“Imaginative research”; “immensely accessible”

Two book reviews of Mary Hardy and her World have appeared in the Parson Woodforde Society Journal, volume 53, no. 2, for August 2020. The first, on pages 26–9, covers all four volumes and is by the brewery and business historian Professor Richard G. Wilson, former Director of the Centre for East Anglian Studies.

The second, on pages 29–33, concentrates on the third volume, Spiritual and social forces, which holds particular appeal for Parson Woodforde enthusiasts. A Norfolk rector, James Woodforde lived within twenty miles of his fellow diarist and contemporary, Mary Hardy. The reviewer is the Venerable Dr William (Bill) Jacob, former Archdeacon of Charing Cross.

Both are full of praise for the new study.

“This extraordinary venture”

To set the scene for his readers Richard Wilson opens with an assessment of the full edition of Mary Hardy’s diary, published in 2013 and seen by him as “a triumph”. He quickly moves on to Margaret Bird’s new study, “a massive achievement”, with her “32 years of devoted labour to this extraordinary venture”.

He summarises the content of each of the four volumes (reached also on this website from the links under World Volumes). Richard Wilson continues:

“Such a bald description of the four volumes gives little indication of their riches. The author meticulously draws out every nuance from the brief accounts the diarist made each day and places them in the context of Britain’s economic and social transformation in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

The result is the best form of immensely detailed local history, always explored and expanded in the context of the latest secondary literature.”

“A world largely devoted to work”

Referring to the Parson Woodforde Society’s 17-volume edition of the complete text of James Woodforde’s diary he considers the two diarists and their editors “provide unparalleled insights into Georgian society in the late eighteenth century”. Their significance is reinforced by the striking fact that “the two assiduous diarists . . . inhabited worlds apart”.

Woodforde “led a life of leisure supported by his five servants”; he could “slip easily into the circle of the gentry”:

“Mary Hardy in contrast knew only a world largely devoted to work. The drive of her and her husband and surviving son is everywhere evident in her diary . . . To survive, the Hardys were tough to the core.”

“Imaginative and extended research”

Professor Wilson then highlights one of the strengths of Margaret Bird’s approach, discernible in each of her 39 chapters and the variety of her primary and secondary sources: “her wonderful capacity for drawing out her themes from imaginative and extended research”.

He concludes that Mary Hardy and her World “fully lives up to the high standards of scholarship and presentation” of the four Diary volumes. The new study adopts “the same winning format of innumerable illustrations (revealing the author’s love of Norfolk and her task), easily accessible full marginal notes, and 353 pages of meticulous index.

The result is an important contribution to the social and economic history of the period.”

“Woodforde’s world is brilliantly illuminated”

Bill Jacob follows with his review of Volume 3. He opens:

“Woodforde’s world at Weston is brilliantly illuminated and extended by Margaret Bird’s four-volume study of the world of Mary Hardy, a devout lay diary-keeper . . .

The Hardys, people of business, prosperous brewers, maltsters and farmers, had a much more extensive social life than the Woodfordes, with visitors . . . most days.”

“We see the world of the prosperous ‘middling sort’ ”

Like Richard Wilson, Dr Jacob is struck by the differences in the circle and way of life of the two diarists:

“In addition to much background information about clergy incomes (including tithes), curacies, parsonage houses, and preaching, through Mary Hardy’s diary and Margaret Bird’s volumes of commentary we see the world of the prosperous ‘middling sort’ of the laity, who only have walk-on parts in Woodforde’s diary.”

As a result we get from Mary Hardy a sense of lay people’s engagement with religion—a feature almost entirely omitted by the clerical diarist. The review refers to the battles over private baptism, for parents were not always willing to bring their newborn children to be presented in church at the font. (Haddiscoe’s mediaeval font is here seen at the banner.)

Leadership by women in religion

The mobility of those involved in a “consumerist rural religious culture” is clearly apparent in Mary Hardy and her World. Quite apart from attending Nonconformist meetings (services) “the Hardys would go gadding off to hear itinerant Evangelical Anglican curates” in nearby parishes.

For Bill Jacob the new study by Margaret Bird opens up “a whole new world”, as in her focus on the active participation and leadership by women in religious life:

“There is much here that will be new to people, even like me, who think we know this world and locality well.”

“The volumes are immensely accessible”

Bill Jacob ends with praise for all four volumes, which he classes as “immensely accessible”.

He highlights the 123 pages of index in Volume 3, ranging from “accidents” to Count “Zinzendorf”. And the price too is very good value for a well-illustrated hardback, “at just over 5p a page”.

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Pre-publication article

Rowan Mantell highlights some intriguing features of Mary Hardy’s record:  250-year-old diary