George & Weedon Grossmith The Diary of a Nobody (1892)
I have finally read this wonderful, funny book. Why did I ever put it off so long?
The Diary of a Nobody presents the reader with the putative diary of a lower middle-class London clerk, Charles Pooter. Hence, 'pooterish':
A person resembling or reminiscent of the character Charles Pooter, esp. in displaying parochial self-importance, over-fastidiousness, or lack of imagination. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Poor Charles Pooter: nothing ever goes right or comes off as planned. All of his attempts at bettering his position or helping family and friends or entering society or fixing things or almost anything he attempts are doomed to go bizarrely wrong. Pooter is so terribly serious ("I don't often make jokes" - this is quite untrue, since he invents many, many poor witticisms) about getting things right and doing things properly. Yet nothing goes to plan and he is constantly humiliated. At the theatre his bow tie drops off over the balcony - so many of his clothes malfunction:
I was a little vexed at everybody subsequently laughing at some joke which they did not explain, and it was only on going to bed I discovered I must have been walking about all the evening with an antimacassar on one button of my coat-tails.
His DIY is doomed: his love of red enamel paint results in a personal coating of the aforementioned. He can't even buy a Christmas card without disaster. Mr Pooter is the Mr Bean of the Victorian era: "I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat."
His attempts to negotiate with those whom he perceives as lower in status are doomed to disaster:
...Borset, the butterman, who was both drunk and offensive. Borset, on seeing me, said he would be hanged if he would ever serve City clerks any more—the game wasn't worth the candle. I restrained my feelings, and quietly remarked that I thought it was possible for a city clerk to be a gentleman. He replied he was very glad to hear it, and wanted to know whether I had ever come across one, for he hadn't. He left the house, slamming the door after him, which nearly broke the fanlight; and I heard him fall over the scraper, which made me feel glad I hadn't removed it. When he had gone, I thought of a splendid answer I ought to have given him.
At every step he is foiled by his dreadful, unreliable sponging friends, his wastrel son, the son's dubious fiancée and friends, and - mostly - his own incompetence.
I wrote a very satirical letter to Merton, the wine merchant, who gave us the pass, and said, "Considering we had to pay for our seats, we did our best to appreciate the performance." I thought this line rather cutting, and I asked Carrie how many p's there were in appreciate, and she said, "One." After I sent off the letter I looked at the dictionary and found there were two. Awfully vexed at this.
The Pooter son is a ne'er-do-well only child who brings mayhem into the family home and nearly destroys the firm for whom his father works - despite Pooter's fond hopes for his son to follow in his footsteps into respectable toil:
I lay awake for hours, thinking of the future. My boy in the same office as myself—we can go down together by the ’bus, come home together, and who knows but in the course of time he may take great interest in our little home. That he may help me to put a nail in here or a nail in there, or help his dear mother to hang a picture.
The 'diary' is also a wonderful evocation of Victorian daily life: the decor of the rented house at "The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway", the endless reappearances of mutton and blancmange, the making-do with clothing and DIY home repairs, the parlour games (Pin the Tail on the Donkey), and what a loving Victorian wife must put up with ("Carrie back. Hoorah! She looks wonderfully well, except that the sun has caught her nose.")...
The last few weeks of my diary are of minimum interest. The breaking off of the engagement between Lupin and Daisy Mutlar has made him a different being, and Carrie a rather depressing companion. She was a little dull last Saturday, and I thought to cheer her up by reading some extracts from my diary; but she walked out of the room in the middle of the reading, without a word. On her return, I said: “Did my diary bore you, darling?” She replied, to my surprise: “I really wasn’t listening, dear. I was obliged to leave to give instructions to the laundress..."
Rating: 10/10. Must read.
If you liked this... I want to read another 'G' of the era, namely George Gissing: either New Grub Street or - one that's got some blog love of late (here; here) - The Odd Women.