12 . Beresford's five-volume Diary: vol. 1, first edition (1924)

Beresford Woodforde vol.1 smlVolume 1 of the first edition of the Diary (1924). The five-volume set was donated by the Quin family to the Parson Woodforde Society in 2023 [Parson Woodforde Society Collection]Until John Beresford launched his abridged edition of James Woodforde's manuscript diary the eighteenth-century clergyman had been an almost unknown figure.

Up to to 1924 the only published extracts had appeared in the late nineteenth century in the local periodical The Castle Cary Visitor. The custodian of the manuscript at that time was the Revd Alexander John Woodforde (1839–1909), the grandson of the diarist's nephew William Woodforde.

The Somerset market town of Castle Cary lay in the heart of Woodforde territory, the diarist having served as his father's curate there after his ordination. William and his sister Anna Maria or Nancy had also lived in Castle Cary; Nancy settled there after her uncle's death.

The small selection of snippets from the Somerset diary failed to create much impression. On A.J. Woodforde's death custody of the precious notebooks passed to his Hertfordshire-based son Dr R.E.H. Woodforde, the friend and medical practitioner of John Beresford, a civil servant.

Following the publication by Oxford University Press of the first of Beresford's five volumes 1924–31 under the title The Diary of a Country Parson the unassuming rector immediately caught the public's imagination. The initial volume propelled Woodforde to fame. From the start he was valued not only as a key primary source for scholars but as a guide for the general reader to life in the English countryside of his time.

The 1968 reprint, also by Oxford University Press, is illustrated in the story of the Lost Diary.

The launch of the Society's expanded website in March 2024, with a new design, coincided with the centenary of the publication of the first of Beresford's diary volumes in April 1924. The book shown here is from the second impression, of June 1924: testament to the appeal of the diary and the prescience of Oxford University Press in taking on the venture.

George Bunting described the enthusiastic reception given to Beresford's five volumes and its offshoots in the Spring 1979 Journal (vol. 12, no. 1), reprinted in Winter 2001 (vol. 34 no. 4).

A gift from the Quin family

The volume pictured on this page was a gift to the Parson Woodforde Society. In November 2023 this most attractive set of Beresford's five volumes was generously donated from the collection of the Society's former chairman and founder member Sidney Quin by his grandsons Stuart and Jeremy Quin.

They also donated many other items from their grandparents' collection, including a long run of of the Society's journals handsomely rebound as sixteen hardback volumes. This note accompanied the gifts:

Presented to the Parson Woodforde Society for the benefit of the Society in memory of their grandparents Mr and Mrs S.O. Quin, onetime Chairman and Secretary of the Society, by Dr Stuart Quin and Rt. Hon. Jeremy Quin, MP, November 2023.

The former possessions of the Bishop of Durham

Beresford Woodforde vol 1st edn sml'Herbert Dunelm' is inscribed on the title page, which does not state that this is Volume 1. The editor and publishers could not foretell whether further volumes would follow. They were soon left in no doubt [Parson Woodforde Society Collection]These first-edition volumes carry a signature either on the title page or the flyleaf: 'Herbert Dunelm'. This is presumably the Rt Revd Herbert Hensley Henson (1863–1947), Bishop of Durham 1920–39, a prominent scholar and a diarist himself. Dunelm refers to his bishopric.

The volumes have distinctive royal-blue leather bindings forming a matching set; their titles are gold-tooled on morocco leather. Presumably the Bishop treasured Woodforde's diary and had the original OUP bindings replaced. Some volumes contain features not included in the 1968 reprint, such as a fold-out map of Norfolk.

Beresford's style as editor

John Beresford was a man of many parts: Secretary of the University Grants Commission, an essayist, a biographer, and editor of other works. One of his studies is of Woodforde's friend the Revd Mr Du Quesne. He had a genuine and serious interest in History and Literature, and his writings extend well beyond Woodforde's diary.

Beresford's approach to his task of editing the diary had far-reaching consequences which remain with us today. First, and perhaps most obviously, it is thanks to him that we commonly refer to the diarist as 'Parson Woodforde' – as in the name of the Parson Woodforde Society.

As Woodforde's biographer points out, the first edition was entitled 'THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PARSON'. In smaller letters came the subtitle giving the name of the diarist.

The diarist's name was relegated to a sub-title, since no one knew who Woodforde was; but it was from this title that we derive the practice of referring to the diarist as "Parson Woodforde".
[Roy Winstanley, Parson Woodforde – The life and times of a country diarist (Morrow & Co., 1996), p. 3]

Beresford has his detractors, but when embarking on his long task he could not judge how his work would be received. It was only when the first volume became an instant success that he realised he could produce further and much fuller extracts. The diarist's obscurity, instead of proving a barrier, constituted part of his appeal.

Roy Winstanley, for many years editor of the Parson Woodforde Society Journal, is a harsh critic of Beresford. He came from the purist school of diary editors which reveres a style of transcription and use of conventions closely aligned with the original text. His 'authentic' approach was adopted for the Society's own transcription of the full text of the diary in seventeen volumes. This approach is explained and exemplified in the five pages of extracts accessed from the drop-down menu under The Diary on the top navigation bar of this website.

John Beresford by Lucy Graham Smith 1913 smlJohn Baldwyn Beresford (1888–1940), himself the son of a country vicar, by Lucy Graham Smith 1913 Winstanley particularly objected to Beresford's selections as presenting an inaccurate picture of the world inhabited by Woodforde:

Aided by the way that Beresford's selection had favoured the light-hearted, generally jocular approach, it was possible for a reader to go back to what seemed a simpler, kinder and more innocent world than that of the 1920s.

Woodforde, who in reality has much to say about the seamier side of 18th-century life, was quite perversely made into one of the great classics of escapist literature . . .

By omitting many of the entries which throw the clearest light on the diarist's character, Beresford produced a rather emasculated and featureless man, the motives of whose behaviour are often hard to decipher, because too much has been left out that might have elucidated them.

The worst effects of his editorship concern the matter of food and eating. Here he succeeded in creating the "Parson Woodforde" of legend, the stereotyped clerical glutton whose main, indeed almost his sole, preoccupation lay in the direction of the dinner table and his meals . . .
[Roy Winstanley, Parson Woodforde, pp. 4, 6]

Our great debt to John Beresford

Such criticisms have their place, although it has to be remembered that Beresford's standards were typical of his time.

We need to read and absorb the full diary text to gain insight into eighteenth-century rural life and its chronicler. Presentation of the raw, undiluted text helps to prevent the type of distortion identified by Roy Winstanley. However we owe a great debt to Beresford in not only bringing the parson to public attention but in a manner which earned Woodforde a large and affectionate following.

One of the principal objects of the Parson Woodforde Society is to enable both the specialist researcher and the general reader to obtain an accurate picture. The Society's seventeen volumes are produced with a light editorial touch, allowing Woodforde to speak directly to us. And the hundreds of Journals now available on this website provide a highly readable commentary, illustrating just what he has to tell us.