Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A disappointed man

William Bagshaw Stevens, born 260 years go today, died laughing. But, in his relatively short life, he had been an ineffective headmaster of Repton School, a failed poet, and a disappointed lover. Ironically, perhaps, he is best remembered for a journal he kept, one in which he chronicled his disappointments so candidly that one can hardly imagine he would ever have wanted to see it published. Nevertheless, it was kept safe and passed down the generations, and was finally published in the mid-20th century - it’s editor describing the work as the journal of a disappointed man.

William Bagshaw Stevens was born on 15 March 1756 in Abingdon, Berkshire, the son of an apothecary and surgeon. He studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, and after graduating in 1776 went to teach at Repton School, Derbyshire, succeeding to the post of headmaster. He took deacon’s orders, and was appointed domestic chaplain by Sir Robert Burdett of nearby Foremark Hall (but didn’t take priest’s orders until 1798). 

Having published a volume of verse in 1775 (Poems, consisting of Indian Odes and Miscellaneous Pieces), Stevens published a second in 1782, but it was not reviewed well. Hugh Brogan, however, in his brief biography for the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography (log-in required), says: ‘Stevens was a better poet than his contemporaries knew. Some of his verse was still unpublished 200 years after his death, but, if the whole of it is read, he emerges as a man of real talent, humour, wit, and feeling, though trapped in the limbo of poetic diction that the great Romantics would soon blow apart.’

A promise by Sir Robert to bestow a good living on Stevens came to nothing over the years, and Stevens considered himself too poor to marry - though he did pursue liaisons with some passion. Repton School languished under his headship, as he was, it is said, naturally idle and neglectful of his duties. He did keep up a connection with Magdalen College, and for short periods later in life was a fellow and praelector of moral philosophy. Only in his last year did he attain a rectory (Seckington) and a nearby vicarage (Kingsbury) in Warwickshire, thanks to Sir Robert’s grandson and heir. Stevens died in 1800, from a fit of laughing at the antics of an Italian and his monkey in the village high street! (This knowledge comes from an unpublished journal kept by Stevens’ sister who lived with him - as reported by Galbraith, see below.) Further biographical information can be gleaned from an old version of the Dictionary of National Biography.

Stevens left behind six octavo volumes of a diary he had been keeping since his 37th birthday. This was not published until 1965, when Oxford University Press brought out The Journal of the Rev. William Bagshaw Stevens, as edited by Georgina Galbraith. In her introduction, Galbraith explains how the manuscripts had survived through various generations, well cared-for but quite unexamined, until they were sold in 1957 to Huntington Library, where she found them when researching Repton. The manuscripts are marred, Galbraith says, by many deletions (removal of leaves, blackening out, crossings out etc), especially in the first volume, mostly about his neighbours and benefactors, the Burdetts. She believes most of these deletions were made by 
Rev. Thomas Bosvile, Stevens’s closest friend, because it would have been dangerous to leave about attacks on the family who were supporting Stevens’s sister.

Many of Stevens’s entries - especially the longer ones - are simply the contents of letters he received or sent, and many shorter entries simply state who he dined with or visited, or where he preached. However, he does write with candid intimacy about his love for Fanny Coutts - a story with a bitter, sad ending - so much so in fact that it’s surely unlikely he would have wanted these diaries to have become public. Galbraith notes that the journal is one of a disappointed man, ‘disappointed in every one of his activities’. Here are several extracts from the published book, including the first few entries and the last three.

15 March 1792
‘On this day I commenced my thirty-seventh year. May God of his mercy grant that the remainder of my Life be spent more agreably to his Will, and with more satisfaction to myself than the former Part has been! . . .’

16 March 1792
‘Dined at the Mitre on Turbot and Claret in consequence of a Wager between Sir R. Burdett and Mr Pyott. Sir R. had laid that old Ashly would live to the 17th of this month. The Bet was made on the 17th of last March. Ashly is now in his 92nd Year. . .’

17 March 1792
‘Drank Tea at Spilsbury’s. Dalrymple there. Much conversation upon the Slave Trade. Dalrymple and Dodsly defended the Trade strongly upon the ground of Policy. I cannot but think that the Policy which disclaims honesty, humanity and religion is not the policy of a Good Man or a Great Minded Nation; but the Policy of a Thief, a Highwayman, and a Murderer.’

18 March 1792
‘After service at Foremark set out for Ashford for the sale of Mr Bullock’s Library on Monday. Spent the evening alone at Wirksworth.’

19 March 1792
‘Reached Bakewell by 10 o’Clock. Found that the Books, a mere collection of trash, would not be sold till Wednesday. Viewed Bakewell Church, a curious structure with a Saxon arched doorway, and an octagon Steeple. The Church contains some of the Richest Monuments in the Kingdom with a very singular large Saxon Font adorned with the Images of Saints in relief.’

14 August 1792
‘All went to Chee Tor, a most romantic, lovely spot - dined on the grass by the head of a Spring - ‘Lady Burdett, You have not performed your promise. You have not given me Fanny’s Picture.’ ‘That’s not my fault. You should have asked me for it.’

Jones and I were to go to the Isle of Man the next day - postponed our Journey that I might get Fanny’s Picture copied. It was agreed to leave Buxton on Saturday and go all together to Foremark. Lady Burdett hoped I would go with them to Tunbridge.’ 

30 July 1792
‘Rowed on Windemere round Christians Island. Curwen and his attendant fleet passed by us - The Bishop of Landaff’s Seat - Wilberforce’s pretty Cottage - The lake said to be 14 miles long and in some places two across, surrounded with magnificent well-wooded Hills - a glorious scene -After dinner rode to Coniston Water of much inferior merit to Windemere. Observed the Ruins of an old Abbey near Hawkshead. Coniston Water about 7 miles from Windemere. The Old Man, a huge Mountain against which the Clouds are continually dashing, appeared at Windemere to stand on its edge. At Coniston we were near it; it stood on the far side of the head of that Lake. Walked in the Evening to Gill Force, a Cascade near the Inn at Ambleside. Thought when filled by a thunderstorm with water, superior to the cascade of Tivoli, it falls in the shape of a Y about 50 yards.’

15 August 1794
‘Before breakfast met Fanny in the Grove. She had found great Comfort, she said, in having talked with me on the Subject. I was the only Person that ever inspired her with a desire of communicating her grief. O that I had the power of pouring balm into your wounded affections. What would I not do? But my Heart was not without an ‘emballed heaviness.’ I thanked her for the ingenuous tale and tender confession of her unfortunate Passion. It was worthy of her. As to myself, if I could do nothing to soothe her Grief, she might be certain I would not abuse her Confidence. I would listen to her for ever and mingle tears with hers. She had one comfort, at least, that Her sorrows were not now shut up in her own breast. Yes, in me she confided. To a younger Person she could not with propriety have unbosomed herself, but she was sometimes amazed at the impulse she had long felt to communicate her Distress of Mind to me. I spoke feelingly. She felt the force of my feelings. ‘You allow me to consider you as my Friend. You may safely place Confidence in me. Fanny, you may have occasion to pity me but shall never blush for me. It shall be the peculiar satisfaction of my Life, my Pride and my Glory to compell You in despite of yourself to esteem me.’ [. . .]

After breakfast again walked with Fanny. Her Heart, she said, was a great deal lightened. It was her duty to struggle with her grief. She wished I could be with her, wished I knew more of her Father, spoke enthusiastically of Him. When You are no longer with us in your Walks You will often think of us, We shall think and talk of You, and we shall know that you think of us, and this will be a great Comfort.’

15 March 1796
‘I am now Forty. . . A Fool at Forty is a Fool indeed. Dined at the Widow’s. - late home.’

1 February 1797
‘Gouty Pains in my feet - return home - Burdett with me. In his usual kind manner he gave me the Horse that brought Jones and Me from the Isle of Wight. He cost Burdett 60 guineas.’

1 April 1800
‘Leave Tamworth - dine at Wolferston’s. Home.’

5 April 1800
‘To Donnington.’

6 April 1800
‘Dine at Ingleby.’

The Diary Junction

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