Friday, October 16, 2009

The Dark Hole in the Hovel Roof

I bought a few other books on Sunday as well: Christina Stead's A Little Tea, a Little Chat, Emily Lawrence's The Long Prospect (because, according to the blurb, "Christina Stead describes this book as "Elizabeth Harrower's masterpiece"" and evidently I am a sucker for author recommendations) and Kilvert's Diary: a Selection Edited and Introduced by William Plomer. Francis Kilvert was a mid-Victorian English country pastor and this Selection is full of good things wherever I open it, for instance:

Tuesday, 11 October

Visited Edward Evans in the dark hole in the hovel roof which does duty for a bedroom, and a gaunt black and white ghostly cat was stalking about looking as if she were only waiting for the sick man to die, that she might begin upon him.

To buy the Selection I had to put back an edited edition of Aubrey's Brief Lives, which, when I opened it at random in the shop, gave me this, under the heading, Edward de Vere: Earl of Oxford:

This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to lett a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home and sayd, My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.

One day I will buy a copy of the Lives, but not yet. In the middle of the shelf along with these two books sat the diaries of James Woodforde, and it wasn't until I came home that I remembered Woodforde was the first parson in one of my favourite bits of writing by Virginia Woolf, Two Parsons, a short piece that falls somewhere between a book review and a work of empathetic storytelling. Woolf has achieved a reputation as a snob, but in her fiction she was too intelligent to be a straightforward snob -- she had too much invested in the idea that human consciousness, on its own, was valuable, to dismiss the consciousnesses of the different classes in her stories, even if she sniffed and snapped at them in life. She is not Lawrence Durrell who called one of his characters "a lower class ferret," as if ferrety and the lower classes were tied together inextricably. Anyway, in Two Parsons she discusses the published diaries of two parsons, one of them Woodforde, and the other, the Rev. John Skinner. Skinner died in 1839, Woodforde in 1803; she compares their lives. Woodforde was a happy man, she tells us, and Skinner unhappy. Woodforde lived in a bucolic, earlier England, Skinner in a town full of drunkenness and the industrial revolution. He was a bitter old cuss.

She writes:

By the time the diary opens in 1882 he was fixed in his opinion that the mass of men are unjust and malicious, and that the people of Camerton [the town] are more corrupt even than the mass of men.

But Woolf reads his diary and pities him -- and I know that pity is supposed to be an emotion that diminishes its object, but here, I think, her pity is sympathetic and grand. It makes John Skinner, Miserable Cuss, seem larger, deeper, not the cantankerous old man who irritated his sons, but a sad, striving human being struggling forward alone. She gives him (the fictionalised diary-figure, this aftermath of the deceased real man) the attention and love that he lacked (his wife was dead, his daughters died, his sons, he felt, laughed at him).

Remembering this, it occurred to me for the first time that I should look him up online. Skinner had one joy in his life: he was an amateur archaeologist.

Camerton was undoubtedly the Camalodunum of Tacitus. Shut up in his study alone with his documents, copying, comparing, proving indefatigably, he was safe, at rest, even happy.

One day, he thought, he might make a discovery, he might be famous. And he is, just a tiny bit, but he is. And it's a measure of Woolf's empathy that when I saw his name pop up, I said, "John Skinner, you made it!" -- this grouch, who, I know, if I had met in real life, I would have disliked completely, and he would have disliked me. Yet here I was, gleeful because he had his own Wikipedia page.


The Rev. John Skinner's Wikipedia page.


His page at The Diary Junction ("Data and links for over 500 literary and historical diarists").


This is what he looked like: pink-cheeked and soft-featured. I was expecting Scrooge.


Secondhand copies of his Journal of a Somerset Rector, 1803-34 can be found here and there online. It seems to have been published twice, once in a black hardcover, once in paperback.

This page has several short passages from the Journal, and this page contains a brief, prissy quote. See also this article about Jane Austen. There's a line from him almost at the bottom, in the paragraph that starts with, "The large number of prostitutes in Bath …"


The owner of a blog named North Stoke has read the Journal. He quotes the coroner's report on Skinner's death:

The Rev. gentleman's health had been declining for sometime and his mind had latterly been very much affected. On Friday morning, in a state of derangement, he shot himself through the head with a pistol, and was dead in an instant.


A writer named Gillian Garnham has written a Skinner biography called The Good Man of Camerton. The book was launched earlier this year, on August 9th.

A Somerset paper ran an article about the biography. Anyone familiar with Woolf's essay will see that the journalist has paraphrased her last line in the ninth paragraph.


His diaries were turned into a BBC radio play, Parson Skinner of Camerton, written by Kate Withers. Skinner was voiced by Timothy West.


He is mentioned on this archaeological research page at the Somerset County Council website:

Despite criticisms of illegible writing, inaccurate identification of the barrows opened and a lack of supervision of the manual labourers, Skinner’s manuscript remains an important resource in the study of the antiquities of the county. A number of artefacts uncovered by Skinner during investigation of various barrows also survive in museum collections.


A page on the Stoney Littleton Long Barrow mentions his work.


The front page of the Somerset 3D site mentions him, noting that "the Reverend was unfortunate in his personal relationships and was totally unsuited to parish life." Once again, Woolf's last line is borrowed. (Scroll down until you reach the heading, "New location added: Camerton." This may take a while.)


In 2006 Britain's Channel 4 filmed a dig at the site of some Roman ruins at Charterhouse-on-Mendip, "first recognised by the Rev John Skinner, Rector of Camerton and renowned antiquary, on 6 August 1819." There used to be some information about the show on their website but they've taken the page down.

The Western and Somerset Mercury ran an article on the Charterhouse site, scolding Skinner for keeping "no detailed records of the area excavated, or a full list of the finds made."

He is mentioned in passing on this Charterhouse page.

A Charterhouse site publishes several extracts from the diary, all of them related to the dig.

I was constrained to accept the good offer of an amazonian female, who did not disappoint the opinion I had formed of her prowess, and in the course of an hour she turned nearly a bushel of fragments of samian, grey, black, and brown pottery; also scoriae of lead ore, charcoal, glass, bones, and teeth; with pieces of the Temple stone, employed in roofing; cement and mortar; also pieces of tarras flooring with foundation stones, which indicated the site of a habitation.


Finally, Woolf's essay.

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