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Diarist Francis Kilvert’s vivid image of a Victorian Easter
11:00am Sunday 20th April 2014 in News
IT was said that Victorian clergyman Francis Kilvert’s diaries reflected his strong love of life and landscape. Here, Nigel relates how he presented for posterity the celebration of an Easter long ago.
THE entries in his journal in early April suggested the diarist lived in an area that was close to being a “hell-hole”.
We were told that a thug was sentenced to six weeks’ hard labour for assaulting a licensee by kicking him violently and viciously in his “bad place”.
And on April 12, 1870, the writer expresses relief at how the Swan public house was marvellously quiet and peaceful – “no noise, rowing or fighting whatever and no men, as there sometimes are, lying by the roadside all night drunk, cursing, muttering, maundering and vomiting”.
But within a few days a completely different picture is painted by clergyman Francis Kilvert of the Herefordshire/Wales border that he served. With his description of the goings on at Easter he demonstrated that, at times, the area could be serene and joyous.
Kilvert’s Diary has become established as a minor classic. As the editor of the work, William Plomer, wrote: “Kilvert has the uncommon gift of making one see vividly what he describes. His detailed picture of life in the English countryside in mid-Victorian times is unmatched”.
As a faithful country clergyman he moved with equal ease among people of all classes, and by all was welcomed.
Life there could be brutal and tough with the prevalence of premature death, poverty, squalor and the harshest of weather.
On Christmas Day, 1878, he conducted the funeral of eight-year-old Davie Davies with snow driving in blinding clouds and the boy’s father, a shepherd, “crying bitterly for the loss of his little lamb”.
And in 1870 he visited the hillside home of old soldier John Morgan who relates to him how in the Peninsular War he saw a cannon ball decapitate a colleague. Five minutes later the severed head’s face was still twitching.
But there were many days, too, when life was kind. A curate at Clyro, Kilvert spent Good Friday, 1870, taking cross buns to five widows in the area. The following day, Easter Eve, he awoke at 4.30. “...and there was a glorious sight in the sky, one of the grand spectacles of the universe.
There was not a cloud in the deep wonderful blue of the heavens. Along the Eastern horizon there was a clear deep intense glow, neither scarlet nor crimson but a mixture of both.
“This red glow was very narrow, almost like a riband and it suddenly shaded off into the deep blue. Opposite in the west the full moon shining in all its brilliance was setting upon the hill beyond the church.
“Thus the glow in the east bathed the church in a warm rich tinted light, while the moon from the west was casting strong shadows. The moon dropped quickly down behind the hill bright to the last, till only her rim could be seen sparkling among the tops of the orchards on the hill.”
He later recorded: “The customary beautiful Easter Eve idyll had fairly begun and people kept arriving from all parts with flowers to dress the graves.
“Children were coming from the town and neighbouring villages with baskets of flowers and knives to cut holes in the turf.
“The roads were lively with people coming and going and the churchyard a busy scene with women and children and a few men moving about among the tombstones and kneeling down beside the green mounds flowering the graves”.
We learn how little Annie Dyke stood among the graves with her basket of flowers. She had a pure, sweet, grave face and clustering brown curls shaded by her straw hat.
It was her birthday and Kilvert, telling her how she and the cuckoo came together, gave her a small ivory brooch he had bought at Crystal Palace. He described Easter Day, 1870, as the happiest, brightest and most beautiful he had ever spent.
He was out and about soon after 6am gathering primroses.
And so life went on. On Tuesday, April 26, we read how old John Morgan was tottering about his garden on crutches, trying to hoe the earth between the potato rows. Kilvert took the hoe and worked until he had finished the patch.
Ever observant, he told his diary: “The magnificent great old pear tree opposite the vicarage is in bloom”.
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