Sunday, 26 April 2015

Parson Woodforde's diary

I love reading diaries and travel books in bed. I'm tucked up warm and safe while the writer describes winters so bitter the milk freezes indoors right up till April. Or - in the case of Mary Kingsley, whom I read a few moths ago - waking in the night in a house in west Africa to realise that the shape hanging on the wall is a man's head in a bag, so perhaps she won't go for a walk after all.

I've just finished reading a book that's been on my shelves for years - a battered second-hand copy of The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802 by James Woodforde. It's a perfect bedtime read - nothing much happens but the small details are a joy.

Parson Woodforde never left England. He starts the diary as a young man in Somerset, spends some time in Oxford, then lives the rest of his life in rural Norfolk. He doesn't marry - the woman he shows an interest in chooses someone else - but lives with his niece and a household of servants, among a community of farmers and gentlemen who spend a prodigious amount of time visiting each other and eating mountains of food. Here's one meal for seven people in April 1796, eaten at his neighbour Mr Custance's:

"We had for dinner, a fine Cod's Head and Shoulders, boiled, and Oyster Sauce, Peas-Soup, Ham and 2 boiled Chicken, and a fine Saddle of Mutton rosted, Potatoes, Colli-Flower-Brocoli, and Cucumber. 2nd Course, a rost Duck, Maccaroni, a sweet batter Pudding & Currant Jelly, Blamange, and Rasberry Puffs. Desert, Oranges, Almonds & Raisins, Nutts, & dried Apples, Beefans. Port & Sherry Wines, Porter, strong Beer & small. After Coffee & Tea, we got to cards ..."

Food and drink seem to be the answer to many ailments. I never did work out what was wrong with Woodforde's niece Nancy, but was glad to read on 22 March 1797 that she "continues still to get better by drinking plentifully of port Wine, at least 1 Pint in a day..."

The cow was less lucky, "she having a Disorder which I never heard of before or any of our Somersett Friends. It is called Tail-shot, that is, a separation of some of the Joints of the Tail about a foot from the tip of the Tail, or rather a slipping of one Joint from another. It also makes all her teeth quite loose in her head. The Cure, is to open that part of the Tail so slipt lengthways and put in an Onion boiled and some Salt, and bind it up with some coarse Tape."

Though most of the diary describes day-to-day rural life, this is a time of wars and revolutions and everywhere people are afraid of Napoleon invading. Wars are expensive too, so they find their taxes and food prices rocketing, and at times their local bank notes are refused as currency.

I always thought the welfare state only began in the 20th century, but already here the wealthier people, including the Parson on his £400 a year, pay into a poor relief fund, and he regularly gives money and food to people who've fallen on hard times - though only if he feels they deserve it. And mind you, I wouldn't want to be owed money by the Parson. Here he is, in December 1794:

"Mr Symonds of Reepham, cleaned both my eight day clocks to day, almost the whole day after them, he breakfasted & dined with our folks. When he went away, which was in the Evening I paid him a Bill for cleaning Clocks & Watch from October 1789 to Dec. 1794 1.0.6 cleaning my Clocks today included in it. I did not take any change of him out of a Guinea."

The diary ends a few months before Parson Woodforde dies, aged 63. He has been ill for quite a while and I was almost glad he didn't have to cope with another bitter winter in his frailty. I've loved reading his diary - his care in setting down the mundane details of his life and his pleasure in them gave me great pleasure too, as well as reminding me that unless I write something just as wonderful, nothing will remain of me in a couple of hundred years.