In an age where just about anyone attracting a modicum of ‘celebrity status’ feels compelled to tell the world about their life history, it’s a delight to come across a novel which parodies such pretensions. The Diary of a Nobody was written with the deliberate intent of mocking the diaries and memoirs that proliferated in the late 1880s. George Grossmith, an actor, and his artist brother Wheedon took the view that the British reading public had surely had enough of diaries written by people who were ‘Somebodies’ and it was high time attention was given to the ‘nobodies’ of this world. As Charles Pooter (the central character) puts it
Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ’Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.
In Charles Pooter we have a man who tries so hard to be a respectable member of the middle class but is foiled every time because of his inexhaustible ability to make a mess of a situation. So successful was this characterisation that it gave birth to two new adjectives: Pooterish and Pooteresque, both indicating a person who takes themselves far too seriously, believing their importance or influence is far greater than it really is.
The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of this London clerk, his wife Carrie and their feckless son Willie (who insists on being called Lupin). When the Diary begins Charles and Carrie have just moved into a six-roomed house in the Holloway district of London. The new residence is meant to signify that the Pooters are on their way up the social ladder. Charles in fact has a keen sense of his own importance and sees this move as his entry into a more refined social circle. Over the course of 15 months he records the many small pleasures, modest social occasions and acquaintances that make up his life.
The summary of the day’s entry for April 19 gives a good flavour of the Diary:
A conversation with Mr Merton on Society. Mr and Mrs James of Sutton come up. A miserable evening at the Tank Theatre. Experiments with enamel paint. I make another good joke; but Gowing and Cummings [two close friends] are unnecessarily offended. I paint the bath red, with unexpected results.
A year later Pooter is complaining about another social occasion which did not go according to plan:
Trouble with a stylographic pen. We go to a Volunteer Ball where I am let in for an expensive supper. Grossly insulted by a cabman. An odd invitation to Southend.
The Diary is a litany of mishaps and misadventures. Every time Charles gets an opportunity he thinks will enable him to shine, he makes some kind of mistake which proves socially embarrassing. He manages to tear his trousers and smear coal dust over his shirt just before going out to the Lord Mayor’s party, then in his eagerness to show he can waltz he slips bringing both he and his wife to the floor.
He fares no better at home, constantly falling over the boot scraper outside the front door and getting stitched up by tradespeople who over-charge or fail to deliver the promised goods. An episode in which he turns his hand to some home decor was probably my favourite. Enamoured with the red enamel paint he hears about at work he gets rather carried away, painting flower pots, wash-stands and chests of drawers. Then its the turn of the coal-scuttle and the bath to get the red paint treatment. Even though readers will guess what the outcome is, his discomfiture in the bath that night is still one of those laugh aloud moments:
… imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood. My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death and should be discovered later on looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s. My second thought was to ring the bell but I remembered there was no bell to ring. My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, pefectly red all over resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East End theatre.
In amongst the humour and the humdrum details of every day life, there are times when we see Charles Pooter in a way that evokes our sympathy. Despite his social aspirations this is a man who genuinely loves his family and is deeply concerned when his son loses his job and starts running around with an undesirable bunch of people. His sense of honour and integrity is severely put to the test by his so-called friends who regularly mock him while taking advantage of his hospitality.
Though more than 100 years old, it’s surprising how contemporary some of the pre-occupations of this novel feel. Don’t most parents even today worry their children are going off course and want to step in with a bit of course correction? Haven’t we all felt the frustrations when goods get delivered late or the order is incomplete? And I bet some of you at least will have been bamboozled by technical jargon when confronted by IT engineers or motor mechanics (or is that hust me?). Isn’t there a touch of Mr Pooter in all of us?
About the Book: Initially Charles Pooter’s exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine between 1888 and 89. It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics – The Athenaeum declared that “the book has no merit to compensate for its hopeless vulgarity, not even that of being amusing”. But by the time of the third issue in 1910 it was recognised as a classic work of humour – J B Priestley described it as “true humour…with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection” while Evelyn Waugh considered it “the funniest book in the world”.
About the authors: The Diary of a Nobody is the sole output of the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Both were stage entertainers – George often played the comic figure in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Weedon was also an artist and it was his work that illustrated early copies of the text.
Why I read this book: I included this in my Classics Club list because of the extrordinary literary influence it has exerted through the decades. Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones’ Diary are just two of the works that owe a debt to the Wheedon brothers, emulating their tone and format to huge commercial success. Without The Diary of a Nobody I wonder whether we would have ever seen the spoof diaries in Private Eye that parody the Prime Minister of the day (including the unforgettable St Albion Parish News from ‘Tony Blair’ and the current St. Theresa’s Independent State Grammar School for Girls (and Boys) from Theresa May.
Diary comic novel,