The Diary of a Nobody

Title: The Diary of a Nobody
Author: George & Weedon Grossmith
Published: 1892
Type of Text: Novel

Main Characters: Charles Pooter, the diarist (a clerk at a bank in the City, under Mr Perkupp), and his wife Carrie, who move into “The Laurels” in Holloway at the start of the novel; their son Willie (who prefers to be called by his middle name, Lupin, and who works at a bank in Oldham); the Pooters’ servant Sarah. Their friends, neighbours, and various tradesman, most notably Cummings, Gowing, Mrs James of Sutton, Mr Franching of Peckham, Daisy Mutlar and her brother Frank, and Mr Murray Posh.
Genre: Humour
Narrative Style: A succession of first-person diary entries of varying lengths, further split into chapters (each of which starts with a brief summary of contents); entries are not quite consistently every day, and there’s a gap of nearly two months apparently due to somebody ripping out a bunch of pages. First entries are in April, and the last are in July of the following year.
Themes & Imagery: Middle-class suburbia; domestic family life. Society, fashion, posh balls and dinners, and the need for “keeping up appearances” and sticking to politeness and propriety. Farce is introduced by Lupin, Pooter uses light wordplay (which he always finds hilarious). The gap between fathers and sons or middle-age and youth, tradition and risk-taking innovation. Respect for one’s supposed social betters; a sense of either self-respect or, perhaps, overblown self-importance tied to a level of ignorance. Hints that Pooter’s values are somewhat outdated. Simple pleasures and the enjoyment of routine.

Synopsis: The diary of Charles Pooter presents a very humourous account of suburban family life. There isn’t a conventional overt plot, but the narrative, such as it is, proceeds as follows: the tasks involved in setting up a new house; the Pooters go the Lord Mayor’s Ball at Mansion House (not as grand as Pooter expects); the unexpected return home of their son Lupin; a family holiday at Broadstairs; a grand party at home; Lupin’s trouble with women, and Pooter’s trouble with investments; the disastrous East Acton Volunteer Ball; a dinner with Franching and his guest of honour, the American writer Hardfur Huttle; séances under the direction of Mrs James; Lupin moves out, and Pooter has a great business success.
Personal Response: If I had to pick one word to describe this short novel, it would be “charming”. It makes for a very pleasant and relaxing easy read, and there’s an enjoyable sense of humour permeating the whole text (although I didn’t “laugh out loud”, despite the promises from the blurb of my edition). I appreciated that there was no attempt to create an explicit plot, to round things off neatly at the end of the narrative, which would have detracted from the realism; and the way that Pooter’s character is highlighted through the interactions with his friends and neighbours, and his various minor mishaps, build up a delightful picture which is augmented by actual illustrations.
Favourite Part:
Pooter’s over-enthusiastic adventures with enamel paint, which end with him covered in the stuff.

My Top Five Lines & Passages:

Poorer makes a joke at Gowing’s expense, and finds it utterly hilarious:

Gowing began his usual sniffing, so, anticipating him, I said: “You’re not going to complain of the smell of paint again?” He said: “No, not this time; but I’ll tell you what, I distinctly smell dry rot.” I don’t often make jokes, but I replied: “You’re talking a lot of dry rot yourself.” I could not help roaring at this, and Carrie said her side’s quite ached with laughter. I never was so immensely tickled by anything I had ever said before. I actually woke up twice during the night, and laughed till the bed shook.

Poorer makes another joke, about his shirts:

MAY 25
Carrie brought down some of my shirts and advised me to take them to Trillip’s round the corner. She said: “The fronts and cuffs are much frayed.” I said without a moment’s hesitation: “I’m frayed they are.” Lor! how we roared. I thought we should never stop laughing. As I happened to be sitting next the driver going to town on the bus, I told him my joke about the “frayed” shirts. I thought he would have rolled off his seat. They laughed at the office a good bit too over it.

MAY 26
Left the shirts to be repaired at Trillip’s. I said to him: “I’m ‘frayed they are frayed.” He said, without a smile: “They’re bound to do that, sir.” Some people seem to be quite destitute of a sense of humour.

The Pooters’ son Lupin is at home for the bank holiday weekend:

AUGUST 6, BANK HOLIDAY
As there was no sign of Lupin moving at nine o’clock, I knocked at his door, and said we usually breakfasted at half-past eight, and asked how long would he be? Lupin replied that he had had a lively time of it, first with the train shaking the house all night, and then with the sun streaming in through the window in his eyes, and giving him a cracking headache. Carrie came up and asked if he would like some breakfast sent up, and he said he could do with a cup of tea, and didn’t want anything to eat.
Lupin not having come down, I went up again at half-past one, and said we dined at two; he said he “would be there.” He never came down till a quarter to three. I said: “We have not seen much of you, and you will have to return by the 5.30 train; therefore you will have to leave in an hour, unless you go by the midnight mail.” He said: “Look here, Guv’nor, it’s no use beating about the bush. I’ve tendered my resignation at the bank.”
For a moment I could not speak. When my speech came again, I said: “How dare you, sir? How dare you take such a serious step without consulting me? Don’t answer me, sir! — you will sit down immediately, and write a note at my dictation, withdrawing your resignation and amply apologising for your thoughtlessness.”
Imagine my dismay when he replied with a loud guffaw: “It’s no use. If you want the good old truth, I’ve got the chuck!”

Pooter makes some social mistakes while commenting on some paintings belonging to his host, Mr Finsworth:

There was also a large picture in a very handsome frame, done in coloured crayons. It looked like a religious subject. I was very much struck with the lace collar, it looked so real, but I unfortunately made the remark that there was something about the expression of the face that was not quite pleasing. It looked pinched. Mr. Finsworth sorrowfully replied: “Yes, the face was done after death – my wife’s sister.”
I felt terribly awkward and bowed apologetically, and in a whisper said I hoped I had not hurt his feelings. We both stood looking at the picture for a few minutes in silence, when Mr. Finsworth took out a handkerchief and said: “She was sitting in our garden last summer,” and blew his nose violently. He seemed quite affected, so I turned to look at something else and stood in front of a portrait of a jolly-looking middle-aged gentleman, with a red face and straw hat. I said to Mr. Finsworth: “Who is this jovial-looking gentleman? Life doesn’t seem to trouble him much.” Mr. Finsworth said: “No, it doesn’t. He is dead too – my brother.”

Mr Hardfur Huttle makes quite an impact on Pooter at Franching’s dinner party:

I shall never forget the effect the words, “happy medium,” had upon him. He was brilliant and most daring in his interpretation of the words. He positively alarmed me. He said something like the following: “Happy medium, indeed. Do you know ‘happy medium’ are two words which mean ‘miserable mediocrity’? I say, go first class or third; marry a duchess or her kitchenmaid. The happy medium means respectability, and respectability means insipidness. Does it not, Mr. Pooter?”
I was so taken aback by being personally appealed to, that I could only bow apologetically, and say I feared I was not competent to offer an opinion. Carrie was about to say something; but she was interrupted, for which I was rather pleased, for she is not clever at argument, and one has to be extra clever to discuss a subject with a man like Mr. Huttle.
He continued, with an amazing eloquence that made his unwelcome opinions positively convincing: “The happy medium is nothing more or less than a vulgar half-measure. A man who loves champagne and, finding a pint too little, fears to face a whole bottle and has recourse to an imperial pint, will never build a Brooklyn Bridge or an Eiffel Tower. No, he is half-hearted, he is a half-measure — respectable — in fact, a happy medium, and will spend the rest of his days in a suburban villa with a stucco-column portico, resembling a four-post bedstead.”
We all laughed.
“That sort of thing,” continued Mr. Huttle, “belongs to a soft man, with a soft beard with a soft head, with a made tie that hooks on.”
This seemed rather personal and twice I caught myself looking in the glass of the chiffoniere; for I had on a tie that hooked on — and why not?

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