Life Itself

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AUGUST 27, 1927

Life Itself

 

One could wish that the psychoanalysts would go into the question of diary-keeping. For often it is the one mysterious fact in a life otherwise as clear as the sky and as candid as the dawn. Parson Woodforde is a case in point—his diary is the only mystery about him. For forty-three years he sat down almost daily to record what he did on Monday and what he had for dinner on Tuesday, but for whom he wrote or why he wrote it is impossible to say. He does not unburden his soul in his diary; yet it is no mere record of engagements and expenses. As for literary fame, there is no sign that he even thought of it, and, finally, though the man himself is peaceable above all things, there are little indiscretions and criticisms which would have got him into trouble and hurt the feelings of his friends had they read them. What purpose, then, did the sixty-eight little books fulfill? Perhaps it was the desire for intimacy. When James Woodforde opened one of his little manuscript books, he entered into conversation with a second James Woodforde who was not quite the same as the reverend gentleman who visited the poor and preached in the church. These two friends said much that all the world might hear; but they had a few secrets which they shared with each other only. It was a great comfort, for example, that Christmas when Nancy, Betsy, and Mr. Walker seemed to be in conspiracy against him, to exclaim in the diary, “The treatment I meet with for my Civility this Christmas is to me abominable.” The second James Woodforde sympathized and agreed. Again, when a stranger abused his hospitality, it was a relief to inform the other self who lived in the little book that he had put him to sleep in the attic story and “treated him as one that would be too free if treated kindly.” It is easy to understand why, in the quiet life of a country parish, these two bachelor friends became in time inseparable. An essential part of him would have died had he been forbidden to keep his diary. And as we read—if reading is the word for it—we seem to be listening to someone who is murmuring over the events of the day to himself in the quiet space which precedes sleep. It is not writing, and, to speak the truth, it is not reading. It is slipping through half a dozen pages and strolling to the window and looking out. It is going on thinking about the Woodfordes while we watch the people in the street below. It is taking a walk and making up the life and character of James Woodforde as we make up our friends’ characters, turning over something they have said, pondering the meaning of something they have done, remembering how they looked one day when they thought themselves unobserved. It is not reading, it is ruminating.

James Woodforde, then, was one of those smoothcheeked, steady-eyed men, demure to look at, whom we can never imagine except in the prime of life. He was of an equable temper, with only such acerbities and touchinesses as are generally to be found in those who have had a love affair in their youth and remained, as they fancy, unwed because of it. The Parson’s love affair, however, was nothing very tremendous. Once, when he was a young man in Somerset, he liked to walk over to Shepton and to visit a certain “sweet tempered” Betsy White who lived there. He had a great mind “to make a bold stroke” and ask her to marry him. He went so far, indeed, as to propose marriage “when opportunity served” and Betsy was willing. But he delayed; time passed; four years passed indeed, and Betsy went to Devonshire, met a Mr. Webster who had five hundred pounds a year and married him. When James Woodforde met them in the Turnpike Road he could say little, “being shy,” but to his diary he remarked—and this, no doubt, was his private version of the affair ever after—“she has proved herself to me a mere jilt.”

But he was a young man then, and as time went on we cannot help suspecting that he was glad to consider the question of “bold strokes” and marriage shelved for once and for all, so that he might settle down with his niece, Nancy, at Weston Longueville, and give himself simply and solely every day and all day to the great business of living. What else to call it we do not know. James Woodforde was nothing in particular. Life had it all her own way with him. He had no special gift; he had no oddity or infirmity. It is idle to pretend that he was a zealous priest. God in Heaven was the same to him as King George upon the throne—a kindly Monarch, that is to say, whose festivals one kept by preaching a sermon on Sunday, much as one kept the royal birthday by firing a blunderbuss and drinking a toast at dinner. Should anything untoward happen, like the death of a boy who was dragged and killed by a horse, he would instantly but rather perfunctorily exclaim, “I hope to God the Poor Boy is happy” and add “We all came home singing”; just as when Justice Creed’s peacock spread its tail—“and most noble it is”—he would exclaim “How wonderful are Thy Ways, O God, in everything!” But there was no fanaticism, no enthusiasm, no lyric impulse about James Woodforde. In all these pages indeed, each so neatly divided into compartments and each of those again filled, as the days themselves were, so quietly and so fully, in a hand like the pacing of a well tempered nag, one can only call to mind a single poetic phrase about the transit of Venus, how “It appeared as a black patch upon a fair Lady’s face.” The words themselves are mild enough, but they hang over the undulating expanse of the Parson’s prose with the resplendence of the star itself. Less effects have been achieved with greater efforts. So, in the fen country, a barn or a tree appears twice its natural size against the surrounding flats. But what led him to this palpable excess, that summer’s night, we do not know. It cannot have been that he was drunk. He spoke out too roundly against such failings in his brother Jack to have been guilty himself. Jack drank at the Catherine Wheel. Jack came home and had the impudence to defend suicide to his old father. Jack himself drank his pint of port, but he was a man who liked his meat. When we think of the Woodfordes, uncle and niece, we think of them, as often as not, waiting with some impatience for their dinner. They gravely watch the joint set upon the table; they swiftly get their knives and forks to work upon the succulent leg or loin, and, without much comment, unless a word is passed about the gravy or the stuffing, go on eating. They munch day after day, year after year, until they have devoured herds of sheep and oxen, flocks of poultry, an odd dozen or so of swans and cygnets, bushels of apples and plums, while the pastries and the jellies crumble and squash beneath their spoons in mountains, in pyramids, in pagodas. Never was there a book so stuffed with food as this one is. To read the bill of fare, respectfully set forth almost every day, gives one a sense of repletion. It is as if one had lunched at Simpson’s daily for a week. Trout and chicken, mutton and peas, pork and apple sauce—so the joints succeed each other at dinner, and there is supper, with more joints to come, all, no doubt, home grown and of the juiciest and sweetest; all cooked, often by the mistress herself, in the plainest English way, save when the dinner was at Weston Hall and Mrs. Custance, for whom James Woodforde had a chivalrous devotion, would play the “Sticcardo Pastorale” and make “very soft music indeed”; or would get out her work box and show them how neatly contrived it was, unless, indeed, Mrs. Custance were giving birth to another child upstairs, whom the Parson would baptize, and, very frequently, bury. The Parson had a deep respect for the Custances. They were all the country gentry should be—a little given to the habit of keeping mistresses, perhaps, but that peccadillo could be forgiven them in view of their generosity to the poor, the kindness they showed to Nancy, and their condescension in asking the Parson to dinner when they had great people staying with them. Yet great people were not much to James’ liking. Deeply though he respected the nobility, “one must confess,” he said “that being with our equals is much more agreeable.”

He was too fond of his ease and too shrewd a judge of the values of things to be much troubled with snobbery; he much preferred the quiet of his own fireside to adventuring after dissipation abroad. If an old man brought a Madagascar monkey to the door, or a Polish dwarf or a balloon was being shown at Norwich, the Parson would go and have a look at them, and be free with his shillings, but he was a quiet man, a man without ambition, and it is more than likely that his niece found him a little dull. It is the niece Nancy, to speak plainly, who makes us uneasy. There are the seeds of domestic disaster in her character, unless we mistake. It is true that on the afternoon of April 27, 1780, she expressed a wish to read Aristotle’s philosophy, which Miss Millard had got of a married woman; but she is a stolid girl; she eats too much, she grumbles too much and she takes too much to heart the loss of her red box. No doubt she was sensible enough; we will not blame her for being “pert and saucy,” or for losing her temper at cards, or even for hiding the parcel that came by post when her uncle longed to know what was in it, and had never done such a thing by her. But, when we compare her with Betsy Davy, we realize that one human being has only to come into the room to raise our spirits, and another sets us on edge merely by the way she blows her nose. Betsy, the daughter of that frivolous wanton, Mrs. Davy, who fell downstairs the day Miss Donne swallowed the barley corn with its stalk, Betsy, the shy little girl, Betsy, livening up and playing with the Parson’s wig, Betsy falling in love with Mr. Walker, Betsy receiving the present of a fox’s brush from him, Betsy compromising her reputation with a scamp, Betsy bereaved of him—for Mr. Walker died at the age of twenty-three and was buried in a plain coffin—Betsy left, it is to be feared, in a very scandalous condition—Betsy always charms; we forgive Betsy anything. The trouble with Nancy is that she is beginning to find Weston dull. No suitor has appeared. It is but too likely, the ten years of Parson Woodforde’s life that still remain will often have to record how Nancy annoyed him with her grumbling.

The ten years that remain—one knows of course that it must come to an end. Already the Custances have gone to Bath; the Parson has had a touch of gout; far way, with a sound like distant thunder, we hear the guns of the French Revolution. But it is comforting to observe that the imprisonment of the French King and Queen, and the anarchy and confusion in Paris, are only mentioned after it has been recorded that Thomas Kam has lost his cow, and that Parson Woodforde has “brewed another Barrell of Table Beer today.” We have a notion indeed—and here it must be confessed that we have given up reading Parson Woodforde altogether and merely tell over the story on a stroll through fields where the hares are scampering and the rooks rising above the elm trees—we have a notion that Parson Woodforde does not die. Parson Woodforde goes on. It is we who change and perish. It is the Kings and Queens who lie in prison. It is the great towns that are ravaged with anarchy and confusion. But the river Wensum still flows; Mrs. Custance is brought to bed of yet another baby; there is the first swallow of the year. The spring comes and summer with its hay and strawberries; then autumn when the walnuts are exceptionally fine, though the pears are poor; so we lapse into winter which is indeed boisterous, but the house, thank God, withstands the storm; and then again there is the first swallow, and Parson Woodforde takes his greyhounds out a-coursing.

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