English years

I have two copies of The English Year, a selection of diary extracts compiled by Geoffrey Grigson: one is a scruffy looking paperback which has suffered some water damage, and the other is a hardback first edition (Oxford University Press, 1967), with dust jacket. The first one is mine and the second one belonged to my brother, who was an antiquarian bookseller and cared more about the state of his books than I do. I am still not sure why, having one of my own, I took his copy when we sorted things out in his house after he died, but I couldn’t bring myself to abandon it there.

            The book consists of diary entries organised chronologically throughout the year, allowing one to read the relevant entry every day, which is how I read it. Yesterday, 10 November in 1800, for instance, Dorothy Wordsworth ‘… baked bread. A fine clear frosty morning. We walked after dinner to Rydale village. Jupiter over the hilltops, the only star, like a sun, flashed out at intervals from behind a black cloud.’ On the same day in 1803, Coleridge saw ‘an enormous black cloud exactly in the shape of an egg (…) O for change of weather!’ Part of the fun of reading it like this is trying to guess the authors of the entries from their style, and Coleridge is one of the easiest to recognise, mainly because he is so intense, or perhaps crazed. One of the funniest of his entries was not so intended, on 20 October 1802: ‘My 30th. birthday – a windy showery day…’ to which Grigson has added a footnote: ‘Coleridge’s birthday was really 21 October. For some reason he was always convinced it was a day earlier.’ I read that every year with delight.

            D.H. Lawrence is also instantly recognisable: ‘… the snow looks fiendish in its cold incandescence. I hated it violently.’ (18 April 1918) And writing about a blackbird on 14 May 1915: ‘He seems as if his singing were a sort of talking to himself, or of thinking aloud his strongest thoughts. I wish I was a blackbird, like him. I hate men.’ Katherine Mansfield wrote about the Lawrences in her diary on 27 June 1918: ‘Always, when I see foxgloves, I think of the Lawrences (…) As is their custom, when they love anything, they make a sort of Festa. With foxgloves everywhere.’

            Thomas Hardy is unmistakeable too: ‘In spite of myself I cannot help noticing countenances and tempers in objects of scenery, e.g. trees, hills, houses.’ (10 February 1897) Constable sees them differently: ‘The trees and the clouds seem to ask me to try and do something with them.’ (20 January 1834; the book is illustrated with beautiful drawings by Constable.) Ruskin sees everything in astounding detail, Gilbert White is concise (‘Tortoise eats gooseberries,’ 27 July 1780) and on 22 July 1866 William Allingham encounters ‘A huge hornet. T[ennyson] kills it.’

            Another favorite of mine is Richard Hayes, writing on 31 January 1771: ‘So thick a fog, could not see my Obelisk.’ Nathaniel Hawthorne, the only foreigner in the book, lived in Liverpool from 1853-1857 and did not care for English weather: ‘This has been a foggy morning and forenoon, snowing a little now and then, and disagreeably cold … At about twelve there is a faint glow of sunlight…’ (11 December 1855) ‘The chill, rainy English twilight brooding over the lawn.’ (1 September 1854) On 27 February 1857 he remarked, ‘How misty is England! I have spent four years in a gray gloom. And yet it suits me pretty well.’

            After all these years away from England, the England where my brother and I grew up, and despite or perhaps because of the gray and the gloom, I still seem to need to know, even to know it again every year, and again be consoled by it, that on 1 May 1802 Dorothy Wordsworth ‘sowed the scarlet beans about the house (…) It was a clear sky, a heavenly morning. I sowed the flowers, William helped me. We then went and sate in the orchard till dinner time. It was very hot. William wrote The Celandine.’

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