There can’t be many humorous books about everyday life that still make one laugh more than a century after they were written. The pattern of English middle-class life has radically changed since The Diary of a Nobody was first published in 1892, but rereading it recently, I found its fictional author, the City clerk Charles Pooter, of ‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, still instantly recognizable.
I’m bound to admit that some of the experiences, and also, for heavens’ sake, the attitudes of the ‘pathetic ass who records his trivial life’ (as William Emrys Williams put it in his introduction to the Penguin edition of 1945), seem embarrassingly close to my own. Mr Pooter may have lived more than a hundred years ago – just up the road from where I live now, as it happens, in a house, er, rather similar to mine – but his psychology is timeless.
‘I fail to see why – because I don’t happen to be a “Somebody”’ – writes Mr Pooter in his prefatory statement, ‘my diary should not be interesting’ – and many of us will recognize that dear old friend or relative who is convinced that his diary or autobiography, his record of his times will, when published, prove a valuable contribution to our national life. He’s still with us today and keeps the vanity publishing industry going. ‘My only regret’, Mr Pooter concludes, ‘is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.’ But the poor chap is clearly one of those people who – unlike his rebellious 20-year-old son Lupin – would seem never to have had a ‘youth’, but to have been born middle-aged.
The true authors of the Diary, George and Weedon Grossmith, were both men of the theatre. George, born in 1847, was a comic actor, musical entertainer and writer, and by the time the Diary was written he had composed the words and music of hundreds of songs and sketches and performed the lead baritone roles in a number of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas, including Koko (the Lord High Executioner) and Jack Point. There were Pooteresque moments in his own life. Talking to Gilbert after auditioning for the lead role as the tradesman-like John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer, the diminutive actor suggested that the role might be better played by ‘a fine man with a fine voice’. Gilbert replied: ‘That is exactly what we don’t want,’ and Grossmith was hired.
George’s younger brother Weedon, born in 1854, gave up a career as an artist for the stage when he found he had liabilities of £700 and cash assets of £6. His participation in The Diary of a Nobody came when he was beginning to make his name as a comic actor, eventually to be renowned in farce. As well as being its co-author, Weedon provided the illustrations for the Diary, and his graphic portrayal of Pooter is a central part of that comic masterpiece, fixing for ever the image of the stiff, formal, bearded figure with elongated, gravely held head, a posture which never varies whether he is shown walking in public in full dress, solemnly doing some absurd DIY, or falling to the ground in an undignified party game.
There is a splendid gallery, too, of the late Victorian fringe of-London types who inhabit the pages of the Diary: Pooter’s ‘dear friends’ Cummings and Gowing, the vacuous and the vulgar, who drop in frequently of an evening for a game of Consequences, or to pass on a copy of Bicycle News; the successful small businessman Mr Franching, ‘a great swell in his way’ with his curly moustache and floral buttonhole, whom Mr Pooter is always eager to impress; Lupin’s future brother-in-law, the hat-manufacturer Mr Murray Posh, who on a visit to Brickfield Terrace treats the company to ‘a long but most interesting history of the extraordinary difficulties in the manufacture of cheap hats’ (we’ve many of us sat next to him at dinner); and the unbending Mr Perkupp, Mr Pooter’s boss. And, of course, Mr Pooter’s ‘dear wife’ Carrie, who shares his own banal sense of humour and penchant for puns at all times, his irrepressible son Lupin, and Lupin’s unsuitable girlfriends – Daisy Mutlar, who ditches him for Mr Posh, and Posh’s sister ‘Lillie Girl’, whom Lupin eventually marries.
As classical mythology and our own experience teach us, the new generation is always at war with the old, and this is certainly the case in the Pooter household. The Diary rings excruciatingly true in its depiction of the generation gap. Son Lupin – previously known as Willie – arrives home unexpectedly (sacked) from his job at the bank in Oldham announcing that he is now to be known by his middle name. Lupin speaks a different language from his parents, keeps fast company, stays out late and lies in bed in the morning, and mocks his father at every turn. Most hurtfully, he refuses to walk along the parade at Broadstairs with ‘the Guv’nor’ when Mr Pooter wears his strange new holiday headgear (‘the shape of the helmet worn in India, only made of straw’) with his frock-coat.
Money is another, all too familiar, gladiatorial arena. Lupin’s parents are shocked by his easy come, easy go attitudes while he despises their penny-pinching. (‘Very nice apartments near the station. On the cliffs they would have been double the price,’ writes Mr Pooter of their holiday at Broadstairs, and later agrees with Carrie about ‘the great disadvantage of going out in Society and increasing the number of our friends’ since this means having to send out nearly two dozen Christmas cards.) Lupin eventually finds himself a job with a stocks and shares broker in the City: when his father proudly announces a salary rise of £100 after 21 years’ faithful service, Lupin caps it by telling him he’s just made £200 after only a few weeks’ work.
How secretly and toe-curlingly familiar are the small snobberies and social embarrassments that make up Mr Pooter’s life – the stylish invitation displayed a little too prominently and too long on the mantelpiece, the fluster when caught on the hop by an impressive new friend. Having run into Mr Franching and impulsively invited him home to meat tea, Mr Pooter is mortified to get no answer when they arrive back at ‘The Laurels’ – only a glimpse, through the frontdoor ‘panels of ground glass (with stars)’, of Carrie rushing upstairs:
I told Mr Franching to wait at the door while I went round to the side. There I saw the grocer’s boy actually picking off the paint on the door, which had formed into blisters. No time to reprove him; so went round and effected an entrance through the kitchen window . . . I went upstairs to Carrie, who was changing her dress, and told her I had persuaded Mr Franching to come home. She replied ‘How can you do such a thing? You know it’s Sarah’s holiday, and there’s not a thing in the house, the cold mutton having turned with the hot weather.’
Tradesmen, servants and office juniors all mock Mr Pooter. Invited (on the recommendation of Mr Perkupp) to a ball at the Mansion House, he is patronized by Farmerson the local ironmonger, in whose company he and Carrie are appalled to find themselves, and crashes to the ground on the dance floor, brought down by the slippery soles of his new evening shoes. As a final insult the Pooters’ names are omitted from the list of guests published in the Blackfriars Bi-Weekly News. After an acrimonious correspondence, the following announcement finally appears:
We have received two letters from Mr and Mrs Charles Pewter, requesting us to announce the important fact that they were at the Mansion House Ball.
All this is the more painful as the Pooters have ordered eleven copies of the Bi-Weekly to send to their friends.
Pooter’s disastrous attempts at DIY ring some painful bells too. Inspired by the news that the wife of his colleague Brickwell is ‘working wonders with the new Pinkford’s enamel paint’, he buys two tins of red on his way home from work (‘red, to my mind, being the best colour’), decides to improve the bath with a coat, and is ‘delighted with the result’. Carrie is not pleased, however, and Pooter experiences ‘the greatest fright I have ever received’ when an extra hot bath dissolves the paint and he believes he is bleeding to death.
Derided, humbled, taken advantage of, Pooter cuts a ridiculous figure – and yet one’s laughter at his expense is often checked by a sense of pathos. Unmistakably Victorian yet strangely modern, Charles Pooter is a ‘good’ man, as Mr Perkupp observes in what I read as the ironic ending to the Diary, in which our hero’s luck turns and he saves the fortunes of the firm by landing a new client. Loyal, honest, unimaginative, conservative – were not these qualities of his the very same ones on which the foundations of the British Empire rested in its heyday, Pooter’s heyday too? Let us leave him now as he celebrates his good fortune with Carrie, Gowing and Cummings over two bottles of ‘Jackson Frères’, for which Sarah, the servant, has been hastily dispatched to the local grocer’s. And now I must just nip up the road myself.
© Antony Wood, Slightly Foxed Issue 32, Winter 2011