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Peer Reviewed

Kilvert's Diary and Landscape

Charlotte Fairlie

John Toman. Kilvert’s Diary and Landscape. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2009. 402 pp. $57.50 (p).

Rev. by Charlotte Fairlie
Cassandra Austen is remembered as a prominent saboteur of literary history, but at least she did not burn Jane’s novels. Essex Hope, however, niece of Francis Kilvert and another wielder of a box of matches, got rid of most of her uncle’s journals, the primary text for which he is remembered. Her act has deprived us of a fuller understanding of both his complex, controversial personality and the vanishing rural society he recorded. Francis Kilvert (1840-1879) served as an evangelical parson in several country parishes in the 1860s and ’70s, mostly in the Welsh borders. Covering the years between 1870 and his premature death in 1879, the Diary chronicles long walks around his parish; interactions with parishioners; and journeys or “pilgrimages” to places like Tintagel, Stonehenge, and Snowdonia. Since its partial publication in the late 1930s, critics have praised it for its liveliness and the insights it provides into Victorian England and Wales. Kilvert himself, however, while revealing a winning personality, has been disparaged for everything from his over-use of adjectives to his allegedly questionable reading tastes to his even more questionable taste for young girls.
The textual issues surrounding the Diary date from shortly after Kilvert’s death, when his wife of just four weeks cut out references both to herself and his previous love interest. The notebooks remained with the family until a nephew sent them to publisher Jonathan Cape, where they fell into the hands of the poet, William Plomer. He arranged for their transcription, published a heavily-edited three-volume edition between 1938 and 1940, and then, according to Mark Bostridge, promptly lost the transcript.@ It was at this point that Essex Hope, having inherited the notebooks, chose to destroy most of them. Only three survive (now safe in university libraries). Given the battered state of Kilvert's Diary, John Toman's reading is remarkably comprehensive.  Organized thematically, Kilvert’s Diary and Landscape examines the Diary and its author in the context of family, religious, and literary history, expanding our understanding not just of Kilvert but also of the Victorian mind.
It does not take too many pages of reading to realize that the word “link,” which Toman uses repeatedly, is key to his analysis. It crops up in its various grammatical forms at least 36 times in fewer than 300 pages, accompanied equally frequently by synonyms, such as “connection” and “association.” Toman also develops the concept metaphorically: the links often take the form of “strands” or “threads,” “interwining” to create a “web” through which Kilvert understood the world. Toman argues that the Diary is “all about establishing or re-establishing relationship,” and the relationships—the links—are intricate (296). Within the text, which itself fuses walking, writing, and self-discovery, Kilvert describes his “encounters” with other people, meetings which illustrate that “hearts are linked to hearts” (296). He draws specific connections between, for example, “himself and the Israelites,” the Gower peninsula and the Garden of Eden; and an ancient “standing stone” and a “ruined cottage” (152, 270, 230). These serve as more concrete manifestations of the larger abstract connections he makes between nature and the self, between character and landscape, between morality and landscape, between spirituality and imagination, between past and present, between living and dead, between pagan and Christian. Linking such binaries blurs boundaries, and as Toman points out, Kilvert was a man on the border in more than one sense. Geographically, he lived between and England and Wales. As an educated man with a modest parson’s income, he hovered between classes, neither peasant nor toff. He also teetered perilously on the border between purity and sin, or as Kilvert himself puts it, “an angel satyr walks these hills” (190).
Contemporary critics cannot assess Kilvert without addressing the troubling passages in which he shares kisses, caresses, loving looks, lap-sitting, and “romps” with invariably beautiful pubescent girls. Citing James R. Kincaid, Toman places these episodes in the context of the Victorian emphasis on purity and yet another link, that between sexual innocence and the erotic:
Ironically, the heavy stress placed on the purity of children and of women by Christianity in fact gave rise to paedophilia in that, by associating purity with children, it made a connection between purity and the sexually prohibited child. Thus ‘purity was . . . defined by and riddled with sexual desire.” (211)
He goes on to argue that it was for these reasons that Kilvert was so taken with Wordsworth’s Lucy Gray, herself a “’boundary being’ on the edge of the human and natural world” (205). Attracted by the “wild rich nature” of the local girls, Kilvert “linked them to Lucy Gray,” an association that enabled him to rationalize his feelings:
His innocent, semi-erotic ‘romps’ with girls were often overlaid by his fear that sometime in the future girls would be seduced and corrupted, their innocence destroyed. It was an inevitable tragic and Romantic tension. One way out of it was to project their primal innocence into a poetic and imaginative ideal such as Lucy Gray. (209, 214)
In defending him, Toman creates links of his own, connecting Kilvert’s text with both Victorian ideals and Romanticism.
An astonishing number of contextual links such as these form the tightly-woven fabric of this book. Centering himself firmly in a close reading of the primary text, Toman traces the many “strands” that influenced Kilvert—Quakerism, Methodism, Romanticism, the Celtic Revival, Arthurian legend, folklore, the picturesque, Howitt, Wesley, Wordsworth, Gray, Cowper, Gilpin, Tennyson, and more—explaining how they interrelate and convincingly revealing how they shaped Kilvert’s thinking. Kilvert, then, functions as a focal point or hub, poised in the 1870s, inheriting the past and leaning into the future; the strands lead into to him and out of him. He is both storyteller, looking back to ballads, folktales, and legends, and “ethnographer,” preserving details of a disappearing rural economy (41). He is a descendant of William Cobbett and an ancestor of Ronald Blythe. Living in the world that Flora Thompson was to eulogize 70 years later in Lark Rise to Candleford, he comes across as the consummate Victorian in whom all these intellectual forces converge to interact with an acute awareness of swift social change.
The years of meticulous research that Toman has clearly dedicated to Kilvert undergird an absorbing, enlightening, and, on the whole, persuasive argument.@ However, as with many biographies based on patchy primary evidence, the author resorts to a certain amount of hedging and hypothesizing. Phrases such as “it may be assumed that,” “may have been,” and “likely to have” jar reader confidence all too often. If we don’t know with certainty that Kilvert was familiar with a given book, can it really “be assumed”? Essex Hope should probably take some blame for this; Toman is, after all, working with a fraction of the original diary. Hope is not responsible, though, for causing confusion at the beginning of the book. While the jacket describes this as “an ideal introduction” to Kilvert, Toman plunges in without providing basic biographical information (even birth and death dates). He refers to Kilvert only by his surname until page 26, when he finally (and obliquely) reveals his first name to be Francis. Nor does he, other than briefly in an endnote, thoroughly explain the Diary’s provenance and publication history. These significant details dribble out gradually and incompletely. Apparently, Kilvert has become so much a part of Toman’s life that he takes for granted that readers are similarly acquainted.
Actually, Francis Kilvert has attracted comparatively little scholarly attention, so in raising his profile, John Toman has made a worthy contribution to Victorian studies. Those of us teaching British Literature survey courses, with about a month to somehow convey to students what is commonly meant by “Victorian,” would do well to read Kilvert’s Diary and Landscape. While the major anthologies package the Victorians neatly between the Romantics and the Moderns, Toman reminds us that the era was less linear and more organic: a boundless, energetic universe of jostling ideas, anxieties, and thrills, as vital and contradictory as Francis Kilvert himself.
Charlotte Fairlie teaches English at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio. Current research interests include the literature of farming and rural life, and her essay on “The Environmental Message of the Scythe” is forthcoming in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.