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From the first page, William Holland had me hooked with his diary. His daily notations are not erudite. He does not wax eloquently about politics, philosophy, religion, or science, but with observations like these, who cares? Our parson has a way of planting us right in the middle of his little village:

Friday November 1 [1799]  The Clerk in the yard wheeling dung and Robert [Holland’s servant] looking about him and moving like  a snail. The Clerk cleared the liney and fetched three bushells more of pease for the sow. One of the Miss Chesters died yesterday, quite young, not ill above ten days. Poor girl her state of probation was soon over.

Then there are these short gems:

Wednesday November 6   Little Lewis the Apothecary came to me, rubbing his hands and moving his retreating chin in and out of his stock — attentive bur rather avaricious, mean and trifling.”

“Saturday November 9  Mr Robert has been wearing my spurs — now I have found out the method to get his horse on. Tis a difficult thing to get a servant worth anything. His slowness and laziness and want of method puts me out of patience. When the year is out he must go.”

Our country parson isn’t loquacious. Anita N writes about him on an online forum: “Apparently not the most charming man–but honest in his political and social views, and detailed about his daily life. That’s what I want to read: life sketches, muck, vitriol and common views of the time.”

Our parson lived in Over Stowey in  Somerset. Even today the village is described as having “no commercial centre because there is virtually no commerce – not a pub, post office or shop” – only farms lying in the outer districts of the village. There are few area descriptions in Holland’s observations, since his purpose is to focus on the people he encounters each day. From what I have read so far, his diaries simply record the mundane events in his life. He is not a particularly good writer, and his usage of punctuation is minimal at best.

View of Over Stowey. Image @The Quantock Online Community

Holland held the opinions of an old-fashioned High Church Tory. The following definition serves well enough for readers who do not much about Tories:

Tories conceive of sovereignty as residing in rulers and view “the people” as subjects whose duty is to obey. Tories are thus identified with a system of hereditary power–exercised especially by monarchs and the established Church. – Historical Outline of Restoration and 18th Century British Literature

James Woodforde, 1740-1803, an amiable country clergyman, also wrote a diary. His is the image of a typical country parson of his day. Image @History Today.

Our country parson despised Democrats and took many swipes at them. One imagines that he must have shuddered at the very thought of Thomas Paine, the epitome of a Democrat and a radical, if ever there was one. Paine was against:

kingcraft, lordcraft and priestcraft. An original thinker far ahead of his time, he sought to redress poverty (seemingly endemic in advanced European societies) through an interventionist programme of welfare redistribution, including old-age pensions, marriage allowances and maternity benefits. – Thomas Paine, Citizen of the World, BBC History

In the Diaries’ opening observation on Wednesday October 23, 1799, our parson writes:

Saw that Democratic hoyden Mrs Coleridge who looked so like a friskey girl or something worse that I was not surprised that a Democratic Libertine should choose her for a wife. The husband gone to London suddenly, no one here can tell why. Met the patron of democrats, Mr Thos Poole who smiled and chatted a little. He was on his gray mare, Satan himself cannot be more false and hypocritical. “

Yet Holland was a compassionate man. He is constantly worried about the poor.

Thursday November 7   Still more rain, where will it end? The Poor, the Poor, how are they to live this winter? we must do all we can to assist and Providence will do the rest.

This series of observations about a mad man gives one a good sense of how a village takes care of its own:

Thursday December 5   The madman in the Poorhouse outrageous. Farmer Morle’s behaviour is absolutely scandalous but I’ll make him know his duty e’er long. The man is chained and lies on straw, shocking situation. Alas poor human nature how many afflictions art thou liable to.

Saturday December 7  Went to the Messrs Riches this evening about the man in the Workhouse, both determined to join in sending him to the Mad House in Bristol be the expence what it will. Says Master James ‘Mr Holland I reckon it be a bad business, he is a very bad fellow, there is something more in it than madness.’ Mr James thinks, in my opinion, that he is possessed by the Devil or bewitched.”

The parson then thinks about calling on the Vestry about the madman, but puts this off.

Monday December 9 Were alarmed with an account of the madman in the Workhouse having got loose and threatening everyone around with destruction. We procured two men to sit up with him and secure him from doing mischief till morning.

Holland writes that the madmen is quiet for two days, then he raves again. It seems that he uses the terms Poorhouse and Workhouse interchangeably. Finally, the men in the village decide what to do with the mad man:

Monday December 16 Went to Mr Ruscomb Poole at Marsh Mill to consult about the pauper in the Workhouse. Farmer Morle and Mr Lewis came in the evening and we went to the Poorhouse, examined the man, he had a fit at the time. We do not think him properly insane to be an object for a Madhouse. We shall try some other Methods.

Rev. Holland describes the days leading up to Christmas, including a little impromptu dance party that his daughter holds for her friends. There are 18 more years to read. Although this is not a review of the book, per se, I highly recommend it. I found my copy in a second-hand shop on Amazon. All I can say is that our Somerset Parson makes the early 19th century come alive from a male perspective. Between the diary of William Holland and Jane Austen’s letters, one gains a good sense of how different the life of a country woman is from that of a country parson. Next on my book wish list: The Diary of James Woodforde. I understand that this man loved his food.

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