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Parson Woodforde: Country Diarist

James Woodforde by his nephew Samuel Woodforde.
James Woodforde by his nephew Samuel Woodforde.

James Woodforde (1740–1803) was an English clergyman who was nearly an exact contemporary of Jane Austen’s father, George Austen (1731–1805). Best known as the author of The Diary of a Country Parson, his personal recollections of life as clergyman in the Georgian countryside give a valuable glimpse into what the Austen household might have been like.

James Woodforde was born at the Parsonage, Ansford, Somerset, England on 27 June 1740. In adulthood he led an uneventful, unambitious life as a clergyman of the Church of England: a life unremarkable but for one thing — for nearly 45 years he kept a diary recording an existence the very ordinariness of which provides a unique insight into the everyday routines and concerns of 18th century rural England.

The sixth child of the Reverend Samuel Woodforde, rector of Ansford and vicar of Castle Cary, and his wife Jane Collins, James was one of four brothers (one of whom died in infancy) and the only one to attend public school — Winchester College, and university — Oxford. He was admitted to Winchester as a scholar in 1752 and enrolled at Oriel College, Oxford in 1758, migrating to New College in the following year. His diary begins with the entry for 21 May 1759: “Made a Scholar of New College”.

Woodforde was ordained and graduated BA in 1763, became MA in 1767 and BD in 1775. He appears to have been a competent but uninspired student and the portrait he provides of Oxford during his two periods of residence as scholar and fellow (from 1758–1763 and from 1773–1776) only confirm Edward Gibbon’s famously damning opinion that it was a place where the dons’ “dull and deep potations excuse the brisk intemperance of youth”. The diary is a rich source of information on university life in eighteenth-century Oxford.

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