Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith.

"’s the diary that makes the man. Where would Evelyn and Pepys have been if it had not been for their diaries?"
The Diary of a Nobody is one of the finest pieces of comic literature of all time, written by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith (and illustrated by the latter) and published first in Punch (1888-89) and then in book form in 1892. 

It is the diary of a Mr. Charles Pooter, a lower middle class clerk working in the city London and living in Holloway (London Borough of Islington). It begins on his move to his new home, The Laurels on Brickfield Terrace (see Harry Mount's article 'Finding Pooter's House' for The Spectator) in Hollway, which Pooter describes in the introduction to his diary:
My dear wife Carrie and I have just been a week in our new house, "The Laurels," Brickfield Terrace, Holloway—a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour. We have a little front garden; and there is a flight of ten steps up to the front door, which, by-the-by, we keep locked with the chain up. Cummings, Gowing, and our other intimate friends always come to the little side entrance, which saves the servant the trouble of going up to the front door, thereby taking her from her work. We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway. We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent. He was certainly right; and beyond the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience.
He goes on to keep his diary for about 15 months (from April 3rd to July 10th the following year, presumably around the late 1880s when this was written) and we learn of his daily life, his friends and associates (particularly Gowing and Cummings), his work, his wife Carrie and son Lupin, his numerous failed attempts to rise from the lower middle class, his frequent battles with servants and local tradesmen (and his son, come to that), and his obsession of finding the perfect joke. He is quite frankly an awful snob, but a very likeable one - somehow, when reading, I always wanted Charles Pooter to succeed and do well. And above all else, it's funny - this gentle observational comedy of the late Victorian middle class life, Pooter with his snobbery, and this collection of sketches of both the mundane and the extraordinary, is a outstanding read and puts it very close to the class of Jerome K. Jerome. I can't speak highly enough of it!

George and Weedon Grossmith
Here are a few of my favourite parts:

On dry rot:
Aᴘʀɪʟ 12th - I took a walk round the garden three or four times, feeling the need of fresh air. On returning Gowing noticed I was not smoking: offered me another cigar, which I politely declined. 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 sides quite ached with laughter. I never was so immensely tickled by anything I have ever said before. I actually woke up twice during the night, and laughed till the bed shook.
The 'paint episode':
Aᴘʀɪʟ 25.—In consequence of Brickwell telling me his wife was working wonders with the new Pinkford’s enamel paint, I determined to try it. I bought two tins of red on my way home. I hastened through tea, went into the garden and painted some flower-pots. I called out Carrie, who said: "You’ve always got some newfangled craze;" but she was obliged to admit that the flower-pots looked remarkably well. Went upstairs into the servant's bedroom and painted her washstand, towel-horse, and chest of drawers. To my mind it was an extraordinary improvement, but as an example of the ignorance of the lower classes in the matter of taste, our servant, Sarah, on seeing them, evinced no sign of pleasure, but merely said "she thought they looked very well as they was before."
Aᴘʀɪʟ 26.—Got some more red enamel paint (red, to my mind, being the best colour), and painted the coal-scuttle, and the backs of our Shakspeare, the binding of which had almost worn out. 
Aᴘʀɪʟ 28th Went home early and bought some more enamel paint—black this time—and spent the evening touching up the fender, picture-frames, and an old pair of boots, making them look as good as new...  Also painted Gowing's walking-stick, which he left behind, and made it look like ebony. 
Aᴘʀɪʟ 27.—Painted the bath red, and was delighted with the result. Sorry to say Carrie was not, in fact we had a few words about it. She said I ought to have consulted her, and she had never heard of such a thing as a bath being painted red. I replied: "It’s merely a matter of taste."
Aᴘʀɪʟ 29, Sunday.—Woke up with a fearful headache and strong symptoms of a cold. Carrie, with a perversity which is just like her, said it was "painter’s colic," and was the result of my having spent the last few days with my nose over a paint-pot. I told her firmly that I knew a great deal better what was the matter with me than she did. I had got a chill, and decided to have a bath as hot as I could bear it. Bath ready—could scarcely bear it so hot. I persevered, and got in; very hot, but very acceptable. I lay still for some time. 
On moving my hand above the surface of the water, I experienced the greatest fright I ever received in the whole course of my life; for 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 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, perfectly red all over, resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East-End theatre. I determined not to say a word to Carrie, but to tell Farmerson to come on Monday and paint the bath white.
On being invited to the Lord Mayor's party:
Mᴀʏ 4.—Carrie’s mother returned the Lord Mayor’s invitation, which was sent to her to look at, with apologies for having upset a glass of port over it. I was too angry to say anything.
Following an argument:
Dᴇᴄᴇᴍʙᴇʀ 21 ... I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.
I could go on, but I'll leave it with a selection of illustrations by Weedon Grossmith (these are in most if not all editions; these I've picked from the 1921 edition published by A.A. Knopf):

Finally, cartoons of the authors by Spy (Leslie Ward) for Vanity Fair:

George Grossmith.
Weedon Grossmith.
Further reading


  1. You have a strong enough taste for Victorian humor that I must recommend Max Beerbohm if you have not read him before, especially Seven Men and Two Others but also Zuleika Dobson and the stylistic parodies in The Christmas Garland. These books are all post-Victorian, but they have the sensibility of and are generally about the period, or really the 1890s. Beerbohm is always looking backwards.

    1. Thanks Tom, I'll make a note of those. Not read any Beerbohm. I'll let you know what I find - might be going book shopping relatively soon so hopefully will get one of those sooner rather than later!


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