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Kilvert’s Diary

Robert Francis Kilvert started his famous Diary on 1 January 1870. The first entry in the published version starts on 18 January, so we do not know if he gave a reason for starting to keep a diary on that particular date. Fortunately he does say on 3 November 1874: ‘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 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’. Kilvert was probably thinking of family, not that his diary would eventually be read world-wide.

The diary runs from January 1870 until just before his death on 23 September 1879. We believe the diary filled about twenty-nine notebooks. Mrs Kilvert removed all the notebooks from 9 September 1875 to 1 March 1876 and 27 June 1876 to 31 December 1877, we believe for personal reasons. She removed all mention of herself. On Mrs Kilvert’s death in 1911 the remaining twenty-two notebooks were passed to Kilvert’s sister Dora Pitcairn who in turn left them to her niece Frances Essex Hope, née Smith.

She loaned them to her brother Perceval Smith. He recognised their potential and took them to Jonathan Cape in 1937. Their reader William Plomer also realised their worth and agreed to prepare them for publication. The first volume appeared on sale in 1938 followed by the second in 1939 and the third in 1940. which totalled about one-third of the original material. If complete it would have made nine substantial volumes, but with war looming and paper shortages, no more could be printed. The Diary was well received and proved very popular as a reminder of an age of peace and order, a time that had disappeared but was still within living memory. Plomer said that he had had all the twenty-two notebooks typed out in full when they came into his possession, but an examination of the remaining original books shows some passages are marked with red pen; they were the pieces Plomer did not use in the edited volume. The full typescript was supposedly lost during the war but it is thought doubtful it ever existed.

The notebooks were then returned to Essex Hope. Plomer called to see her some time in 1954 and she told him that she had to go into a home and leave her house. She had therefore cleared out a lot of papers and had destroyed the notebooks as they contained private family matters. He recalled he could have strangled her with his bare hands. But she later produced one of the notebooks and gave it to him. It was the Cornish Holiday.

She later gave one notebook to Jeremy Sandford, the playwright, because he had written a piece about Kilvert for the radio which she liked. That was the notebook for April to June 1870. The third notebook was given to a Mr Harvey from Birmingham who had corresponded with her for some time. These three notebooks are the only remaining originals of Kilvert’s Diary.

Plomer left his copy and all his papers to Durham University on his death. The other two were purchased by The National Library of Wales. The notebook for 27 April to 10 June 1870 was published in 1982. The one for 11 June to 18 July 1870 was published in 1989. The Cornish Holiday was also published in 1989, edited by Richard Maber and Angela Tregoning and published by Alison Hodge.

The complete three-volume Diary is available for sale from the Kilvert Society. Details on the Home page.

The one-volume abridgement was last reprinted, with a new introduction, by Random House in 2019. Other editions, some illustrated, are available for sale online.

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