The Diary of a Country Parson

18th Century
, This edition printed in:

A calico tabby sits beside an open marbled book with a blue cloth spine.

Outside Versus Inside Decorating

This week, a few of our neighbours started putting up their outside Christmas lights and decorations, which means that my lovely spouse has already started dreaming about putting up ours. Me? I’m all about the inside decorations and the Christmas tree. When it comes to stringing lights on the eaves troughs and thinking about light up does and fawns, I just always get stressed out before I even start.

Home ownership has not made this better.

A grey squirrel holds seeds in its paw. In front of it, is a scatter feeder.

I guess the feeling is mostly due to a lack of confidence in myself. Like I’m going to somehow put up a light in such a way that it causes some kind of disaster. No, I couldn’t tell you in what way or what exact disaster I envision. However, it helps to have my lovely spouse and all of her confidence snapping on the lights and smiling down at me from the ladder. She makes me feel like a house fire isn’t necessarily imminent, and that goes a long way to making the whole venture feel festive instead of stressful.

A Note on My Edition

I found this book at a used bookstore, and what I was drawn to when I saw it on the shelf was the beauty of the edition. With a marbled cover and beautiful illustrations, I couldn’t quite resist buying it — even if I had no idea what the book’s contents were. My edition was published by the Folio Society in 1999 and, as a note, it isn’t the full diary of James Woodforde. Instead, the selections have been made by David Hughes. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful engravings by Ian Stephens.

A calico tabby and a book are blurred. Behind them, a red birdhouse is in focus.

The Diary

The Diary of a Country Parson is in fact a diary of a country parson named James Woodforde, which follows him from his days at Oxford all the way to the year before his death. Started initially as a way to keep track his expenses, quickly enough the diary becomes a brief account of Woodforde’s daily life in the English countryside, including historical events, political shifts, as well as births, deaths, and changes in his own family. Woodforde’s diary is an essential historical document and an important resource since there is so much detailed information on what household goods cost, the common customs of the time, and even what typical daily meals consisted of. I found it especially interesting to learn the costs, preparation, and procedures that went into travel — even when the trip in question was just a small jaunt to the next town or county.

A marbled book with a blue spine sits on a floral background.

What I really loved about this diary was the sheer number of random facts that I learned about the late 18th century. Things like when umbrellas first came into use, or the fact that sometimes visits and dinners were postponed due to the lack of a moon to illuminate the roads. There’s also a treasure trove of fun words to describe common mild ailments — gouty wind, unable to get off the stool, unable to come downstairs, etc. Also I learned that apparently ‘was quite brave’ meant felt better or acted like one felt better and that ‘merry’ was a common euphemism for drunk that the parson used often when describing the antics of his brother Jack.

Reading this diary makes a modern reader painfully aware of just how fragile life was 250 years ago. Woodforde worries about a lot of ailments that we would consider minor, but he also records a lot of infant and childhood deaths, and death was common in what we now consider young middle age. It’s hard to wrap your head around so much sudden death and unexplained illness that would be easily explained and easily treated in modernity. It gives you a new appreciation for the advances that medicine has made in the course of the last two centuries.

The blue spine of a book reads 'The Diary of a Country Parson' in gold letters.

The Sedate Rollercoaster

The thing about James Woodforde’s diary is that nothing much really happens to him. By and large, he leads a rather unremarkable and ordinary existence (he was definitely no Samuel Pepys). His entries are nearly point form and most of them have to do with expenses and events. There’s little commentary and little embellishment. Even when Woodforde speaks about the events in his own life — the deaths of his parents, the nephew and maid that utterly disappointed him, looking for a living when he didn’t inherit his father’s — he does so with the barest of sentiment. Perhaps a sentence or two. This is not the diary to read if you’re looking for deep multifaceted introspection and examination of life.

A woodcut drawing in the book shows three people walking in the snow. The opposite page reads 'The Diary of a Country Parson'.

But, that doesn’t exactly make it a boring read. There’s something about the parson’s stark honesty and utterly sedate tone over all and sundry that make the diary hard to put down. For example, you’ll be reading a passage that starts off with the cost of food and what guests the parson had at home, then suddenly he’ll mention a murder or a peasant’s gruesome death. I read a few entries twice just because it felt like I suddenly got thrown off a very slowly trotting horse.

An image in a book shows a woodcut of a maid fighting a kitchen fire.

I was usually left asking — wait? What just happened?

And that makes for an interesting book, despite the fact that I had to read a lot about the price of fruit that I absolutely did not need to know.

Rusalka Has Grown

Last year, Rusalka didn’t exactly take a large interest in the Christmas tree last year even though she was quite small. She did nearly give me a heart attack when she discovered that she could crawl in between the lower branches and make a cradle for herself – with little regard for all of the ornaments or the lights she was either crushing or warming her butt on.

This year, Rusalka made a beeline for the treeline right after we finished the decorating and tried to make the same cradle. But she couldn’t — because she weighs in at 6.5kg instead of somewhere around 2kg and she’s just too big to fit into the boughs.

A tortoiseshell cat poses in profile in front of a Christmas tree.

It was a little bit sad, but very cute and there was minimal destruction. My only concern is that every day or so, she tries again. There might be some ornament casualties soon.

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