In 1937 the periodical Farmers Weekly published extracts from what it claimed to be the diary of a late-eighteenth century farmer’s wife, Anne Hughes. With characteristic idiosyncratic spelling —the title ‘Ann Hughes - Her Boke’ being the first and most obvious example— the diary purports to recount the daily life of Anne, her husband John, housemaid Sarah, and assorted friends, relatives, and acquaintances on a remote farm in Herefordshire. It has a charming, rustic ‘feel’ which strongly suggests that it may be authentic, but its veracity has never been proven. In the 1981 Folio edition Michael Croucher did his best to persuade the reader that the diary was at least based on genuine documents, and this seems to be the consensus now, with the actual diary and a possible accompanying cookery book both mysteriously disappearing in the 1940s. For those interested in more details on this strange story, the excellent website annehughesdiary.co.uk can provide the most up-to-date information.
However, whether completely genuine or not, the diary reveals something striking about our own perceptions of rural life at that time. Despite a plethora of evidence that it was hard and, for many, at just above subsistence level, Anne and her servant Sarah’s environment is portrayed as busy and essentially comfortable. The portrayal conforms to a quasi-ideal of country life in which the work is hard but the rewards are worthwhile and deserved. Anne Hughes presents us with an equally wishful image of rural life without the social and economic hardships that we know existed at the time. This illusion is similar to the collective self-deception which used to justify the use of slave trade profits to build the fine civic architecture of the same period —their beauty and the apparent generosity of these public donations disguised the ugly source of their financing.
Anne describes her days in precise detail, so that it is easy to become enchanted with the daily rituals of farm life. However, under the surface of the narrative are suggestions that the diary was doctored to be more entertaining to mid-twentieth century tastes. A few examples serve to demonstrate this point while also giving a flavour of the narrative as a whole. Early in the diary Anne states that one of the best cows on the farm has been killed by lightning, an event which will anger her husband John. She writes (without irony, one hopes), “I must feed him well and so hummer him. Men be just like childer and as much trouble in many ways, but John be a good husband and I would not like to lose him, he bein just a great babe for sure.”
Later there is a passage which does stretch the credibility of the book as a whole, but again casts a light on the characters of Anne and her husband. John is riding back from visiting his mother when he is held up for money on the road. After a short conversation the would-be thief realises that John’s parents have saved him from prison in the past, and apologises for attempting to rob him. As if this were not unlikely enough, Anne then writes that he “did ask John pardon; whereon John did give him a ginney and bad him go his gait which he did, and John home safe.” John was visiting his mother because of his father’s recent death. It seems that John’s parents also own a farm some distance away, and his mother is unsure whether she can now run the farm alone. According to Anne, John advises her to sell up and come and live with them. The response from Anne seems barely plausible. She writes that his mother needn’t bother selling but should just pack up and move in for “She been a dear sweet body.”
The book is scattered with fragments of daily life together with detailed descriptions of meals prepared and cooked. This reinforces the idea that the book may be a compilation of two separate sources, but both have the flavour of authenticity. Take, for example, an entry dated “Aug. ye 27.” It is a Sunday, and John and Anne have gone to church. There is a new parson, and his sermon does not go down well. This is how Anne describes it: “John did fidgett much, he not liking the passon; which be a new one, who tell us that hell be nere and we all going there: and that it be wrong to heard monies, for the divell will get it all. And he did look so hard at John that I did fear he be off from the church wrothfullie. But John did stare back at the man, and fould his armes and look puffed up.”
Anne writes much about her maidservant Sarah, who works hard around the house and farm and has a good relationship with her mistress. Her personality comes through when Anne recounts some of the ordinary happenings which occur around the farm, for example in this extract from “Jun ye 7 and 8”: “John hav bin verrie cross at the brindel cow which did knock him over and spil milk on his small cloes. Sarah seeing him did start to giggel, so I did send her to the chest for dry cloes ere John did see her laff, he not liking to be laffed at. But later in the dairy Sarah and me did laff much.”
Earlier in the year, on Saint Valentine’s Day, Anne records a charming anecdote regarding her young maid: “this morn Sarah cum in from the milking looking all red about the cheek and her cap awry. I being curious did stop her, and she did say Carter Trues son did say he was her Valentine, and she had said yes. She did giggle a great deal and I did tell her to get on with her work, and not to be a silly wench; but I fear there be much whisperings and kisses going on, they bein both young.” A few months later Anne is woken around midnight by the sound of Sarah leaving the house. Intrigued, she dresses and follows her out. Sarah stops outside the stable and, in Anne’s words:
“me standing by the straw stacke did hear her say: Hempseed I sowe and he that’s my true love cum to me nowe Then I did see what the sillie wench were doing; she sowing the seed where the carters lad do walk, and his big feet crumping it, the smell there of would reach his nose and so make him turn to her from all other wenches.”
Here there may be a clue to the diary’s authenticity. Although not from the same county, another source suggests that what Anne describes was a real event. In John Symonds Udal’s 1922 book Dorsetshire Folklore, in a section on marriage charms, he writes that on Midsummer’s Eve at midnight “A girl would walk through the garden with a rake on her left shoulder, and, throwing hemp seed over her right, would repeat these lines: ‘Hemp seed I set, hemp seed I sow, The man that is my true love come after me and mow’.”
The interesting detail here is the hemp seed, mentioned in both texts. It is evidence of a folk-lore belief commonly held at the time in rural communities, that scattered hemp seed could assist a girl to find her future husband. While it does not confirm that the diary is completely genuine, it does suggest that it was compiled from an original source. The Dorset poet William Barnes wrote in a poem from 1846 that such spells were commonplace in rural communities:
The while the slowly-clanging bell Struck twelve o’clock, and giggling maids Stole out to try the well-known spell That brings their unknown husband’s shades.
By September the spell seems to have worn off. Sarah has been quiet for a few days and Anne eventually asks her what is wrong. Again, in Anne’s words: “she do start to howl, and I do say, what is it? And after her howling a bit she do say carters lad be walking out with Bella Griffin, and she did pass her by and not look at her; but that Bella did giggle at her in passing; and that she do hate carters lad, and do hope he will be off for a soljer out of her way.”
And so the diary continues on its way. Neighbours die and farms are sold, a cat gets into the larder and eats a ham, and John becomes jealous of his cousin who comes to stay. Two men boast of stealing food from the farm and John discovers who they are, and with the assistance of the local publican gives them both a whipping. All these events have the flavour of a real diary but still some doubts remain. The latter part of the diary is repetitive and perhaps too comfortable. Sarah is betrothed to the new parson and marries, at which point Anne decides to stop writing her diary.
It cannot be disputed that the diary is something of a puzzle. While it may delight in parts, it also frustrates, for it fails to completely convince. There are nagging doubts: Is the language really authentic? Are the descriptions of daily life accurate or are they a fiction, perhaps inspired by a real diary? Without the physical evidence of the original diary or cookery book it is impossible to tell, but perhaps there are some clues worth mentioning. The pre-war period saw the rise to popularity of Mary Webb’s novels. These were set in rural England and full of the imagined minutiae of eighteenth-century country life together with a smattering of made-up words to lend the whole enterprise authenticity. Her books were the main target of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, published in 1932, which also portrayed a rural life peopled by individuals who spoke off-puttingly and behaved even worse! It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Jeanne Preston, the writer who presented the diary to Farmers Weekly, was taking advantage of the genre’s popularity, and turned excerpts from genuine source material into the Anne Hughes diary as we know it today.
Whatever the truth, the diary entertains. Suspend your disbelief and enter a lighthearted world of cheese- and wine-making, shepherds who drink too much cider, petty squabbles with neighbours, and controversies over whose best dress cost more and whose bonnet has too many ribbons on it. The diary is not an historical source because it cannot be verified, so it must be taken as it is and the reader must decide how much to believe. I have been familiar with it for a number of years and I think that it is a fiction based on genuine material —but decide for yourself!--Paul Flux