The Torrington Diaries, Vols. I and Ii
[Holt, $4.50 each]
ONE need not he a confirmed diary reader to hope that the volumes of the Torrington diaries now published are forerunners of a substantial and carefully indexed series. Lieutenant Colonel the Honorable John Byng, fifth Viscount Torrington, ward and namesake of the admiral executed pour encourager les a autres, was chiefly known to his own generation as the husband of the beautiful Bridget Forrest. She, fortunately, preferred the gayeties of Weymouth and Cheltenham to country rambles and antiquarian potterings, or Byng might never have discovered that he possessed the true diarist’s temper, fostering innumerable likes and dislikes with indulgent humor.
His ruling passion was rural England, Deploring the changes since Walton’s day, foreseeing still more striking ones, he set them down for the benefit of the social historian. But it is the resemblances rather than the changes that make these perfect bed-books for travelers. Chipping Norton ‘chearfully set,’Rye ‘like other maratime towns, smelling of fish and punch,’ the towers of Lincoln, Fairford, the hollies in Dean, are little changed since they delighted Byng; in the New Forest the westward traveler may still eat his first clotted cream, in Caerphilly still repent of sleeping in dump sheets. If we cannot come by Shakespearean relics and hot rolls as easily as Byng did, at least we need not sprinkle our bedrooms with brandy before retiring, nor rely for our sightseeing upon Leland and invincible determination.
To Byng ‘castles and monasteries in decay are the daintiest speculation.’ Vainly did surly landlords maintain that such ‘old antient places’ were ‘all pulled down by Oliver Cromwell,’ and tempt him with silk mills instead: Byng orders Poney round undeterred, and ‘crows for joy’ when the ruins appear ‘in all the charms of venerable intiquity.’ Though the Westmoreland exponents of the Romantic spirit might not agree that ‘the way to enjoy Tintern Abbey properly is to bring wine, cold meats, and corn for the horses, and spread your table in the ruins,’ Byng is undeniably a Romantic, however unconscious. His love of old oak and Gothic mouldings, of liturgy and ‘Popish adornments’ (‘I am for high dress . . . like that great, and good . . . Archbishop Laud’), his interest in the White Rose, and his enthusiasm for cottages with geraniums in the windows, stamp him no less plainly than his taste for towers hy moonlight, for woods and waterfalls. The eighteenth century is apparent only in the soundness of Byng’s attitude toward meals and toward views:
‘ Prospects . . . fatigue my eyes and flurry ray nerves, and I allways wish to find myself in the tranquil vale below.’
Not for the sake of its tranquillity, however. ’Up at seven . . . to swallow some health in a pint of buttermilk, then with Mr. R. (who had never wandered so far before) to the remains of Osney Abbey. . . . I afterwards dragg’d my companion round the castle, returned by the bookseller’s in hopes of catalogues, and stopp’d at Sadlers the pastry-cook’s to see the famous balloonist.’ A breakfast of strawberries and cream, and they were off to the serious sightseeing of the day before Byng’s companion had ‘time to ponder or complain.’ It is comforting to know that in spite of the company at supper Byng had difficulty in keeping his eyes open. The rule of ‘no visiting at all on a Tour was inevitable (‘the morning was lost in civility’); nor can one wonder that after a week of any expedition he grows suddenly rueful: ‘People had better stay at home than lavish their money abroad . . . running wild about the world to watering-places, to squabble in inns and petrify in caves.‘
But let the port be sound, or the booksellers rewarding, and depression is alleviated. ‘A man shou’d go in for hope’; the approach to Ludlow is ‘in the first style’ — and the happy traveler is off again, to our joy and his own.