Kilvert's Diary 1870-1879, an illustrated selection, edited and introduced by William Plomer. Boston: David R. Godine. 288 pp. $24.95. Go ahead - judge this book by its cover, its exceptionally handsome cover. You won't be seriously misled, for its inside lives up to its outside (apart from a misprint or two, inevitable in these days of mechanical reproduction).
Of course the text is not new. It's a selection made by poet William Plomer from the Rev. Mr. Kilvert's 22-volume diary and was originally printed in Britain in 1944. Now it appears in this handsome and lavishly illustrated edition.
Kilvert lived and delighted in some of Britain's loveliest countryside, particularly in the Wye Valley and the land that lies along the Welsh-English border. He loved tramping up and down in it, covering as many as 25 miles in a single day, and falling in love almost everywhere he went. Since there is nothing quite like falling in love to heighten one's perceptions, he can be relied on to give us exquisitely lucid glimpses of the countryside and its people.
The mood of his diaries, catching us up in ``the even tenor'' of his days, is matched by the illustrations, including full-page copies of old photographs and reproductions of soft-colored landscapes by Victorian masters like David Cox, John Linnell, and Harry Sutton Palmer. Specially commissioned miniature watercolors of buildings important to Kilvert and of trompe l'oeil pressed flowers could have been borrowed from the margins of a medieval Book of Hours. In my copy, the craftsmanship is marred by an occasional fading out of the type, but the publisher has promised to replace any defective copy.
One day when Kilvert was visiting the ruins of Llanthony Abbey, he came upon a tourist pointing out objects of interest with his stick: ``If there is one thing,'' Kilvert wrote, ``more hateful than another, it is being told what to admire and having objects pointed to one....''
I wish he hadn't brought that up, for it's just what I intend to do: point with a metaphorical stick, dig a reader in the ribs, demand that he share my relish in Kilvert's flair for description (though he does occasionally lapse into hyperbole).
But listen to him comment on a sleeping pig: ``All was still and the white pig lying in the moonlight at the door of his house, fast asleep, with the moon shining on his white face and round cheek.'' And Kilvert is magnificent on more poetic subjects like daffodils.
Here he is searching for exactly the right singing word: ``For some time I have been trying to find the right word for the shimmering glancing twinkling movement of the poplar leaves in the sun and wind. This afternoon I saw the word written on the poplar leaves. It was dazzle. `The dazzle of the poplars.'''
He's excellent, too, at letting you hear other people's voices.
He asked old Sarah Killing how she spent her time: ``Aw there, I do rock and sway myself about.'' The church warden's speech takes on a rhythm of its own when he talks about people slipping on the ice:
``Some do fall on their faces, and some do fall on their rumps. And they as do hold themselves stiff do most in generally fall on their rumps.''
I wish I could taste an ``apple hop-about.'' I wish I knew exactly what a cat does when it is ``a-tushing down the fold.''
Time moved slowly; the past was very close. William Pritchard recalled listening to reminiscences about Charles II hiding out in the countryside. Old Hannah remembered when boys would wear ``their caps the wrong way lest they should be enticed into fairy rings.''
But William Ferris literally heard the sound of that great bearer of change to the English countryside: the railway train. ``It was a hot day in May ... and I heard a roaring in the air. I looked up and thought there was a storm coming down from Christian Malford roaring in the tops of the trees, only the day was so fine and hot. Well, the roaring came nigher and nigher, then the train shot along and the dust did flee up.''
Meanwhile, parish news, apart from an occasional near-Gothic tragedy Victorians seemed so prone to, was happily trivial. Swallows built a nest over the altar and splashed mud, the squire grew particularly autocratic over the church music, young Johnny Williams fell in the vicarage cesspool, Mrs. Proders managed to insinuate herself and her offspring into the church's new painted glass window representing ``Suffer the little children....''
Perhaps everyone won't enjoy this book as much as I do.
Kilvert asked himself questions about that - and answered them. ``Why do I keep this voluminous journal? I can hardly tell. Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it almost seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record as this, and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me.''
Go for it, Rev.