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by Virginia Woolf


“Two Parsons” was written by Woolf as two miniature biographies of English ministers she encountered through their journals many years after their deaths.  The first biography was on James Woodforde, and his portion of the “Two Parsons” essay was eventually re-published as “Life Itself.”  The second mini-biography is on John Skinner; this text from the original “Two Parsons” appears below.




A whole world separates Woodforde, who was born in 1740 and died in 1803, from Skinner, who was born in 1772 and died in 1839.


For the few years that separated the two parsons are those momentous years that separate the eighteenth century from the nineteenth.  Camerton, it is true, lying in the heart of Somersetshire, was a village of the greatest antiquity; nevertheless, before five pages of the diary are turned we read of coal-works, and how there was a great shouting at the coal-works because a fresh vein of coal had been discovered, and the proprietors had given money to the workmen to celebrate an event which promised such prosperity to the village.  Then, though the country gentlemen seemed set as firmly in their seats as ever, it happened that the manor house at Camerton, with all the rights and duties pertaining to it, was in the hands of the Jarretts, whose fortune was derived from the Jamaica trade.  This novelty, this incursion of an element quite unknown to Woodforde in his day, had its disturbing influence no doubt upon the character of Skinner himself.  Irritable, nervous, apprehensive, he seems to embody, even before the age itself had come into existence, all the strife and unrest of our distracted times.  He stands, dressed in the prosaic and unbecoming stocks and pantaloons of the early nineteenth century, at the parting of the ways.  Behind him lay order and discipline and all the virtues of the heroic past, but directly he left his study he was faced with drunkenness and immorality; with indiscipline and irreligion; with Methodism and Roman Catholicism; with the Reform Bill and the Catholic Emancipation Act, with a mob clamouring for freedom, with the overthrow of all that was decent and established and right. Tormented and querulous, at the same time conscientious and able, he stands at the parting of the ways, unwilling to yield an inch, unable to concede a point, harsh, peremptory, apprehensive, and without hope.


Private sorrow had increased the natural acerbity of his temper. His wife had died young, leaving him with four small children, and of these the best-loved, Laura, a child who shared his tastes and would have sweetened his life, for she already kept a diary and had arranged a cabinet of shells with the utmost neatness, died too. But these losses, though they served nominally to make him love God the better, in practice led him to hate men more.  By the time the diary opens in 1822 he was fixed in his opinion that the mass of men are unjust and malicious, and that the people of Camerton are more corrupt even than the mass of men.  But by that date he was also fixed in his profession.  Fate had taken him from the lawyer's office, where he would have been in his element, dealing out justice, filling up forms, keeping strictly to the letter of the law, and had planted him at Camerton among churchwardens and farmers, the Gullicks and the Padfields, the old woman who had dropsy, the idiot boy, and the dwarf.  Nevertheless, however sordid his tasks and disgusting his parishioners, he had his duty to them; and with them he would remain.  Whatever insults he suffered, he would live up to his principles, uphold the right, protect the poor, and punish the wrongdoer.  By the time the diary opens, this strenuous and unhappy career is in full swing.


Perhaps the village of Camerton in the year 1822, with its coal- mines and the disturbance they brought, was no fair sample of English village life.  Certainly it is difficult, as one follows the Rector on his daily rounds, to indulge in pleasant dreams about the quaintness and amenity of old English rural life.  Here, for instance, he was called to see Mrs. Gooch--a woman of weak mind, who had been locked up alone in her cottage and fallen into the fire and was in agony.  "Why do you not help me, I say?  Why do you not help me?" she cried.  And the Rector, as he heard her screams, knew that she had come to this through no fault of her own.  Her efforts to keep a home together had led to drink, and so she had lost her reason, and what with the squabbles between the Poor Law officials and the family as to who should support her, what with her husband's extravagance and drunkenness, she had been left alone, had fallen into the fire, and so died.  Who was to blame? Mr. Purnell, the miserly magistrate, who was all for cutting down the allowance paid to the poor, or Hicks the Overseer, who was notoriously harsh, or the alehouses, or the Methodists, or what? At any rate the Rector had done his duty.  However he might be hated for it, he always stood up for the rights of the down- trodden; he always told people of their faults, and convicted them of evil.  Then there was Mrs. Somer, who kept a house of ill-fame and was bringing up her daughters to the same profession.  Then there was Farmer Lippeatt, who, turned out of the Red Post at midnight, dead drunk, missed his way, fell into a quarry, and died of a broken breastbone.  Wherever one turned there was suffering, wherever one looked one found cruelty behind that suffering.  Mr. and Mrs. Hicks, for example, the Overseers, let an infirm pauper lie for ten days in the Poor House without care, "so that maggots had bred in his flesh and eaten great holes in his body".  His only attendant was an old woman, who was so failing that she was unable to lift him.  Happily the pauper died.  Happily poor Garratt, the miner, died too.  For to add to the evils of drink and poverty and the cholera there was constant peril from the mine itself. Accidents were common and the means of treating them elementary.  A fall of coal had broken Garratt's back, but he lingered on, though exposed to the crude methods of country surgeons, from January to November, when at last death released him.  Both the stern Rector and the flippant Lady of the Manor, to do them justice, were ready with their half-crowns, with their soups and their medicines, and visited sick-beds without fail.  But even allowing for the natural asperity of Mr. Skinner's temper, it would need a very rosy pen and a very kindly eye to make a smiling picture of life in the village of Camerton a century ago.  Half-crowns and soup went a very little way to remedy matters; sermons and denunciations made them perhaps even worse.


The Rector found refuge from Camerton neither in dissipation like some of his neighbours, nor in sport like others.  Occasionally he drove over to dine with a brother cleric, but he noted acrimoniously that the entertainment was "better suited to Grosvenor Square than a clergyman's home--French dishes and French wines in profusion", and records with a note of exclamation that it was eleven o'clock before he drove home.  When his children were young he sometimes walked with them in the fields, or amused himself by making them a boat, or rubbed up his Latin in an epitaph for the tomb of some pet dog or tame pigeon.  And sometimes he leant back peacefully and listened to Mrs. Fenwick as she sang the songs of Moore to her husband's accompaniment on the flute.  But even such harmless pleasures were poisoned with suspicion.  A farmer stared insolently as he passed; someone threw a stone from a window; Mrs. Jarrett clearly concealed some evil purpose behind her cordiality.  No, the only refuge from Camerton lay in Camalodunum. The more he thought of it the more certain he became that he had the singular good fortune to live on the identical spot where lived the father of Caractacus, where Ostorius established his colony, where Arthur had fought the traitor Modred, where Alfred very nearly came in his misfortunes.  Camerton was undoubtedly the Camalodunum of Tacitus.  Shut up in his study alone with his documents, copying, comparing, proving indefatigably, he was safe, at rest, even happy.  He was also, he became convinced, on the track of an important etymological discovery, by which it could be proved that there was a secret significance "in every letter that entered into the composition of Celtic names".  No archbishop was as content in his palace as Skinner the antiquary was content in his cell.  To these pursuits he owed, too, those rare and delightful visits to Stourhead, the seat of Sir Richard Hoare, when at last he mixed with men of his own calibre, and met the gentlemen who were engaged in examining the antiquities of Wiltshire. However hard it froze, however high the snow lay heaped on the roads, Skinner rode over to Stourhead; and sat in the library, with a violent cold, but in perfect content, making extracts from Seneca, and extracts from Diodorum Siculus, and extracts from Ptolemy's Geography, or scornfully disposed of some rash and ill- informed fellow-antiquary who had the temerity to assert that Camalodunum was really situated at Colchester.  On he went with his extracts, with his theories, with his proofs, in spite of the malicious present of a rusty nail wrapped in paper from his parishioners, in spite of the laughing warning of his host:  "Oh, Skinner, you will bring everything at last to Camalodunum; be content with what you have already discovered; if you fancy too much you will weaken the authority of real facts".  Skinner replied with a sixth letter thirty-four pages long; for Sir Richard did not know how necessary Camalodunum had become to an embittered man who had daily to encounter Hicks the Overseer and Purnell the magistrate, the brothels, the ale-houses, the Methodists, the dropsies and bad legs of Camerton.  Even the floods were mitigated if one could reflect that thus Camalodunum must have looked in the time of the Britons.


So he filled three iron chests with ninety-eight volumes of manuscript.  But by degrees the manuscripts ceased to be entirely concerned with Camalodunum; they began to be largely concerned with John Skinner.  It was true that it was important to establish the truth about Camalodunum, but it was also important to establish the truth about John Skinner.  In fifty years after his death, when the diaries were published, people would know not only that John Skinner was a great antiquary, but that he was a much wronged, much suffering man.  His diary became his confidante, as it was to become his champion.  For example, was he not the most affectionate of fathers, he asked the diary?  He had spent endless time and trouble on his sons; he had sent them to Winchester and Cambridge, and yet now when the farmers were so insolent about paying him his tithes, and gave him a broken-backed lamb for his share, or fobbed him off with less than his due of cocks, his son Joseph refused to help him.  His son said that the people of Camerton laughed at him; that he treated his children like servants; that he suspected evil where none was meant.  And then he opened a letter by chance and found a bill for a broken gig; and then his sons lounged about smoking cigars when they might have helped him to mount his drawings.  In short, he could not stand their presence in his house.  He dismissed them in a fury to Bath.  When they had gone he could not help admitting that perhaps he had been at fault.  It was his querulous temper again--but then he had so much to make him querulous.  Mrs. Jarrett's peacock screamed under his window all night.  They jangled the church bells on purpose to annoy him. Still, he would try; he would let them come back.  So Joseph and Owen came back.  And then the old irritation overcame him again. He "could not help saying" something about being idle, or drinking too much cider, upon which there was a terrible scene and Joseph broke one of the parlour chairs.  Owen took Joseph's part.  So did Anna.  None of his children cared for him.  Owen went further. Owen said "I was a madman and ought to have a commission of lunacy to investigate my conduct".  And, further, Owen cut him to the quick by pouring scorn on his verses, on his diaries and archaeological theories.  He said "No one would read the nonsense I had written.  When I mentioned having gained a prize at Trinity College . . . his reply was that none but the most stupid fellows ever thought of writing for the college prize".  Again there was a terrible scene; again they were dismissed to Bath, followed by their father's curses.  And then Joseph fell ill with the family consumption.  At once his father was all tenderness and remorse. He sent for doctors, he offered to take him for a sea trip to Ireland, he took him indeed to Weston and went sailing with him on the sea.  Once more the family came together.  And once more the querulous, exacting father could not help, for all his concern, exasperating the children whom, in his own crabbed way, he yet genuinely loved.  The question of religion cropped up.  Owen said his father was no better than a Deist or a Socinian.  And Joseph, lying ill upstairs, said he was too tired for argument; he did not want his father to bring drawings to show him; he did not want his father to read prayers to him, "he would rather have some other person to converse with than me".  So in the crisis of their lives, when a father should have been closest to them, even his children turned away from him.  There was nothing left to live for.  Yet what had he done to make everyone hate him?  Why did the farmers call him mad?  Why did Joseph say that no one would read what he wrote?  Why did the villagers tie tin cans to the tail of his dog? Why did the peacocks shriek and the bells ring?  Why was there no mercy shown to him and no respect and no love?  With agonising repetition the diary asks these questions; but there was no answer. At last, one morning in December 1839, the Rector took his gun, walked into the beech wood near his home, and shot himself dead.