Readers will know of my long time enchantment with the diary of the Rev’d Francis Kilvert. Kilvert was an Anglican clergyman in the late nineteenth century. He kept a diary of his life as a country parson, and I wrote an article about him here at the Imaginative Conservative website.
Kilvert’s three volume diary is a beautiful, touching and personal portrait of life in the English countryside in Victorian times. Writing in a poetic and high romantic style, Kilvert offers intimate descriptions of his walks across the hills to outlying farms to visit his people. Along with the sweeping descriptions of the natural beauty are the accounts of the simple pleasures and problems, the joys and sorrows of country life. Here the description of the whole village turning out for ice skating to the light of Chinese lanterns and torches while the brass band plays. There a visit to Cornwall or the Isle of Wight complete with harrowing carriage rides, bathing in the beach and climbing desolate moors. Here a visit to a madwoman locked in the family’s attic and there a charming account of children singing as they wander down the lanes from school.
Kilvert’s diary is a hidden gem of English literature. Written with a Wordsworthian appreciation for nature and with a Dickensian eye for the grotesque, commonplace, hilarious and poignant, it also reveals the author to have the same gentle spirit of George Herbert. Kilvert, like Herbert was a simple, saintly man—engraved by grace with genuine innocence and love for his country, his religion, his family and his parishioners. Like Herbert, Kilvert died at the age of thirty-nine just a few days after returning from his honeymoon. He is buried in Bredwardine churchyard.
I have just started reading Kilvert again for my nostalgic pleasure, and I was struck by something in this very typical passage I read this morning in which he describes a February march across the hills to visit an outlying farmhouse:
A very cold night and a slight shower of snow fell early this morning. Then it froze all day. The mountains all white. Went up the Cwn to White Ash. Old Sarah Probert groaning and rolling about in bed. Read too her Mark vi and made sure she knew the Lord’s Prayer by heart, making her repeat it. Hannah Jones smoking a short black pipe by the fire, and her daughter, a young mother with dark eyes and her hair hanging loose, nursing her baby and displaying her charms liberally. Thence down to John Watkins to give him some good advice but could not talk to him much as the houseful of people was just sitting down to tea…”
So here we have a young clergyman from Victorian England in his late twenties by this time, hiking across the winter hills to visit a farmhouse, and there he spies the young mother breastfeeding.
There is no Puritanical tut tutting about the woman exposing herself immodestly. Neither is there any lustful chuckling and rubbing of dirty hands. Neither is there the distorted puritanism of our own age which is aghast at a nursing mother because she is doing something “disgusting.”
Instead we get the robust and healthy response of a red blooded man who has innocently appreciated what he has seen and is unashamed to make the comment that the young mother was “displaying her charms liberally.”
This innocence is almost inconceivable in our overly sexed up age. Many people cannot imagine that a man could look on such a scene without being either puritanical or lustful.
But how odd is this that we have lurched into these two extremes of reaction? When you stop to think about it, what are a woman’s breasts for? They are not meant to be the objects of masculine desire. They are objects of infantile desire and should be. Breasts are for feeding babies for goodness’ sake.
But in our stupid, twisted society what have we done? We have turned them into signals of sexuality and women march off to a plastic surgeon to have them “enhanced” with surgery. Not enhanced to make them better baby feeders, but enhanced to make the woman more sexually alluring, and not sexually alluring to a husband and father, but sexually alluring to a man who will use her to engage in infertile sex.
The joy of reading Francis Kilvert’s diary is that he opens the eyes not only to the wonder and beauty of a world at the cusp of the industrial and technological age, but he also reminds us of all the beauty and naturalness of the world and that we should all appreciate everything according to its nature.
We talk as Catholics about Natural Law. This is natural law, and it is echoed by another Anglican clergyman who, co incidentally or not, worked in the same area of the Welsh borders as Kilvert.
Thomas Traherne wrote, “Can a man be just unless he love all things according to their worth?” In other words, when we understand what things are for and how they work in God’s natural order we can love them for that and we can love them with the innocent love that Kilvert had. When we depart from the natural order our vision and our desire becomes distorted and dark.
He did not lust after that young mother, but appreciated the beauty and simplicity and naturalness of the simple scene–bare breasts and all.
This is one of the deeper lessons during this year’s 50th anniversary of Humane Vitae…that when the natural order is twisted by artificial contraception and artificial conception everything else also eventually becomes distorted and destroyed.