Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday reading assignment

I have the most delightful book for you this week:  The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802, by James Woodforde.  James Woodforde, (1740-1803) was an 18th century British clergyman.  The diary begins when he is eighteen and a student at Oxford, with references to drinking, and an incident in which he is locked out of his rooms, naked.  They consumed astonishing amounts of alcohol in the 18th century, and our little parson, while despairing at the drunken behavior of his brothers, at one point describing his brother John as being "much disguised in beer" is certainly no slouch himeself when it comes to imbibing, as we will soon see.

More than forty years pass with not much happening as Mr. Woodforde settles in to a country parish in Norfolk.  He never marries, but lives with his niece Nancy as housekeeper.  The servants are a source of drama in the Woodforde household as the girls, a succession of Nannys, Bettys, Sallys, and Mollys, have a naughty tendency to get pregnant out of wedlock and the boys are given to drink, impudence and diseases of a "venereal nature."  Mr. Woodforde is tolerant of their flaws, except for one poor girl, Sally Dunnell, described as a "fine, strapping wench" who is fired after only one day for incompetence.  Nancy the niece is "saucy." She hurts the parson's feelings by giving him the slip when some younger relatives come to visit and sulks about her small gambling debts.  Animals populate the pages with horses named Phyllis and Punch, a cow named Polly, several greyhounds, and a succession of unnamed fat "piggs."  Year follows year in the same soothing pattern.  Mr. Woodforde hands out pennies to children on Valentine's day, buys tea, gin, and rum,  from smugglers, oversees his harvest, hunts for rabbits, collects his tithes, distributes shillings and pence to the needy and invites the poor men of his parish to dinner every Christmas.

Most of the excitement in Parson Woodforde's life comes from small dramas:  "Poor Mrs. Collyer coming in at my Kitchen Door an old Nail caught hold of her Apron, a very fine Muslin one with a deal of work on it, and rent it in a most shocking manner indeed.  We were all very much concerned about it."

What the diary is best known for is its descriptions of what the household ate for dinner.  "..a very genteel dinner, Soals and Lobster Sauce, Spring Chicken boiled and a Tongue, a Piece of rost Beef, Soup, a Fillet of Veal rosted with Morells and Trufles, and Pigeon Pye for the first course--Sweetbreads, a green Goose and Peas, Apricot Pye, Cheesecakes, Stewed Mushrooms and Trifle."  Or, "We had for Dinner a nice boiled Leg of Lamb, a very nice small rosting Pigg, Apricot and Gooseberry Tarts Oranges and Nutts by way of dessert.  Soon after Coffee and Tea..."  And, "We gave them for Dinner a Couple of boiled Chicken and Pigs Face, very good Peas Soup, a boiled Rump of Beef very fine, a prodigious fine, large and very fat Cock-Turkey rosted, Maccaroni, Batter Custard Pudding with Jelly, Apple Fritters, Tarts and Raspberry Puffs.  Desert, baked Apples, nice Nonpareils, brandy Cherries and Filberts.  Wines, Port & Sherries, Malt Liquors, Strong Beer, bottled Porter &c."

James Woodforde lived to the age of 62.  He held quaint notions about health:  "The young Ladies looked but poorly as did Master John--they have been too free with fruit I shd. suspect." He seems to have been healthy, and when he does complain of being unwell, a dose of rhubarb, which I know from uncomfortable personal experience is a purgative, seems to fix him right up.  His health began to break down in his fifties, and the diary entries refer to gout (surprise, surprise), a recurring ankle infection, "epilectic fits" and complaints of weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath and swollen legs, which makes me suspect congestive heart failure or "dropsy" as it was called then to be the cause of his death.

Image from the book's wikepedia page.

A note on the edition:  the full diary contains several volumes, not easily accesible to the public.  UVA has it, but only in their special collections, which I don't really have access to.  Actually, I do have access to special collections, and Ivy Stacks, but only for work related purposes.  Let us pause and have a sad at all the books I can not get my hands on.  And I've tried, believe me, and even succeeded on my first attempt, when Martin Boyd's Outbreak of Love somehow slipped past their work-only net.  I suppose the word "outbreak" in the title fooled whoever it is that manages requests from health sciences employees.  Since then I've had an encounter with a librarian who asked me pointedly if Six Months in the Sandwich Islands by Isabella Bird was work-related and I had to admit that it wasn't, and so was denied it.  Anyway, in the 1920s, a shortened version of the diary was published (and mentioned by Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, which is how I heard about it).  At 622 pages, it's not exactly short, but it makes for quick reading.

This book is:  the ultimate comfort literature.
Time it will take to read:  three to four weeks


  1. I've heard of this book! Bill Bryson refers to it in "At Home" and i thought it sounded so interesting. Just the daily life sort of detail that I find fascinating.

  2. That book looks like it would make me hungry.

  3. I was thinking of the part where he describes dinner, not the part where people get VD.

  4. I also saw a mention In Bryson's book (recommended BTW). The amount of food consumed was staggering.

    I wouldn't mind "a strapping wench" to take care of my needs on a cold and frosty morning, followed mayhap by a stoup of Maderia and a few pounds of roast fowl.(partridge by preference)

  5. Bill Bryson: I read "At Home" and I remember his discussion of eighteenth century clergymen and their fabulously leisured lives but I forgot the specific mention of Mr. Woodforde. I really enjoyed "At Home."