Know thyself, 1816

Self-awareness from a flatulent priest

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My vanity is considerable and I am ashamed of not having made the same conquest of my vanity that I have of my anger.

One of the many joys of digging around in old diaries and the like comes from encountering a real individual’s character, moods and personality. Some diarists are inevitably much better than others in this sense. One such is Francis Kilvert, whom we met a few weeks ago; and this week, if you’ll forgive me, I bring you another 19th century priest not afraid to admit to pleasures of the flesh.

Benjamin Newton was born in Gloucestershire in 1762 and educated at Cambridge. Like his father before him, he became a vicar, serving first in Devynnock, Brecon, followed by Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire and Norton St Philip, Somerset. In 1814 he moved to Wath in Yorkshire, just north of Ripon, as rector, and he remained there until his death in 1830 (at Cheltenham). He was a magistrate there, as well as chaplain to the Duke of Portland – the same duke who later became renowned for his obsessive tunnelling at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire (more on that another time, perhaps!). Benjamin married Mary Fendall in 1788 and they had four surviving children.

Benjamin lived perhaps a fairly ordinary life for someone well-to-do – aside from his pastoral duties he enjoyed life, drinking, riding and shooting. His diaries from 1816 to 1818 have been preserved by his family, and were published in 1933 by Cambridge University Press. I hope to explore them further another time, but what I loved and wanted to share this week was simply his introduction to these diaries, which prefaces his first entry from 12th July 1816. Unusually he addresses his imaginary reader directly, and writes a summary of his mind and body in a brilliant way, which I hope you enjoy as much as I did.1

Wath rectory and church in Newton’s era, and Benjamin himself (pictured about 30 years before the diary was written), from the 1933 edition of his diary

As I mean this diary to be in some sort a register of my life, studies and opinions and as I have a great respect for that heathen precept, Know thyself, I shall make an attempt to describe myself or in other words to delineate my body and mind.

The former (tho’ I have spent as little time as most men either in the admiration of it or in cultivating or adorning it) I take to have no particular claim to be thought beautiful but I bless God that it is in general healthy and more active and vigorous than the bodies of persons of my age in general. I think however it requires considerable attention to keep it in order and in health, and that especially without considerable exercise it would soon get unwieldy and consequently inactive and unhealthy.

My height is 5 ft 9¾ high, my weight about 12 stone, my complexion dark, my head bald, my eyes hazel, and as they tell me quick and bright, not to say sometimes fierce, my nose trusee, turned up, my mouth wide and my teeth which once were good very much impaired, my chin round, my neck rather short, my arms and legs rather slender, my gait upright, my body slightly inclined to corpulency, my health good, my sleep generally divided into two naps, the first of five hours the second of two. The only bodily inconvenience I labour under is a great tendency to flatulency which sometimes disorders my whole system for a time but is generally of short duration.

My mind is generally actively tho’ often I fear not profitably employed. I am naturally very irritable but I trust I have in a considerable degree subdued that propensity. My vanity is considerable and I am ashamed of not having made the same conquest of my vanity that I have of my anger. I have in general good spirits which are seldom depressed except from a sense of my own sins. I have been singularly fortunate and happy thro’ life and I think it a duty I owe to God to bear all the little inconveniences I meet with in patience and gratitude.

I have considerable power of application but am nevertheless desultory in my employments. I go shooting for health and hunting for society which I like to meet better in the field than at any dinner where I must drink more wine than I like. Of all luxuries I delight most in tea. My appetite is so good I have few predelictions. I prefer venison and mutton to all other meat.

I like reading, am a great enemy to Tyranny, and greater still to Anarchy. Pitt was too monarchical and Fox too democratical especially during the French Revolution and the Irish Rebellion. My opinion of the Regent cannot express, his ministers are wicked in nourishing his extravagance.

My inclination often leads me to be sarcastic and I am sometimes thought to say a witty thing tho’ I did not intend it. I fear I feel too much pleasure in epigram and satyr for a Christian and a Clergyman. I salve my conscience by a conviction that I have no malice. I hate nothing but affectation except outright villainy and sin.

I trust I am sufficiently indulgent to my family and servants and too much so to my dogs. I am still charmed with female beauty but rather fastidious in my taste. I am naturally shy but have conquered my shyness by great effort from seeing very early the disadvantage of it. I am not a great talker except I think it civil to join or lead the conversation, and I think can acquit myself of having ever started a subject with the idea of shewing myself off though a sudden impulse often makes me shoot a bolt. I seldom or ever tell stories, even short ones. My friends seem fond of my society, rate me much too high.

I have studied much to find out my own fort. I think it is a sort of power of eliciting fun and wit from the conversation of others rather than from anything of my own ‘exers ipse secundo’.2 My religious opinions I display at least once a week to my parishioners and therefore have no occasion to record them here. I dread controversy which makes shipwreck of charity and I see no good in publishing my opinions which are not articles of the Apostles’ Creed. As for Bible Societies, Christian Knowledge Societies etc, think it better to pray for one fold under one shepherd leaving the time and the means to the good Shepherd to himself to accomplish.

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1

I have split the text into paragraphs to aid readability.

2

My Latin is very rusty but I think the sense of this is modestly about his own efforts being secondary to others’, but I welcome correction!