Saturday, November 30, 2013

Let us go gracefully

‘Today I was filled with terrible despair, and I shall have to come to terms with that as well. [. . .] Even if we are consigned to hell, let us go there as gracefully as we can. I did not really want to put it so blandly.’ This is Etty Hillesum, a young, passionate Dutch woman, writing in her diary about ‘our impending destruction and annihilation’ at the hands of the Nazis. A little more than a year after writing this, she died at Auschwitz, 70 years ago today.

Esther (Etty) Hillesum was born in 1914 in Middelburg to a mother of Russian descent and a Dutch father who taught classical languages. In 1932, she moved to Amsterdam to study law, and then Slavic languages. As a student, she moved in left-wing circles, which included many Jews who had fled Hitler’s Germany. One of these was Julius Spier, a psychoanalyst and, apparently, an expert at reading hands, who became a mentor for Hillesum, and her great love. Their relationship eventually became physical, even though she was living with another man, and even though she knew he had similar influence over other women.

In July 1942, Hillesum took a job at the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, but after two weeks asked for a transfer to Camp Westerbork, a transit camp used by the Nazis to assemble Roma and Dutch Jews. There she became ill in the winter, and, on recovering, refused offers of help to go into hiding, preferring to continue working at Westerbork. In September 1943, she and most of her family were transferred to Poland. Etty Hillesum died on 30 November in Auschwitz. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, the Etty Hillesum Research Centre,, and Catholic Ireland.

Hillesum began to write a diary in March 1941, probably encouraged by Spiers who she had consulted for the first time a few weeks earlier, and she continued to do so for 18 months until October 1842. Knowing she was unlikely to return from the camps, Hillesum gave her journals (eight closely-written exercise books - see a picture of them here) to the only writer she knew, Klaas Smelik, and his daughter. They tried to have them published, but were unsuccessful at the time.

Only in 1980, when the journals were shown to the journalist and publisher Jan G. Gaarlandt did they make it into print, in two volumes in 1981-1982, since when many editions and translations have followed. The first English versions, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans, were published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in 1983 and 1987. The following extracts are taken from An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943 published by Persephone Books in 1999. Some pages of the diary can be read online in a different edition at Googlebooks.

9 March 1941
‘Here goes, then. This is painful and well-night insuperable step for me: yielding up so much that has been suppressed to a blank sheet of lined paper. The thoughts in my head are sometimes so clear and so sharp and my feelings are so deep, but writing about them comes hard. The main difficulty, I think, is a sense of shame. So many inhibitions, so much fear of letting go, of allowing things to pour out of me, and yet that is what I must do if I am ever to give my life a reasonable and satisfactory purpose. It is like the final, liberating scream that always sticks bashfully in your throat when you make love. I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers, and love does indeed suit me to perfection, and yet it remains a mere trifle, set apart from what is truly essential, and deep inside me something is still locked away.’

4 July 1941
‘I am full of unease, a strange, infernal agitation, which might be productive if only I knew what to do with it. A ‘creative’ unease. Not of the body - not even a dozen passionate nights of love could assuage it. It is almost a ‘sacred’ unease. ‘Oh God, take me into Your great hands and turn me into Your instrument, let me write.’ This all came about because of the red-haired Leonie and philosophical Joop. S [Julius Spier] reached straight into their hearts with his analysis, but I still think people can’t be reduced to psychological formulas, that only the artist can render human beings down to their last irrational elements.

I don’t know how to settle down to my writing. Everything is still much too chaotic, and I lack self-confidence, or perhaps the urgent need to speak out. I am still waiting for things to come out and find a form of their own accord. But first I myself must find the right pattern, my own pattern.’

24 April 1942
‘[. . .] And this, too: how can I explain that, whenever I have had physical contact with S. in the evening, I spend the night with Han? Feelings of guilt? In the past, perhaps, but no longer. Has S. unleashed things deep down inside of me that can’t yet come out but carry on their subterranean existence with Han? I can hardly believe that. Or is it perversity? A matter of convenience? To pass from the arms of one into those of the other? What sort of life am I leading?

Last night when I cycled home from S., I poured out all my tenderness, all the tenderness one cannot express for a man even when one loves him very, very much, I poured it all out into the great, all-embracing spring night; I melted into the landscape and offered all my tenderness up to the sky and the stars and the water and to the little bridge. And that was the best moment of the day.’

26 April 1942
‘Just a small red, faded anemone. But I like the idea that in years to come, I shall chance upon it again between these pages. By then I shall be a matron, and I shall hold this dried flower in my hands and say with a touch of sadness: ‘Look, this is the anemone I wore in my hair on the fifty-fifth birthday of the man who was the greatest and most unforgettable friend of my youth. It was during the third year of World War II, we ate under-the-counter macaroni and drank real coffee, on which Liesl got “drunk”, we were all in such high spirits, wondering if the war would be over soon, and I wore the red anemone in my hair and somebody said, “You look a mixture of Russian and Spanish”, and somebody else, the blonde Swiss with the heavy eyebrows, said “A Russian Carmen”, and I asked him to recite a poem about William Tell for us in his funny Swiss burr.’

1 July 1942
‘My mind has assimilated everything that has happened in these last few days. So far the rumours have been infinitely worse than the reality, for us in Holland at least, since in Poland the killers seem to be in full cry. But though my mind has come to terms with it all, my body hasn’t. It has disintegrated into a thousand pieces, and each piece has a different pain.’

3 July 1942
‘Yes, I am still at the same desk, but it seems to me that I am going to have to draw a line under everything and continue in a different tone. I must admit a new insight into my life and find a place for it: what is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation, we can have no more illusions about that. They are out to destroy us completely, we must accept that and go on from there. Today I was filled with terrible despair, and I shall have to come to terms with that as well. [. . .] Even if we are consigned to hell, let us go there as gracefully as we can. I did not really want to put it so blandly.’

The Diary Junction

Friday, November 22, 2013

For Mrs Moore

C. S. Lewis, a British writer of Christian tracts and fantasy novels, died 50 years ago today (the news of his death being somewhat eclipsed by the assassination of J. F. Kennedy on the same day). He is most well remembered for his seven novels in the Chronicles of Narnia series, but less so for a diary he kept during his early years, before he became a Christian, at the behest of his intimate, but much older, friend Mrs Moore.

Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1898, with the first names Clive and Staples, but he is always known as C. S. Lewis. His mother died when he was only ten. He studied at Cherbourg School, Malvern, and University College, Oxford, but his student life was interrupted by service in the army during the latter stages of the First World War (during which he was wounded in the Battle of Arras). After the war, he returned to Oxford and gained several degrees. From early in the 1920s, he lived with Mrs Janie King Moore, the mother of a friend of his who had been killed in the war, and her daughter. Mrs Moore was more than 20 years Lewis’s senior but, nevertheless, the two had some kind of long-term relationship.

Lewis remained at University College as a tutor, and, in 1925, was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College. In 1930, Lewis, his brother and Moore jointly purchased a house called The Kilns; and, the following year, he became a committed Christian. By 1933, Lewis and a group of literary friends, dubbed the Inklings, were meeting regularly. Lewis’s first major work, An Allegory of Love: Study in Medieval Tradition, was published in 1936 (later, it won a Gollancz Memorial Prize). The Screwtape Letters, in 1942, published as installments in a magazine, was one of many Christian works he penned.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - the first of what became known as the Chronicles of Narnia, for which C. S. Lewis is probably most famous - was published in 1950, and the last - The Last Battle - in 1956. In 1954, Lewis was elected Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge. In 1956, he married the American Joy Davidman in order to allow her to stay in the country. Although she was ill with cancer and expected to die quickly, she survived until 1960. Three years later, Lewis himself died, on 22 November 1963, the same day as Aldous Huxley died, and President Kennedy was assassinated (see JFK’s assassin in Moscow for a Diary Review article on Lee Harvey Oswald). For more biographical information on Lewis visit Wikipedia, Kirjasto, John Visser’s fan site, or the official C S Lewis website.

According to Walter Hooper, editor of All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis 1922-1927 (HarperCollins 1991), Lewis made a number of attempts to keep a diary when he was a boy, but all were short lived: ‘Then, at the age of 23, when an undergraduate at Oxford, he began a new diary which runs to over a quarter of a million words and covers the years 1922-27. This was the pre-Christian Lewis, an atheist whose objections to the Faith were ventilated in this attempt. He persevered because it was meant to be, not just about his life, but that of his friend Mrs Moore. Several times he records how he fell behind and how Mrs Moore insisted that he pick it up again. Much of its documentary content was dictated by her interest in recording the pleasures and disappointments caused by the many visitors to their house. And, as the diary makes clear, Mrs Moore was its primary audience. Lewis often read it aloud to her, and she could have looked at it at any time.’

Some pages from All My Road Before Me can be read online at Amazon and Googlebooks.

21 February 1924
‘Immediately after breakfast I tood Biddy Anne in to Gillard to be vetted. Biddy Anne is a yellow cat that has recently adopted us. I walked in from the Plain, called at College and went to the Union, coming home again by bus.

I then made up my diary since my illness. After lunch the weather changed. A startling mildness came over the air and it was like spring though there were heavy black clouds to the east. After D [Moore] and I had strolled in the garden to enjoy this, I came in and read over my diary for this time last year. It is dully written - I recover the horrors from memory and not from the words.’

22 February 1924
‘I had an unusually nasty dream connected with my father in the night - a dream of the clinging sort.

After breakfast I took down all the gas globes for D to clean. I spent the morning working on Henry More’s Defence of the Cabbala, a fantastic, tedious work. After lunch I crumbled ham and swept the kitchen and scullery and then went out for a walk with Pat.’

27 February 1924
‘A letter from my father this morning, answering my last, in which I had pointed out that my scholarship had now ceased and that I should need a little supplement to carry on. This question had been raised before. He replied with a long and pleasant letter with a sting in its tail: offering what was necessary, but saying that I had £30 extra expenses last year (which I cannot account for at all) and remarking that I can always put money in my pocket by spending more time at home. There comes the rub - this cannot be answered: yet to follow his suggestion would be nerves, loneliness and mental stagnation.

I finished More’s Philosophical Works this morning and made out a table of chronology from Ward’s Life and my old table done for the English school. After lunch I went first to the Union where I extracted several facts from the Dictionary of National Biography subvoce More and then to Wilson to borrow his Theological Works . . . In the evening I began The Mythology of Godliness’.

1 March 1924
‘I spent most of the morning in the kitchen cutting up turnips and peeling onions for D, and then went for an hour’s walk in the fields. After lunch and jobs I took Euripides from his shelf for the first time this many a day, with some idea of reading a Greek play every week end (when I am not writing) so as to keep up my Greek. I began the Heracleidae. Coming back to Greek tragedy after so long an absence I was greatly impressed with its stiffness and rumness and also thought the choruses strangely prosaic. The effort to represent a scuffle between Iolaus and the Herald is intolerably languid. After the first shock, however, I enjoyed it.’

The Diary Junction

Benjamin Britten’s centenary

Today marks the centenary of the UK’s most celebrated composer, Benjamin Britten. Centenary concerts are taking place not only in the UK but across the world, with, for example, War Requiem in Berlin, Turn of the Screw in Bologna, Billy Budd in Rio de Janeiro, and Peter Grimes at the Carnegie Hall, New York.

The Diary Review has already published articles on Britten and on his lifelong partner, Peter Pears - see Britten’s firecracker crits and Peter Pears centenary - but Britten’s centenary is excuse enough to reproduce a few more extracts from his diary. The following - covering some early encounters with Pears - are taken from Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten 1928-1938 published by Faber & Faber in 2009.

The book’s editor, John Evans, says that 1937 began sadly for Britten: ‘In January his sister Beth caught influenza, and infected her mother, who had come to London to nurse her. Weakened by the illness, Mrs Britten died of a heart attack. On 27 April his friend, the writer Peter Burra, was killed in a plane crash. Burra had owned a small cottage at Bucklebury and it fell to Britten and one of Burra’s closest friends, the young singer Peter Pears, to sort out his papers. The two men soon formed a strong friendship and began performing together.’

30 April 1937
‘I have a rehearsal with Boult of H. F. at BBCC at 11:30 - it goes quite well, tho’ he doesn’t really grasp the work - tho’ he is marvellously painstaking. Sophie of course sings well. Lunch after with her & Arnold jun., & John &; Millicent Francis. Then I meet Poppy Vulliamy & have long talks with her. She goes off to Spain very soon to look after the evacuated children from Madrid & Malaga. I have agreed to adopt one & pay for him for a year. Back here in the aft. & then out to dinner with Peter Piers & Basil Douglas - very nice, but sad as we have to discuss what is best about Peter Burra’s things. BBC. Contemporary concert after cond. by Boult - BBC orch They do my Hunting Fathers very creditably - I am awfully pleased with it too, I’m afraid. Some things don’t satisfy me at the moment - but its my op. 1 alright [. . .]’

6 May 1937
‘Sketch another song for Hedli in the morning. Lunch & excessive political arguments with Peter Floud at Baker Street - I am in a damned muddle trying to compromise between Pacifism and Communism. Back here in aft. & then meet & walk Harry Morris - a charming kid - protege of Barbara’s who is very keen on music & very good draughtsboy.

Then after tea Kit takes us round looking for car’s - find a possible Lee Francis in Highgate, Kit stays to dinner - having delivered the child to his home in Hampstead. After dinner general slack & then Kit drops me at Paddington at 10.45 & I meet Peter Pears & travel with him in a packed dirty train to Reading where we arrive about mid-night - & set out for the Behrend’s house (Burclere) on his motor-bike, in the pouring, pouring rain. After wandering helplessly in the maze of roads over the common - very cold & damp, to our skins - & me pretty sore behind, being unused to pillion riding - we knock up people in the only house with a light in we meet at all, & get some rather vague instructions from them. Wander further & quite by accident alight on the house - at about 1.45 or 50. Have hot baths & straight to bed. The Behrends themselves are in town.’

7 May 1937
‘After a 9 o’clock breakfast Peter & I go over to Peter Burra’s house (Foxhold) to spend the day sorting out letters, photos & other personalities preparatory to the big clean up to take place soon. Peter Pears is a dear & a very sympathetic person. - tho’ I’ll admit I am not too keen on travelling on his motor bike! Catch 5.35 up to town, & I have to walk from Kilburn Park Station - but it’s all for the good of the cause & so far there’s no likelihood of an immediate settlement. Spend evening writing letters & sketch another song for Hedli.’

The Diary Junction

Monday, November 18, 2013

Diary briefs

Malcolm X’s heirs try to stop publication of diaries - Daily NewsChristian Science MonitorThe Guardian

Ordinary seaman’s diary of Antarctic expedition - ABC, Cool Antarctica

The Irish Diaries by Alastair Campbell - Lilliput Press, Amazon,

Harry’s War by Harry Drinkwater - Random HouseBBC

Diary of al Qaeda leader -  Aljazeera AmericaDaily Mail,

La récréation by Frédéric Mitterrand - The Telegraph, Amazon

Tony Benn’s final volume of diaries - Random House, Financial Times, The Guardian

Diary evidence in cannabis-for-ritual case - This is Gloucestershire, Daily Mail

Historic Appalachian diary published - Mars Hill University

Crucial diary in bribe case goes missing - India Today

Australian politics - The Rudd Rebellion - Melbourne University, The Guardian

Ludwig Leichhardt’s diaries - The Australian, State Library New South Wales, Diary

Royal Army Medical Corps diary - New Glasgow News

WWII diary of Chick Bruns - Marine Corps Times, 70 Years Ago

Harrowing war-time diaries of Donegal priest - Belfast Telegraph

Friday, November 8, 2013

Flying into an abyss

Ivan Bunin, the first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, died 60 years ago today. Though admired for his short stories and poems, it was his diaries, written in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and published in the 1920s, that brought him fame among his compatriot emigrés in France as well as wider attention within European literary circles. It was not until the 1990s that parts of his diaries began appearing in English versions.

Bunin was born in 1870 into an old, noble family with a literary heritage, in the province of Voronezh, Central Russia. Having been tutored at home, he was sent to a public school in Yelets in 1881, but left in 1886 due to financial difficulties caused by his father’s gambling. The following year, he published his first poem in a literary magazine. He followed his brother to Kharkov, where he worked for a local paper, and then moved further south to Oryol where he became editor of a local newspaper, enabling him to publish his own stories, poems and reviews.

His first book - Poems 1887-1991 - appeared in 1891, and thereafter he managed to place some of his writing in St Petersburg magazines. In 1892, he moved, with his lover Varvara Paschenko, to Poltava settling in the home of his brother, Yuly. From there he travelled all over Ukraine, and, in 1895, visited St Petersburg for the first time. Thereafter, dividing his time between Moscow and the Russian capital, he made friends with Chekhov and Gorky, and was much inspired by Tolstoy.

Bunin married Anna Tsakni in 1898, but left her two years later. By the end of 1906, he had fallen in love with Vera Muromtseva, and the two then lived together, travelled in the Middle East, and married in 1922. Bunin, meanwhile, was making his literary name with short story collections, such as Bird’s Shadow, as well as translations - one of Longfellow’s Hiawatha earned him a Pushkin Prize from the Russian Academy. Another Prize, and membership of the Academy followed in 1909. He also translated D. H. Lawrence, Byron and Leonard Woolf.

In 1910 Bunin published his first short novel, The Village, which gave a bleak portrayal of Russian country life, caused controversy, and brought him fame. Its harsh realism, Wikipedia’s bio notes, prompted Maxim Gorky to call him ‘the best Russian writer of the day’. After winters in 1912-1914 with Gorky on the Italian resort island of Capri, he wrote what has become his most famous short story, The Gentleman from San Francisco. Bunin did not greet the 1917 October Revolution with enthusiasm, he left Moscow first for Odessa, and then, in 1920, to settle in France, where he had another grand affair, with the poetess Galina Kuznetsova, 30 years his junior, though they were both married (he still, in fact, to Tsakni).

In France, Bunin was hailed as one of the most important living Russian writers, and soon became the figurehead for a generation of expatriates. In 1933, he was the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘for following through and developing with chastity and artfulness the traditions of Russian classic prose’. Russipedia says, though, that ‘everyone knew the real reason behind his winning the prize was the publishing of The Accursed Days, which voiced his aristocratic aversion to the harsh realties of the Soviet state’. In 1934-1936, Petropolis published, to Bunin’s approval, his complete works in 11 volumes.

Although friends arranged for the Bunins to move to the US during the Second World War, they chose to stay in their isolated house in Grasse, often with other long-term residents, and sometimes sheltering fugitives from the Nazi regime, which Bunin hated. The Bunins returned to Paris in 1945, and from around 1948 Bunin focused his creative time on writing memoirs and a book about Chekhov which he never finished, but he was often disillusioned and bitter. He died on 8 November 1953. Further biographical information is available from Russiapedia, Kirjasto, or Wikipedia.

Bunin kept a diary for most of his life. Parts of it - 1918-1920 - first appeared in print in the mid-1920s when Bunin published them in a Paris-based Vozrozhdenye newspaper under the title The Accursed Days (later put in book form by Petropolis). It was not until 1998 that this was translated by Thomas Gaiton Marullo and published in English, by Rowman & Littlefield, as Cursed Days: Diary of a Revolution. Much of it can be freely read online at Googlebooks.

Substantial extracts from Bunin’s diaries have also appeared in translation by Marullo (published by Ivan R. Dee, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield) in three biographical volumes all subtitled A Portrait from Letters, Diaries, and Fiction: Russian Requiem, 1885-1920 (1993); From the Other Shore, 1920-1933 (1995); The Twilight of Emigre Russia, 1934-1953 (2002). For some reason, the latter volume can not be found on the Rowman & Littlefield website.

Of the first volume, Rowman & Littlefield says: ‘Mr. Marullo gives us a compelling picture of a writer searching for himself amidst a society experiencing momentous change. Bunin alternated between periods of despair and joy throughout most of his life. He stood for traditional Russian values in a time of complete upheaval - in the “dark night” between the twilight of imperial Russia and the dawn of the new Soviet state - and he despised the revolutionaries who sought to overturn the ways he cherished. His life and art come alive in this immensely successful book.’

Of the second volume, it says: ‘Mr. Marullo gives us a vivid picture of a man suddenly and agonizingly without a country. Bunin’s life and art, which depended so heavily on traditional Russian values, seemed to be overthrown in a moment, and the writer found himself marooned amidst Western culture, clinging to his old ideals. Through his writings we are also provided a window on the lively but despairing and often fractious community of Russian emigrés in Paris in the twenties, which included Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff Chafiapin, Prokofiev, Chagall, Kandinsky, Pavlova, Diaghilev, and Zamyatin.’

Here are several extracts from Bunin’s diary as translated by Marullo for Cursed Days.

18 February 1918
‘Beginning February 1st we have been ordered to observe new style. So according to the Soviets, it is now February 18th.

Yesterday there was a meeting “Wednesday [a literary group]. Many of the “young people” were there. Mayakovsky behaved rather decently most of the time, though he kept acting like a lout, strutting about and shooting off his mouth. He was wearing a shirt without a tie. The collar of his jacket was raised up for some reason, just like those poorly shaven people who live in wretched hotel rooms and use public latrines in the mornings.’

19 February 1918
‘The newspapers report that the Germans have begun their attack. Everyone says: “Oh, if it were only so!”

We took a walk to Lubyanka. There were “meetings” everywhere. A red-haired fellow talked on and on about the injustices of the old regime. He was wearing a coat with a round, dark-brown collar. His face was freshly powdered and shaven; he had red curly eyebrows and gold fillings in his mouth. A snub-nosed gentleman with bulging eyes kept objecting hotly to what the red-haired fellow was saying. Women were fervidly adding their two cents’ worth, but always at the wrong time. They kept breaking into the argument (one that was based on “principle,” so the red-haired fellow said) with details and hurried stories from their own lives, by which they felt compelled to prove God-knows-what. Several soldiers were also there. They acted as though they understood nothing; but, as always, they had their doubts about something (or more accurately, everything) and kept shaking their heads suspiciously. [. . .]

A lady complained hurriedly that now she didn’t have a piece of bread to her name, even though once she had had a school. She had had to let all her students go because she had nothing to feed them. “Whose life has gotten better with the Bolsheviks?” she asked. “Everyone’s worse off and we, the people, most of all!”

A heavily made-up little bitch interrupted her, breaking in with naive remarks. She started to say that the Germans were about to arrive and that everyone would pay through the nose for what they had done.

“Before the Germans get here, we’ll kill you all,” a worker said coldly and took off. The soldiers nodded in agreement: “If that isn’t true!” they said, and they also left.’

21 February 1918
‘Andrei (my brother Yuly’s servant) is acting more and more insane. It is even horrifying to watch. He has served my brother for almost twenty years, and he has always been simple, kind, reasonable, polite, and devoted to us. Now he’s gone completely crazy. He still does his job carefully, but it is apparent that he’s forcing himself to do so. He cannot look at us and shies away from our conversations. His whole body inwardly shakes from anger; and when he can keep silent no longer, he lets loose with wild nonsense.

For instance, this morning, when we were visiting Yuly, N. N. said, as always, that everything has perished and that Russia was flying into an abyss. Andrei was setting the table for tea. He suddenly began waving his arms, his face aflame: “Yes, yes, Russia’s flying into an abyss, all right! But who’s to blame, who? The bourgeois, that’s who! Just you wait, you’ll see how they’ll be cut to pieces!” ’

5 March 1918
‘I went to Nikolaevsky Station. It was very sunny out, almost too much so, with a light frost. From the hill behind Myasnitsky Gates - I saw a blue-grey haze, clusters of homes, and the golden cupolas of churches. Ah, Moscow! Snow was melting on the square in front of the station. The entire place shone like gold, mirrorlike. I was taken by the massive, powerful sight of carts with boxes on them. Can it really be that all this power, this wealth is coming to an end? There were a great many peasants, soldiers in many kinds of old overcoats, wearing them any old way, and with various types of weapons - one had a saber at his side, another had a rifle, another had a huge revolver in his belt . . . These are now the masters of everything, the heirs of colossal heritage . . .’

Monday, November 4, 2013

Some great calamitie

Today marks the 460th anniversary of the birth of Roger Wilbraham, a lawyer by training who held various high posts under Elizabeth I  and James 1, and who was very charitable towards his native town of Nantwich. His diary, not printed until the first years of the 20th century, is of interest for its description of current affairs - not least the gunpowder plot of 1605 (‘some great calamite’) - and for his personal opinions, such of those describing the colleges in Oxford.

Wilbraham was born in Nantwich, Cheshire, on 4 November 1553, the second of four sons of Richard Wilbraham and his first wife, Elizabeth. He was admitted to Gray’s Inn in London in 1576, and, in 1585, was appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland, a position he held for 14 years. Around the time of his return to England, he married Mary Baber de Tew of Somerset, and they had three daughters.

Wilbraham purchased the Dorfold estate in the parish of Acton near Nantwich in 1602, and was involved in the region’s salt-making industry. He soon, though, gave the estate to his youngest brother, Ralph, who built Dorfold Hall on the site of an earlier building. Though this is no longer home to Wilbrahams, another stately home nearby, Rode Hall, has been in the Wilbraham family since the mid-1600s.

In 1600, under Queen Elizabeth I, Wilbraham was appointed Master of Requests, a position he retained when James I became king in 1603. He also served as the King’s Surveyor of the Court of Wards and Liveries. In 1604, Wilbraham was elected a Member of Parliament for Callington; subsequently, he was knighted, and was returned to Parliament in 1614 as a knight of the shire for Cheshire. A year earlier he had founded Natwich’s first almshouses, for six poor men, subsequently known as Wilbraham’s Almshouses. He died in 1616. A little more information can be found at Wikipedia.

Wilbraham kept a journal - comprising of about 300 pages written in a close small hand - from 1593 to the end of his life. He described it as a ‘book of observations for my age or children’. This was first edited by Harold Spencer Scott and published in 1902, under the Royal Historical Society imprint, in the 10th volume of the so-called Camden Miscellany, as The Journal of Sir Roger Wilbraham, Solicitor-General in Ireland and Master of Requests for the years 1593-1616, together with notes in another hand for the years 1642-1649. The full text can be read online at Internet Archive.
The following extracts cover the difficulties of ruling Ireland, descriptions of some Oxford colleges, the gunpowder plot, and the death of the writer’s father.

24 November 1599
‘Patrick Crosby that connyng pilot of Ireland that parlied with Desmond, father Archer, legate, Donogh McCragh, capten Terril, Mcdonogh, Knight of Kerry, &; used by the late president as a spy, brought this: 1 - that Ireland was lost &; saving townes and castels all at the rebels will: that no meanes but famyne to constraine them to loyalti: &; that must be by taking their cattall and hindering the seedes &; harvest and burning ther corne: that it now apereth Englishe soldiers are good onlie to garrizon &; to make incursions wher they may retorne to harbour with 40 howres: &; not able to make long marches nor to want ther lodginge &; good diett, &; that it will now troble England to send over 40,000 men which (being now unwilling to goe into Ireland) will not suffice to make recovery of Ireland.’

9 September 1603
‘I was at Oxford; wher lying at the Crosse Inne, the best in the citie, yet was ther two howses on either side adioyning infected with plague: sed deus nos protegat.

There was the Spanishe Ambassador lodged in Christchurch and the Archduke’s Ambassador lodged in Mawdelin Colledge: the attended ther audience at the king’s coming to Wodstock.

I surveyed the chiefest colledges: 1 Christchurch which was ment to have ben a famous monument, but never finished by the founder Cardinall Wolsey: it was ment to be a square of 8 score: three parts built, but the churche not builded: ther is the fairest hall with great church windoes, &; the largest kichin I ever sawe.

Mawdelins is the second chief colledge: a large uniform square, about 4 score yardes within & all clostered benethe: a hall with church windoes, &; chappell fairer then faire &; lardge churches: ther are walkes sufficient to environ a litle towne: for besides a close of x acres walled about for walkes &; severall divided walks with ash trees, they have manie orchards walled in, &; ech chamber to 2 Fellows have a peculiar orcharde.

They have walkes also made in the medowes wherin the river of Temmies, &; of Charwell do runne &; meete; invironed close walk of willow &; some elmes, to walk the distance of half a mile, in shadowes: this is the most compleet & fairest colledg & walks in England: (tho Trinitie Colledg square is much larger and fairer.)’

5 November 1605
‘The Lords &; Commons attended to expect the King’s coming the begynning of this parliament then to be held by prorogation: A week before, the Lord Mountegle imparted to the King & Council, a letter sent to his hands by one unknowen &; fled: wherein he was advised to be absent from the parliament, for that undoutedlie, some great calamitie wold happen soddainlie by unknowen accident, which wold be as soddaine as the fyring of the letter: wherupon the king after one serch about Parliament Howse grew so ielouse he caused a secrett watch, &; discovered one Johnson practizing about midnight to make a traine to fyre 34 barrels powder, hidden under billettz in a vault iust under the Upper Howse of Parliament, confessed by one Johnson servant to Thomas Percy, a pentioner, to have ben preparing 8 moneth to blow up the King, his Queen, children, nobles, bishops, iudges &; all the commons assembled, if it had not been so happelie discovered. So the parliament was proroged till this Saterdaie.’

(Editor’s notes: The letter was not shown to the King until November 9. The first search was made by Suffolk as Lord Chamberlain on November 4, at about 3 o’clock. At 11 o’clock the same night was made the further search which resulted in the capture of Fawkes.)

2 February 1613
‘Candlemas dat at night dyed Richard Wilbraham of Nantwich, Esq. my father, whose second sonne I was: his age at his death was 88 yeres &; 5 monthes: of a strong voice, perfect memorie, &; sound stomak to digest all grosse meates till his deathe: naturalllie wise &; politick: iust in all his dealings: verie liberal &; charitable to the pore: never stayned with any deceat or notorious cryme: his chief care for 20 yeres was to see his grand child [Thomas, son of Roger’s older brother Richard] &; heire maried &; setled to succeede him: but manie mocions & non succeded: his overeaching experience &; long age made him ielouse of his younger children and best freinds till the yere of his deathe: which seemed to be hastened by reason of a fall, werby tho not hurte yet made him languis in his bed 17 monthes &; so as a candle whose oyle was spent died without payn: god not giving him leave to see his heire maried, which was never the whole care of his lief; like Abraham who after his toile never lived tho to see, yet not to dwell in Canaan the land of promise: so as man’s wisdome or care will not prevaile to add one cubite to our stature.’