he Reverend Francis Kilvert (1840–79) was a diarist whose writings provide a vivid record of rural life in the Welsh Marches in the 1870s. Sometimes compared to Thomas Hardy’s reportage of rural Dorset, Kilvert’s account immortalizes the small worlds of Herefordshire and Radnorshire, focusing on local society in Hay-on-Wye and the surrounding villages. First published in a highly edited version in 1938–40 by the poet William Plomer, Kilvert’s diary explores the everyday activities of the clergyman’s parishioners, the workings of class, the role of the Anglican church in small communities, the rhythms of agricultural practice, the impact of the railway, and the intricacies of Anglo-Welsh hybridity.
Plomer’s three volume edition was hugely popular during the Second World War, when it was read as an idyllic alternative to the turmoil of conflict. Reframed as piece of English neo-Romanticism, it seemed to celebrate a generic British culture, a reminder of history and continuity in a period when the very existence of the United Kingdom was under threat. Yet there are tensions in Kilvert’s writing, and modern critics have pointed to some elements which now seem incongruous or problematic. Kilvert’s fixation on young girls, especially, has led to accusations of paedophilia. Some of these comments are scurrilous and based on ignorance, although it is difficult, as Charlotte Fairlie observes, to ignore the ‘troubling passages in which he shares kisses, caresses, lap-sitting and “romps” with invariably beautiful pre-pubescent girls’. Linked, in this sense, to Lewis Carroll, Kilvert may be said to occupy what is for us an uncertain, uncomfortable space between idealizer and abuser.
But there is much else to validate Kilvert and his Diary. Fairlie provides a concise explanation of its historical interest, noting in her review of John Toman’s biography how the writer was influenced by many cultural ‘strands’, among them ‘Quakerism, Methodism, Romanticism, the Celtic Revival, Arthurian legend, folklore, the picturesque, Howitt, Wesley, Wordsworth, Gray, Gilpin, Tennyson ... ballads, folktales, and legends....’
Equally important, but less often observed, is the clergyman’s relationship to Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics, which, it can be argued, were crucial to the development of his style. Though in many ways speculative, this issue is worth considering in some detail.
Kilvert and the Pre-Raphaelites
Kilvert’s writing is suffused with sensory imagery which gives it an immersive immediacy. The everyday sounds of rural life are registered in detail: dogs bark, shrews squeak, geese honk, metal clinks, the wind makes rushing sounds through the trees, the river tinkles and ice breaks with a brittle snap. He is equally careful to evoke textures and the delicious tastes of his seemingly unlimited lunches and picnics, and is especially sensitive to the overwhelming stench of some of his parishioners’ homes as he visited the unwashed, surrounded by filth. Most of all, he visualizes what he sees with an unusual intensity that David Lockwood (63) has likened to super-refined observations of the Pre-Raphaelites. Given the pervasiveness of Pre-Raphaelite art by the 1870s, this seems a reasonable proposition, but two questions have to be asked: how much did Kilvert know of Pre-Raphaelitism? And is it plausible that he would adopt this idiom, converting visual images into a written style?
His own record is patchy, but shows he was fairly familiar with the paintings of Dante Rossetti, J E Millais and William Holman Hunt. Indeed, he may have seen their principal works, at least in line with other picture-viewers of the time. Though living in a relatively inaccessible part of Britain, he was far from insular, regularly visited the capital, and had the opportunity to scrutinize art in the many metropolitan venues. He enjoyed visiting the Royal Academy exhibitions, and makes a point of noting paintings of interest. In 1874 he viewed some of Millais’s later landscapes, among them Scotch Firs, Winter Fuel and The Fringe of the Moor. He may also have seen John Brett’s intensely detailed visions of Bude Sands and Whitesand Bay, landscapes by John Inchbold, and a range of mythological scenes by Simeon Solomon; he certainly saw Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death at a separate, fee paying exhibition.
Left: Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death (1873). Right: One of Arthur Hughes’s illustrations for ‘At the Back of the North Wind’ in Good Words for the Young (1869).
Moreover, he was well-versed in Pre-Raphaelite illustration. As an admirer of Tennyson he probably read the famous Moxon edition of 1857, and John Toman has noted (Books, 11) that he enjoyed Good Words for the Young, which contained Pre-Raphaelite illustrations by Arthur Hughes for George Macdonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (1869).
Kilvert thus had ample opportunities to view images which enshrine the polarities of Pre-Raphaelite art, a range that extends from the neo-medieval fantasies of Rossetti and Hughes to the sharp-edged landscapes of Brett and Inchbold. Given his highly repressed fascination with nudity, we might expect him to have displayed some interest in the sometimes near-pornographic art of classicists such as Laurens Alma-Tadema or Fredric Leighton, but it is telling that he only comments on the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates.
This is not to insist that he commended all aspects of Pre-Raphaelite imagery. He actively disliked Hunt’s The Shadow of Death(1873), which he thought melodramatic and theatrical, a waste, he says, of his shilling entrance fee and an image he never again wanted to see (Diary, 268). However, he does incorporate two distinctive aspects of the idiom into this writing: one is the highly idealized treatment of female beauty, and the other is the detailed representation of landscape and the natural world.
Kilvert offers many portraits of young women whom he regarded as his own versions of Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunners’. There is a striking similarity between the clergyman’s writing of female beauties and the type most characteristically found in the later paintings of Rossetti, most notably in his word painting of Kathleen Mavoureen, whom he describes as a ‘tall dark one’. Kathleen, he says, is a ‘[h]andsome girl with very dark hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, and beautiful bright grey eyes, a thin aristocratic nose, a sweet firm rosy mouth, beautiful white teeth, a well-developed chin, and clear complexion and fresh colour’ (Diary, 272).
Kilvert’s portrait recalls Rossetti’s pictures of Jane Morris, especially the details of nose, mouth, dark hair, ‘firm rosy mouth’, and pronounced (or masculine) jaw. Yet it is not likely that he saw Rossetti’s paintings in the flesh, which were produced for private patrons and were not exhibited. It is likely, however, that he saw the Rossettian type in the pages of the Moxon Tennyson. Here he could have seen Rossetti’s image of ‘St Cecily’, although he was likelier influenced by Holman Hunt’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’, which is the perfect formulation of Pre-Raphaelite beauty and could have been drawn by Rossetti.
Left: Dante Rossetti’s St. Cecily from the ‘Moxon Tennyson’ (1857). Right: Holman Hunt’s The Lady of Shallot, from the same book.
Kilvert’s imagery recalls the airless, beauty-fixated aesthetics of the later stages of Pre-Raphaelitism; however, most of his writing seems to be modelled on its earlier stages, as the painters struggled to represent a transcript of Nature. Emulating the example of Holman Hunt, Millais, Brett and Inchbold, Kilvert adheres, as the Pre-Raphaelites adhered, to John Ruskin’s insistence in Modern Painters that artists should go ‘to Nature in all singleness of heart … rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing’ (178).
To some extent, this is a matter of listing, cataloguing everything the writer could see as if he were a Pre-Raphaelite painter recording the teeming plenty of natural ‘facts’. This technique features throughout his landscapes, although his quantifying of ‘real’ phenomena is exemplified by his response to the bustling waterway he witnesses in Liverpool. Looking at the Mersey docks, he notices how the space is ‘crowded with vessels of all sorts moving up and down the river, ships, brigs, brigantines, schooners, cutters, colliers, tugs, steamboats, lighters, ‘flats’, everything from the huge emigrant liner with four masts to the tiny sailing and rowing boat...’ (Diary, 182). This is the very excess of Pre-Raphaelite particularization: he catalogues each item from the largest to the smallest and even details the liner’s number of masts. The same listing, in essence a sort of fragmentation in which the scene is constructed as a series of discrete units, is similarly applied to the natural world. Speaking of an encounter with some wild flowers, he specifies each type as if it were arranged in a bouquet of ‘Bog bean, the butterwort, milkwort of the four varieties, butterfly orchis, mouse-ear, march valentine, march buttercup, hawkweed fumitory, yellow pimpernel, yellow potentilla...’ (Diary, 131–2).
The effect, as in Millais’s Ophelia and other nature-pieces, is again one of inventory-making; he can no more say ‘some flowers’ than ‘some ships’. Though he admired Wordsworth, his approach is quite unlike the poet’s broad rendering of atmosphere and views natural phenomena as a series of samples or specimens, thus creating a realistic image of physical which seems to proceed from a detailed knowledge that extends from familiarity with types of ship to a gardener’s ability to label plants. Early criticism of Pre-Raphaelite paintings claimed that the painters proceeded as if they were botanists or historians, and the same capacity to identify and codify lies at the heart of Kilvert’s writing.
Millais’s Ophelia (1851–2).
More than this, Kilvert creates hard-edged detail which, as in Pre-Raphaelite painting, is based on a close observation of colour and light. These two qualities are explored in the representation of objects and weather. Thus, when he describes lightning he deploys a palette of ‘rose violet ... and brilliant yellow’ (47). The land, likewise, is made up of intense colours, sometimes, as in paintings such as Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, placed in shrill juxtaposition and strafing light: ‘Luxuriant meadow grass [shines] green and silver with hoary sheets of dew [and the] hills and wood and distances were richly bloomed with azure misty veils’ (Diary, 315).
Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd (1851).
Indeed, sometimes the relationship between light and colour is Kilvert’s primary subject. Contemplating a view of a hillside, he notes how it is ‘[v]ariegated with colours and gleams of wheat, stubble.... The yellow potentilla jewelled the turf with its tiny gems of gold and the frail harebell trembled blue among the ferns tipped here and there with autumn gold’ (Diary, 149–50). This is the embodiment of Pre-Raphaelite looking, of seeing not only the specified elements of the scene (potentialla, harebell, ferns, wheat, stubble, turf), but the particular ways in which the ‘gleams’ of light are ‘variegated’, playing over the surfaces of whatever is seen in various ways to create ‘jewelled’ resplendence sparkling in the form of ‘tiny gems of light’, or subtly highlighting the edge of leaves, ‘tipped’ with ‘autumn gold’. In this visual schema, yellow, gold and blue are subsumed in a brilliant, crystalline vision, recreating the intense visual acuity, the pin-point all seeing-ness that so startled the first observers of Pre-Raphaelite canvases.
Yet, as in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, Kilvert’s observations are not an end in themselves, and are far more than journalism or nature reportage. Rather, he practises the intermingling of thought and realism that is so central to the Brotherhood’s manifesto; as William Michael Rossetti explains in his celebrated introduction to (The Germ, their aim was not only to present a ‘direct study of Nature’, but to harmonize ‘personal thoughts’ with nature’s ‘manifestations’ (The Germ, 9–10). Following this credo, Kilvert fuses his perceptions of nature with nature’s physical properties, using the exterior world to map the world of thought.
Those perceptions, as we might predict, are religious ones, and Kilvert’s descriptions are sacramental in nature: as in Pre-Raphaelite imagery, the registration of the material is simultaneously an assertion of the spiritual. Having followed Ruskin’s emphasis on factuality, he also complies with the critic’s belief that all close observation was an act of faith, ‘following nature’ and therein ‘tracing the finger of God’ (Modern Painters, 178).
Kilvert engages in many such moments of perception, when ‘clear vision’ is merged with the ‘waking dream’ (Diary, 304) of spiritual insight. At once reportage and reverential epiphany, these special visions are breathless insights, paralysed with the divine beauty of the world:
As the sun shone the roof of the beech boughs overhead the very air seemed gold and scarlet and green and crimson in deep places of the wood and the red leaves shown brilliant standing out against the splendid blue of the sky. A crowd of wood pigeons rose from the green and misty azure hollows of the plantation and flapped swiftly down the glades, the blue light glancing off their clapping wings.... From the other side of the water the lake shown as blue as the sky and beyond it rose from the water’s edge the grand bank of the sloping wood glowing with colours, scarlet, gold, orange and crimson and dark green. [Diary, 284–5]
This is a veritable paradise, a Pre-Raphaelite heaven in which everything is exalted, infused with overpowering vitality. Though realistic in the sense of reporting what is seen, its overall effect is unrealistic – creating the hypnotic, hallucinatory strangeness that is so evident, for example, in paintings such as Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat or Millais’s Ferdinand Lured by Ariel. These images are apparently realistic, but seem, ultimately, like dreams. That judgement is equally true of Kilvert’s faith-driven glimpses of a transcendent nature.
Left: Holman Hunt’sThe Scapegoat (1854–6). Right: Millais’sFerdinand Lured by Ariel (1849–50).
Kilvert’s Diary might thus be read as a fascinating example of a writer deploying visual techniques that are derived not from the obvious sources – Wordsworth’s poetry, the example of fellow clergyman, Gilbert White – but from ways of showing in pictorial art. At once an important text which records the workings of rural society and the landscapes enclosing it, the Diary is another example of the free interchange between the visual and verbal that is so much a part of Victorian culture. Praised as one of Britain’s great chroniclers and reviled as a man of proscribed tastes, he can be repositioned, I suggest, as a ‘Pre-Raphaelite diarist’.
Good Words for the Young. London: Strahan, 1869.
Kilvert’s Diary. Ed. William Plomer. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
Tennyson, Alfred. Poems. London: Moxon, 1857, and several reprints throughout the 1860s.
Fairlie, Charlotte. ‘Kilvert’s Diary and Landscape’. Victorians Institute Journal Annex 38 (2010).
Lockwood, David. Francis Kilvert. Brigend: Seren, 1990.
Rossetti, William Michael. ‘Introduction’, The Germ, 1900; rpt. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1979.
Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Ed. David Barrie. London: Deutsch, 1987.
Toman, John. The Books that Kilvert Read. Hereford: Kilvert Society, n.d.
Toman John. Kilvert’s Diary and Landscape. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2009.
Created 6 April 2020