Hopkins and D. H. Lawrence. It is worth remembering, though, that we would know nothing about him – and there would be no Kilvert ‘industry’ – were it not for the publisher’s reader at Jonathan Cape who discovered him, William Plomer. In Chapter 13 of his memoirs, At Home, Plomer recounts this wonderful discovery, setting the scene by telling us what a reader might reasonably expect to find on his desk on any given morning: ‘experimental verse by some boy or girl’, ‘a charwoman’s memoirs, or some crazy dotard’s demonstration, by means of numerology or cryptograms, that Bacon was the Dark Lady of the Sonnets’, or ‘the diary of a carriage tour kept by a young lady who visited the field of Waterloo’. In the light of all this, he explains, to receive a couple of old notebooks from a man in Dorset ‘was not in itself therefore to feel pressure on the trigger of expectation’. But when Plomer opened the notebooks, he saw all the splendour of the Black Mountains revealed, all the passionate inner life of the diarist laid bare, all the idiosyncrasies and customs of his flock described with love, humour and eloquence. He is human, a man as much as a priest; he relishes the ‘wild fine eyes’ of his parishioner Miss Meredith Brown: “The sun shone golden on the lawn between the lengthening shadows and the evening sunlight dappled the bright green on the front of the Rectory with rich spots of light and shade. It lighted the broad gold links of the necklace and the graceful crimson figure of the dark handsome girl, and into the midst of the game came the tabby cat carrying in her mouth her tabby kitten which she dropped on the lawn and looked round proudly for applause.”

As a priest Kilvert had to contend with the consequences of crippling poverty in his parish and the paralysing despair it engendered. “Oh, how little we know of the agonies that are being endured within a few yards of us” he records. He tells us, reporting the words of his parishioner Mr Wall, how an old man, no longer fit for work, lost his self-respect with terrible consequences. “The old man could not shut the barn door from the inside, so he had gone into the beast house and had shut himself in. Then he had leaned his stick up in a corner quite tidy. He had then taken out a razor, unsheathed it, putting the sheath back into his pocket. He was lying on the floor on his face when we saw him. The master turned him over. Heaven send I never see such a sight again. His head was nearly cut off, both arteries were cut through, the tongue was unrooted and, (perhaps in his agony), he had put his hand into the wound and torn his “keck” and everything out.”

So both beauty and tragedy are captured in the pages of the diary. Kilvert’s arcadia is no mere pleasing literary relic of a long-gone rural past. His great compassion, his high good humour, the uninhibited freshness with which he engages with life – all these mark him out as a man for all time, forever striding purposeful and jubilant across the fields to Hay.

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