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The Power of Stealing Hearts

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In 1937 the South African-born novelist and poet William Plomer became publisher’s reader at Jonathan Cape, at the urging of Rupert Hart-Davis, then one of the firm’s directors. Being a publisher’s reader is a responsible job and in the long term should also be a rewarding one, not financially, but because of the satisfactions to be got from literary midwifery. The unavoidable downside is that nearly all the typescripts that have to be appraised are not of publishable quality. As Plomer says in his Autobiography, the reader ‘cannot help addressing himself to every single  new typescript at least with mild curiosity – which is only a very distant connection of hope’. However, he was lucky, because in September 1937 Cape received ‘from a man in Dorset a couple of old notebooks which he said were specimens of his uncle’s diary’.

Rupert Hart-Davis recalled Plomer’s immediate response: ‘Oh Lord, I’ll take this away and have a look at it.’ But when he came in the following week his one aim was to persuade Cape that it must publish the Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary and that he should make the selection from the twenty-two manuscript notebooks which covered the years 1870 to 1879. In this he was successful and Cape’s faith in his judgement was rewarded when it found itself with a great success on its hands after the first volume appeared in 1938. Two more followed in 1939 and 1940, and then a one-volume selection from the three in 1944. It is interesting to recall some of Plomer’s other recommendations to Cape: Alan Paton, Stevie Smith, John Fowles, John Betjeman and Vladimir Nabokov (these last two, instances where his advice was not taken). He also gave the thumbs down to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (the firm overruled him on both these) and Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment, even though Cape had published her previous novels. But from the

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In 1937 the South African-born novelist and poet William Plomer became publisher’s reader at Jonathan Cape, at the urging of Rupert Hart-Davis, then one of the firm’s directors. Being a publisher’s reader is a responsible job and in the long term should also be a rewarding one, not financially, but because of the satisfactions to be got from literary midwifery. The unavoidable downside is that nearly all the typescripts that have to be appraised are not of publishable quality. As Plomer says in his Autobiography, the reader ‘cannot help addressing himself to every single  new typescript at least with mild curiosity – which is only a very distant connection of hope’. However, he was lucky, because in September 1937 Cape received ‘from a man in Dorset a couple of old notebooks which he said were specimens of his uncle’s diary’.

Rupert Hart-Davis recalled Plomer’s immediate response: ‘Oh Lord, I’ll take this away and have a look at it.’ But when he came in the following week his one aim was to persuade Cape that it must publish the Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary and that he should make the selection from the twenty-two manuscript notebooks which covered the years 1870 to 1879. In this he was successful and Cape’s faith in his judgement was rewarded when it found itself with a great success on its hands after the first volume appeared in 1938. Two more followed in 1939 and 1940, and then a one-volume selection from the three in 1944. It is interesting to recall some of Plomer’s other recommendations to Cape: Alan Paton, Stevie Smith, John Fowles, John Betjeman and Vladimir Nabokov (these last two, instances where his advice was not taken). He also gave the thumbs down to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (the firm overruled him on both these) and Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment, even though Cape had published her previous novels. But from the commercial point of view all these are outweighed when his friend from their wartime days in Naval Intelligence, Ian Fleming, is put into the scale. Not a little of the appeal of Kilvert’s Diary for its early readership was the total contrast it provided to contemporary horrors. What could offer a better escape than the largely unruffled beauties, certainties and tranquillity of the high Victorian period to be found there, and in Trollope’s novels, equally popular in the war years? As Plomer wrote to the novelist Elizabeth Bowen when he first read the diary, ‘It’s as good as the Caledonian Market,’ then the happy hunting ground for Victoriana. Kilvert was born in 1840 the son of a Wiltshire clergyman, educated privately with an uncle in Bath and then at Wadham College, Oxford. In 1865 he became curate at Clyro in Radnorshire, a little to the north-west of Hay-on-Wye. In 1872 he returned to Langley Burrell near Chippenham in Wiltshire to be curate to his father, before going back to Wales in 1876 to be vicar of St Harmon’s in Radnorshire for a year and then of Bredwardine in Herefordshire. He married in 1879 and very soon after he had returned from his honeymoon he was dead of peritonitis. His was the quietest of short lives, passed among country people and county gentry; the Christian faith, whatever the challenges and doubts elsewhere, was still firmly in place on the Welsh border, as was a clearly stratified social order. The uncomplicated assurance of all this was echoed in Kilvert’s own character. One does not come to his diary for self-examinations or introverted probings, and the evidence of his extraordinary innocence is to be found throughout. It is rather for his responses to the world around him and to his parishioners that he is so highly valued. He is one of the most alert, attuned and sensitive recorders of nature, landscape and the elements. There is an electric, almost visionary immediacy and freshness to his descriptions that puts him among the very best of his kind: Dorothy Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Jefferies. Some samples, almost at random:
The trees blazed with the diamonds of the melting hoar frost, the wet village roads shone like silver below . . . Hay Church in a tender haze beyond the gleaming of the broad river reach and rapids . . . A rook shot up out of the valley and towered above the silver mist into the bright blue sky over the golden oaks . . . I looked out at dawn. The moon was entangled among light clouds in the North and made a golden maze and network across which slender poplars swayed and bowed themselves with a solemn and measured movement in the west wind. I stood upon the stepping stones at Trewilad to watch the little herd of cows undriven coming lazily through the brook home to be milked . . . standing still often in the shallow water as they forded the stream, and the air was full of sunshine and the honey scent of the charlock, and the hedges were luxuriant with the luscious sweetness of woodbine and the beauty of the stars of the deep red rose.
It is impossible to say which meant more to him – wild flowers or trees: hawthorn blossom and buttercups and ferns or, for instance, in Cwmgwanon Wood, ‘my old friends . . . prostrate and mutilated, a mournful scene of havoc, the road almost impassable for the limbs of the fallen giants’. He always stuck a flower or a leaf in a keyhole, ‘by way of leaving a card’, when he found no one at home. Sounds also mattered: bells, bees, insects, birdsong, frogs ‘croaking, snoring and bubbling in the pool’, rushing and running water, singing heard across the fields or a volunteer band across a valley, a harp and a violin in the next-door compartment of a train, children’s voices, dogs barking, a tapping woodpecker, the clangour of geese, neighbours out partridge shooting, the scythes of the fern cutters, the quite different rustle and whisper of a cornfield by night rather than by day. Kilvert had the almost-vanished luxury of real darkness, so the moon and stars, the scarcely set sun at midsummer, a glowing forge, a fire or a lamp seen through a window where the curtains weren’t drawn all gave pleasure and punctuation to the night. He and his country contemporaries lived much closer to the weather than we do, its constant interference with their lives making it a real and important presence. When it was good, Kilvert positively enjoyed it. When bad, it was impossible to ignore. On Septuagesima Sunday, 1870, ‘when I got to the chapel my beard, moustaches and whiskers were so stiff with ice I could hardly open my mouth and my beard was frozen onto my mackintosh . . . The baby was baptized in ice which was broken and swimming about in the font.’ On Christmas Day that year
I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces . . . I had to collect the floating pieces and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge . . . The morning was most brilliant. Walked to the Sunday School and the road sparkled with millions of rainbows.
He speaks more than once of ‘this vicious, poisonous E. wind’. May 1872 he calls ‘the bitterest bleakest May I ever saw and I have seen some bad ones . . . The hawthorn bushes are white with may and snow at the same time.’ The love and attention which Kilvert lavished on his physical surroundings did not mean for a moment that he neglected his charges, or found them a burden. He was assiduous in his parish visiting, bringing medicine and comfort to, as well as reading to, the sick and elderly, superintending the school, Sunday school and savings bank, chivvying backsliders, dispensing charity, often one suspects from his own pocket, conducting services, preaching, performing at penny readings, reproving drunken men, consoling the bereaved, reproaching fallen women (‘A big girl had of course “cracked a commandment”, run away from her place and come home in the family way – the usual old story’). To take a single month, October 1870:
At the Bronith spring a woman crippled with rheumatism and crying with the pain, had filled her tin pail and was trying to crawl home with it. So I carried the pail to her house . . . Visited Edward Evans in the dark hole in the hovel roof which does duty for a bedroom, and a gaunt black and white ghostly cat was stalking about looking as if she were only waiting for the sick man to die, that she might begin upon him . . . Read to Sarah Probert the story of the Raising of Lazarus. Hannah came in and sat by the fire listening with grunts of assent between the whiffs of her short pipe . . . Hannah had preserved for me some Columbine seeds and some seed of the blue flower Scabious called ‘Kiss at the garden gate’.
He did, however, need an antidote to the constant demands put upon him by parish work, what he called ‘villaging’. This he found in long, solitary walks, often ‘with a flask of ginger wine in my pocket and a sandwich of bread and bacon’. ‘I like wandering about these lonely, waste and ruined places. There dwells among them a spirit of quiet and gentle melancholy more congenial and akin to my own spirits than full life and gaiety and noise.’ He was also inconsistent enough to enjoy croquet and archery and skating parties, picnics and dinners with iced claret cup, champagne, salmon and strawberries, thrown by the local gentry. When lawn tennis, or sphairistike as it was first called, arrived in 1874, he was happy to try that too, but not the newly introduced bathing costume. The very depth of the affection and love which he inspired in his flock, and which he returned in full measure to them, had something mysterious about it. He asked himself, ‘What have I done? What am I that people should so care for me?’ A cousin said that he was rather like a large Newfoundland dog, lavish in his all-round devotion, which was repaid in full. And when he was finally leaving Clyro in 1872, weighed down with parting presents, a parishioner said to him, ‘If gold could keep you with us, we would gather a weight of gold,’ while the schoolchildren wept openly. There is an emotional surcharge to his encounters with beauty whether in nature or in girls, of any age. He is regularly swept off his feet, spellbound, and having the same effect on the female of the moment. ‘It is a strange and terrible gift, this power of stealing hearts and exciting such love,’ he says at one point. The problem is that some of his descriptions of the younger girls and of his feelings for them set alarm bells ringing among us, a generation super-sensitized to paedophilia. Are we right to see matters in this light? Must Kilvert be placed in the same group as Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin and Francis Thompson? Or is the fact that he could set his feelings down in the way he does a testimony to his innocence? Readers must judge, or suspend judgement, for themselves. Any risk that matters might descend into a permanent emotional hothouse is avoided by the constant intrusion of the realistic and the down-to-earth. There is an early entry: ‘Shall I confess that I travelled ten miles today over the hills for a kiss, to kiss that child’s sweet face?’ When he called again a week later he found that child and her sisters helping to castrate lambs. There is the mad woman of Cwmgwanon: ‘They keep her locked up in a bedroom alone, or she will come down among them stark naked.’ Or there is the Sunday he ‘preached extempore on the Good Samaritan from the Gospel for the day. A red cow with a foolish white face came up to the window by the desk and stared in while I was preaching.’ Then there was the man driving eight small white pigs back from Hay Fair with a sheep dog. ‘The dog was very kind to the pigs, too tender the man said. He took a pig’s ear or hind leg in his mouth and pressed it gently.’ At a smart dinner party, ‘the Lieutenant found his dress hussar boot very tight at dessert and in great agony he begged my pen knife . . . He slit his boot up the side and found immediate relief.’ On holiday in Cornwall, ‘The vicar of St Ives says the smell of fish there is sometimes so terrific as to stop the church clock.’ The last strand to be found in the diary is provided by Kilvert’s interest in the old days and ways, the stories of fairies and hauntings, giants, feuds, kidnappings, suicides and murders, the old cattle drovers, doings during the Civil War. ‘Boys would wear their hats the wrong way lest they should be enticed into the fairy rings and made to dance.’ ‘A lady was walking on a hill in Flintshire when she met Prince Caradoc who wanted to be rude with her but she spurned him. Whereupon he drew his sword and cut off her head.’ A veteran of the Peninsular War tells how he frightened off the Spanish wolves at night by snapping the flintlock of his musket to make a flash in the pan. In an early entry in March 1870 Kilvert tells how ‘A bird singing unseen reminded me how the words of a good man live after he is silent and out of sight – “He being dead, yet speaketh”.’ This could not be more apt for him and is, indeed, the inscription to be found on his grave in Bredwardine churchyard. When William Plomer speculated in 1957 or early 1958 that ‘Perhaps some day some rich foundation may subsidise the publication of the diary in toto; it will then be possible to judge my abridgement of it,’ he was not to know that by the end of 1958 all but three of the notebooks containing it would have been burned by Kilvert’s collateral descendants. They were presumably alarmed by the inevitable comments in the press over the years prompted by Kilvert’s entries about young girls and sought somehow, with this destructive and futile gesture, to purify him posthumously in the flames.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 19 © Roger Hudson 2007


About the contributor

Roger Hudson has read and edited for publishers all his life, and was lucky enough to find and shepherd into print a few good diaries, collections of letters and memoirs in his time.

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