The Diary of a Victorian Squire

The Diary of a Victorian Squire, Extracts from the Diaries and Letters of Dearman & Emily Birchall

Edited by David Verey - 242 pp, Alan Sutton, 1983.

Dearman Birchall (1828-1897) was a Leeds cloth merchant who became a squire by buying Bowden Hall in Gloucestershire, integrating with the natives, and spending his time visiting prisons and lunatic asylums, hunting, tricycling, travelling abroad, collecting China, painting rather nice water- colours, and also finding time to be a magistrate, an alderman, and ultimately High Sheriff of Gloucestershire.

Previously unpublished diaries are always interesting, and the more obscure the diarist the better as there is less chance of he or she having an eye on publication. Not that Birchall was a nobody; he led a reasonably grand life, rented houses in London for the season, and met famous people, including John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde, together at the Lyceum for The Merchant of Venice with Irving as Shylock. There was no great meeting of minds. 'Ruskin smiled most kindly', wrote Emily Birchall to her sister, 'and looked quite well and less sad than I expected.' As for Wilde, 'I did wish I had been the worshipping youth'.

The footnotes and commentary provided by Birchall's grandson David Verey are very clear and precise. It is tempting to amplify them. In August 1870 the Birchalls met Lords Edward and Arthur Somerset, 'two nice fresh interesting young men'. In 1889 Lord Arthur Somerset was involved in the Cleveland Street Scandal connected with a homosexual brothel. Lord Arthur, alias Mr Brown, fled to Boulogne and thence to Constantinople where he offered his services to the Sultan. Mr Verey does not mention this, and one is rather pleased because these finds are one of the delights of reading other people's diaries.

The most interesting episode is the Birchalls' visit to Russia and Poland in 1883 as recorded in Emily Birchall's letters home. Warsaw 'is a melancholy looking place with dirty wretched people especially the Jews with their long curly beards, long ragged coats down to the ground, and a sort of wolfish expression on their dirty savage faces'. As for Poland, 'one does not wonder at insurrections in a country so visibly oppressed and miserable though I suppose now they have no spirit left even to rebel'.

Emily writes more vivaciously than her husband, in whom there is an underlying vein of pessimism. There is a good deal about the wages he pays his servants, the price of land, and a lot of people die or go mad. Sometimes the precision is surrealist; in 1883 Emily Birchall bought 102 Christmas cards and 11 presents in 1 ½ hours in 5 shops in Cheltenham. Better this than the self-conscious dramatising of latterday diarists.

We don't hear much about Birchall's collecting, which is a pity. On May 11th, 1882, he bought three swords for 58/- at Christie's; on May 15th two 'splendid cloisonne enamel tableaux for 115 guineas'. But there is not much more. On the other hand, there is a lot about the weather; men and women who keep diaries and haven't very much to do in the way of earning a living seem to find this an all-absorbing subject.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week