The Reverend Francis (Frank) Kilvert (1840-1879) died as a result of peritonitis at the age of 38, days after returning from his honeymoon in Scotland. Although greatly mourned by his widow, family, and parishioners, he would nevertheless have been an obscure figure but for the publication 60 years after his death of extracts of a diary, which he began on 1 January 1870 and kept up until just before his death – some 29 notebooks in all.
The extracts published by Jonathan Cape in three volumes (in 1938, 1939, and 1940) were immensely popular because they conjured up an image of a lost age of peace, innocence, and rural harmony at a time of tension and war. Paper rationing meant that publication of the remainder of the diary ceased, though. By the time interest in Kilvert’s diary was rekindled in the 1970s (partly as a result of an affectionate documentary made by John Betjeman that can still be seen on YouTube), most of the notebooks had been lost or destroyed. Only three original notebooks survive – two of them in the safekeeping of the National Library of Wales and one in Durham University Library.
Readers of Kilvert’s engrossing diary came together in 1948 to form the society that, in normal times, arranges visits to the places that he wrote about – especially the parishes he served as curate and vicar: Clyro and St Harmon, both in Radnorshire, and Bredwardine, on the banks of the Wye in Herefordshire. The society organises an annual seminar and dinner, as well as a pilgrimage that travels to sites associated with the diarist. The group also collects objects associated with Kilvert, which form part of a display at the Radnorshire Museum in Llandrindod Wells.
Additionally, members benefit from a twice-yearly journal and mid-year newsletter. These are full of articles that expand on diary entries with information about the people, places, and events that Kilvert recorded. But the diary is not just a mine of social history and folklore: what comes across is Kilvert’s human heart, deeply concerned for the well-being of his poorer parishioners and doing what he could to relieve the loneliness, squalor, and hunger that he witnessed. Kilvert’s attempts to write poetry are self-consciously artistic. His diaries, by contrast, often achieve poetic resonance artlessly in their descriptions of people, events, and the landscapes he loved.
Further information: www.thekilvertsociety.org.uk
Is there a society that you would like to see profiled? Write to [email protected]