Book Of A Lifetime: The Diaries, By Francis Kilvert

The sheer verbal sorcery of WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn bewitches me. He brilliantly describes a walking tour of East Anglia, etching the effects of class war, nationalistic conflict, genocide, exploitation and loss. Everywhere is an opening to hell. His wonderful, unexpected narrative teaches us about the desolation and terrors of modern life, his vision akin to classical tragedy.

I feel overwhelmed, and want not to be. Surely there must be something missing from this vision? Indeed, so gloomy did they think him, Private Eye nicknamed him 'Eeyore'. Sebald was obsessed by the Second War and the Holocaust, a period when sales of the mid-Victorian Diaries of the Radnorshire curate Francis Kilvert soared. Kilvert was a tall, bearded priest in Clyro and later St Harmon and Bredwardine, collector of folklore; energetic hill-walker; admirer of young girls; and, most of all, from 1870, an unparalleled and brilliant diarist.

When I came to write a book about the Welsh March, where I have lived for 35 years, I drew on my obsession with both writers. Kilvert celebrated domestic detail of life in the March better than anyone else. Sebald demonstrated how innovative writing-about-place might today be attempted. They seemed both to be at my shoulder, engaged in lively argument.

Their debate concerned the challenge of writing about happiness. How is this done without belying the darkness of life? Without mere "feel-good" writing? Kilvert, who died from peritonitis a month after marrying, seemed to suggest how. He has no shortage of macabre subject-matter. Among his best passages are descriptions of a young boy nearly drowning in human excrement and of an impoverished worker who cut his throat, then nearly his entire head off.

It has been well observed that "happiness writes white": happiness is hard to evoke, leaves no trace, is a knack mastered by few. Kilvert somehow pulls it off. Everything interests him, and the Victorian age comes alive: bathing nude on a public beach in mixed company, rural deans discussing venereal disease, Wordsworth, animals; what he terms "the beautiful courtesy of Radnorshire manners".

He makes us experience the physicality of his world as if we were at his side. Here he is, watching lapwing: "The peewits were the hot blue air about the tall trees with a strange deep mysterious hustling and quavering sound from their great wings." Kilvert's acuity of eye and ear, his art of catching life on the wing and of communicating a tenderness of feeling our more cynical age has forgotten: these are moving skills from which we can still learn. Was it escapist to enjoy Kilvert during the Blitz? Perhaps. Not everyone thought so. Kilvert reminds us how normal it long seemed to live within the walls of an extended period of peace.

Peter J Conradi's 'At the Bright Hem of God: a Radnorshire Pastoral' is published by Seren

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living