George and Weedon Grossmith
July 2, 2000
BOOKEND / By JIM HOLT / http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/07/02/bookend/bookend.html
I Yield to Nobody
As much as I liked ''Topsy-Turvy,'' Mike Leigh's movie about Gilbert and Sullivan, I did find one thing about it unsettling. Who was that diminutive, pallid, pince-nez-wearing and rather epicene actor in the D'Oyly Carte opera company, the one who was shown in his dressing room tearfully jabbing his needle-scarred forearm with a hypo full of heroin? After I noticed the other characters in the film address this fellow first as ''Mr. Grossmith'' and then as ''George,'' the penny dropped: Why, that must be George Grossmith -- the man who, after chucking his career with Gilbert and Sullivan, went on to write a book that I cherish above all others, a book that I have repeatedly rejoiced in reading, a book that has been my prop and stay in troubled times: ''The Diary of a Nobody.''
I am hardly alone in rating ''The Diary of a Nobody'' a singular work of genius. From the time it was published in 1892 (with illustrations by George Grossmith's brother, Weedon), it began to collect enthusiastic admirers. Hilaire Belloc deemed it ''one of the half-dozen immortal achievements of our time . . . a glory for us all.'' It was a favorite of T. S. Eliot and John Betjeman. Evelyn Waugh declared it to be ''the funniest book in the world'' and had his character Lady Marchmain read passages from it aloud to her family in ''Brideshead Revisited.''
''The Diary of a Nobody'' began as a series in the English humor magazine Punch in the late 1880's. The entries were supposedly written by one Charles Pooter, a bearded, frock-coated, middle-aged clerk who worked in an old-fashioned City of
firm and lived in a tidy little house
in the suburb of Holloway. ''Why should I not publish my diary?'' he asks at
the outset. ''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.'' Pooter meticulously records his little
experiments in home improvement, his encounters with impertinent tradespeople,
his anxieties over the antics of his rapscallion son, Lupin, his tender (if
occasionally strained) moments with his dear little wife, Carrie, his social
evenings at home with his bosom friends Mr. Cummings and Mr. Gowing -- all the
small triumphs and minor humiliations and homely pleasures of everyday life as
lived in a lower-middle-class household in the late Victorian era. London
Pooter is rather dim. He is also priggish, gullible and anxious about keeping up appearances. Little mishaps mar his days (''May 30. . . . As I heard the 'bus coming, I left with a hurried kiss -- a little too hurried, perhaps, for my upper lip came in contact with Carrie's teeth and slightly cut it. It was quite painful for an hour afterwards.'') Though he is unable to laugh at his own absurdity, he piques himself on his humor and is given to laborious puns:
''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 'fraid 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 humor.''
The quiet reproofs by which Pooter intends to preserve his self-importance never quite come off. (When a cheeky office boy tells him to keep his hair on, Pooter gravely informs him that ''I had had the honor of being in the firm 20 years, to which he insolently replied that I 'looked it.' '') Such is his sense of petit-bourgeois propriety that he is unable to acknowledge the cause of his occasional hangovers, blaming not the dubious Champagne he thriftily favors (''Jackson Frères'' from the grocer around the corner) but the ''unsettled weather'' or having been ''poisoned by some lobster.''
Of the three humorous character types found in literature -- the comic rogue, the comic butt and the solemn fool -- Pooter comes closest to the third type, which, I would argue, is generally the most amusing. Nothing is funnier than solemnity. But if Pooter inspires mirth in the reader, he also elicits an equal measure of affection. He may be hedged about by absurdity, but he is a thoroughly decent man, touching in his anxiety to do the right thing. He is honest, loyal and kind. His diary is suffused with sweet suburban wisdom. When his son announces what seems to be a premature engagement to a doubtfully suitable woman, Pooter records the following:
''Carrie and I talked the matter over during the evening, and agreed that it did not always follow that an early engagement meant an unhappy marriage. Dear Carrie reminded me that we married early, and, with the exception of a few trivial misunderstandings, we had never had a really serious word. I could not help thinking (as I told her) that half the pleasures of life were derived from the little struggles and small privations that one had to endure at the beginning of one's married life. . . .
''Carrie said I had expressed myself wonderfully well, and that I was quite a philosopher.''
It is little wonder that this oddly dignified embodiment of Everyman has stamped the English language with his own adjective: ''Pooterish.'' (This, by the way, is one of some 20 coinages that the Oxford English Dictionary attributes to ''The Diary of a Nobody,'' along with ''I've got the chuck!'' for being fired from one's job; ''a good address''; and ''bread-pills'' for those little missiles sometimes launched across the dinner table.) What is a wonderment is how George Grossmith (1847-1912), Pooter's creator, could himself have been the highly un-Pooterish chap depicted in ''Topsy-Turvy'' -- a drug-addicted thespian, no less. My curiosity having been aroused by the film, I did a little digging into Grossmith's life (courtesy of the New York Public Library's splendid performing arts collection). I discovered that he was indeed short, pale and rather severe-looking in his pince-nez; that according to one contemporary, he had a ''dry, odd manner''; and that according to another, he did resort to drugs to steady his stage nerves, his arms being spotted with unsightly needle marks as a result. Beyond that, however, there was nothing the least bit lugubrious about him. To the contrary, he seems to have been a model of Victorian robustness, energy and cheer. When he wasn't creating the great roles in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertory -- the Lord Chancellor in ''Iolanthe,'' Sir Joseph Porter in ''H.M.S. Pinafore,'' Ko-Ko in ''The Mikado'' -- he was tearing about the
British Isles with his piano in a
one-man ''Humorous and Musical Recital.'' When he performed in in 1892, the
critic for The New York Herald wrote: ''Two minutes after the dapper little
fellow, typically English in manner and voice, but extremely modest and
pleasing in his address, had appeared onstage, a broad smile crept over the
faces of the audience. It stayed there all evening.'' Known familiarly as Gee
Gee, he was a clubbable fellow, entertaining at his home on New York Dorset Square such contemporaries as
Whistler, Wilde and Marie Corelli. He loved lawn tennis, skating and fishing.
He was happily married, the father of four children, one of whom, Gee Gee Jr.,
was to become a leading
stage figure in his own right. London
Grossmith seems to have regarded ''The Diary of a Nobody'' as something tossed off in an idle moment, never giving it publicly so much as a mention. But whereas his greatness as a performer was bound to fade with time, the ''Diary,'' as the foreword to the 1945 Penguin edition put it, ''lives on in print to be read anew by generation after generation, exactly as it was written.''
Or does it? Today, I am afraid, ''The Diary of a Nobody'' falls into that sad category, Forgotten Masterpieces. A few people still read it in
where it has been dramatized on television and radio and has inspired many
imitators (of which ''Bridget Jones's Diary,'' by Helen Fielding, might be
counted as one of the more successful). But in the England it is all but
unknown. Although a couple of paperback editions remain in print, I have not
seen a copy in a United States
bookstore in the last decade. Few of my literary friends, even the Anglophiles
among them, profess to have heard of it. Whenever I attempt to use the word
''Pooterish'' in an article, some damned ignorant editor always takes it out.
Academic lit-crit types have shown scant interest in the ''Diary,'' despite its
wealth of what I suppose must be called ''cultural signifiers'' -- popular song
titles, references to late Victorian fads like spiritualism, clues to the
ideology of home and marriage at the dawn of suburbia. Manhattan
Indeed, ''The Diary of a Nobody'' is the first real critique of suburban life, at least as it was lived in the miles and miles of little red-brick houses that began to swallow up the countryside around London in the 19th century. But unlike the later literature of suburbia -- with its tiresome emphasis on soul-numbing banality and, especially these days, gruesome dysfunction -- Pooter's jottings manage to convey the essential wholesomeness of suburban folkways. Despite his limited vision, he is a noble character, precariously striving to uphold propriety in the face of a rude world. (''I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.'') So, when it comes to choosing an existential hero, you can take Nietzsche's Zarathustra, or Proust's Marcel, or even Roth's Zuckerman, thank you very much. I'll plump for Pooter.
A CLASSIC--BETTER PERFORMED THAN READ--THE FIRST OF
SOCIAL SATIRE LONDON
By Harold Wolf TOP 50 REVIEWER on July 23, 2009
Mr. Charles Pooter, the diary author in "THE DIARY OF A NOBODY", is a nobody, but he simply fails to notice. He is content with life, almost. He presents his diary in a verbal (in this DVD)format, speaking directly to the camera. He most enthusiastically orates about his common middle-class social and family events (the very ones he's written in the diary.) He feels assured the world will eventually enjoy his written diary--when published. Is he the Suburban Snob of 1892? Certainly it's perfected pompousness.
I can not imagine "THE DIARY OF A NOBODY" being as funny without hearing and seeing Pooter (Hugh Bonneville) presenting the diary in dialogue. It's strictly British humor, but at it's Victorian finest. Bonneville's ability to project emotion and expressions is near perfection. Hugh Bonneville can say as much with a lifted eyebrow, an eye roll, a gesture, or a voice change, as what is provided in the script.
In Pooter's written (spoken in this DVD version) accounts, he makes the occasional joke--usually unappreciated by others. A time or two Pooter laughs so hard at his own merriment that he resembles Red Skelton's famous moments of belly-laughing at his own humor.
Pooter loves his 'Home Sweet Home' which is near the rail tracks. He had just moved into the new rental as the diary began, April of 1891. The diary ends in May of 1892. The home is called The Laurels (even though it has no laurels growing, but Pooter and his wife, Carrie, might plant some). It is
suburbia, Victorian, and the train traffic makes the house quake frequently.
But Pooter adjusts. The many views of the 6 or 7 rooms, as well as Pooter's
employment location, provides a complete, delightful look at London Victorian
living in a middle-class dwelling. Furnished with period pieces and accents,
right down to the tea cups and boot scrapper (which is a constant complaint).
And the Christmas holiday tops off the Victorian aesthetics. WOW! London
So what does Pooter write about? Lupin, the not-so-perfect son and his engagement with a not-so-perfect, older, fatter, uglier, Miss Daisy Mutlar. Spouse spats. His boss, Mr. Perkupp, and Pooter's downns and upps with Perkupp. Social engagements gone afoul or well. Costs, especially with drinks. Stocks, encouraged by his son. Bad lobsters. Friends, Cummings and Gowing, and their comings and goings. And that darn boot scrapper.
The DVD features explained that the term "Pooterism" (taking oneself too seriously) evolved from this work first published in a magazine (1888), then book in 1882 (still in print today), this film via BBC (2007), and now this DVD. The book was written by brothers, George & Weedon Grossmith, biography also in the bonus stuff.
Plus more, but no subtitles--BOOGER!
4 episodes totaling just shy of two hours. In the end my wife and I had enjoyed actor, Hugh Bonneville, as Charles Pooter so much, we finally ceased smiling and laughing. Why? It was over. Sad to see it end.
If you like the subtlety of British comedy, then you'll LOVE this CLASSIC British humor book brought to film/DVD. An astonishing one man show. Listen to Pooter's words, watch him, "For he's the jolly good fellow."