The Diary of a Nobody – Finding out exactly what led to Pooterism

 

This is my review of George Grossmith’s  The Diary of a Nobody

“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.” So begins Charles Pooter’s diary, which started as an intermittent serial in “Punch” from 1888. At first it was belittled by critics – proving incomprehensible to a “New York Times” reviewer – because it was based on the banal life of an ordinary office worker. Gradually, it became appreciated as an early form of satire, with “Pooterish” coined as a word to describe a ludicrous sense of self-importance and narrow-mindedness. Despite his excessive concern with conventions, delusion over his authority at work and complacency over his state of “domestic bliss”, not to mention his appalling puns, Charles Pooter has been regarded with affection by generations of readers, a household name even for people like me who have never bothered to read the book until now.

When obliged to do so for a book group, I expected to find the “diary” very dated with its gently slapstick humour. In fact, it provides a fascinating insight into daily life in late Victorian London. On a clerk’s pay, Pooter was able to rent a six-roomed house which, judging by the original illustration, would require a hefty mortgage nowadays. His wife did not need to go out to work and he could afford to employ a live-in maid. Although often proving unreliable, tradesmen seemed readily available when something needed to be fixed. If the meat went off in the pantry because of hot weather, the maid could be sent out in the evening to buy chops from the butcher. When Pooter’s brash son Lupin got the sack, he could easily get another job through word-of-mouth: no formal applications required. The family always seemed to have the money for a holiday, buying new clothes for the purpose, or go out for some entertainment. In the absence of television, they made their own daft yet touchingly innocent entertainment, like “put the tail on the donkey”, which modern children would find rather tame for a party, or scared themselves with séances, wilfully gullible in turning a blind eye to patent cheating.

As typified by the contrast between Pooter’s resistance to change and his son’s determination to get away from Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, (“There’s no money in it, and I am not going to rot away my life in the suburbs”), this short novel happens to capture a stable, conventional society on the brink of dramatic change. The ending was so abrupt, I thought there was a fault on my Kindle. It was as if the author had tired of his creation, and although I am glad to have read this, I had had enough as well when it came to a halt.

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