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'DIARY OF A NOBODY' PAGES

Introduction



The Diary of a Nobody, the fictional diary of Charles Pooter, a clerk in late-Victorian London, first appeared anonymously in the British humorous magazine Punch, or the London Charivari. Each weekly issue of Punch, which came out on Saturdays, consisted of cartoons on political and social themes, comic stories and poems, and satirical comment on issues of the day. The Diary consisted of twenty-five episodes of about a column and a half each, appearing intermittently in the issues of Punch published between 26 May 1888 and 11 May 1889 inclusive. 

The editor of Punch was Frank Burnand (1836-1917), a lawyer with a taste for the stage and a prolific author of comic plays and sketches. It was he who devised the title and added a footnote to the first episode which reads as follows:

As everybody who is anybody is publishing Reminiscences, Diaries, Notes, Autobiographies, and Recollections, we are sincerely grateful to “A Nobody” for permitting us to add to the historic collection.[1]

This is a covert, good-humoured dig at a friend and one of the authors of the Diary, George Grossmith, a famous actor, entertainer and songwriter. Burnand knew Grossmith, then aged forty, was currently writing an account of his professional life to date. That book, A Society Clown, appeared in August 1888, three months into the run of the Punch serial of the Diary.  

There were some long gaps when no episodes of the Diary appeared in Punch. There were no episodes in the issues of April 1889, and an even longer gap of eight issues between the episodes of 15 September and 17 November 1888. These gaps probably resulted from the authors’ heavy acting commitments, but the longest gap is fictionally “explained” as follows: when the entries resume, Pooter fumes over the disappearance of the last six weeks of his entries, finally discovering after a domestic upheaval that the missing portion has been burnt accidentally. The very last entry, dated “March 21,” ends on this cheerful note: “fell asleep only to dream of three happy people, Lupin, dear Carrie, and myself.”

No contemporary references to the Diary, published or private, have been discovered, so nothing whatever is known about what the Punch readers thought of the serial. However, its reception must have been sufficiently encouraging for its creators to go further some three years later, for in July 1892 a longer version appeared as a book, under the imprint of the publisher J.W. Arrowsmith. The authors were now identified as the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith.

The publisher was based in Bristol, and it may seem strange that the brothers, centred as they were on London’s theatrical and artistic life, should have offered the book to a provincial company. But there were good reasons. Arrowsmith had commissioned A Society Clown from George Grossmith, and the latter claimed later that 40,000 copies of it were sold in the month of publication. [2]. Also Arrowsmith had had a great success with Jerome’s comic novel Three Men in a Boat. In fact the company seemed to have an almost clairvoyant ability at spotting potential best-sellers declined by other publishers: G.K. Chesterton, Anthony Hope and Edgar Wallace, among others, found a first success under their imprint. So for the Grossmiths Arrowsmith was the obvious choice.

A comparison of the Punch serial and the Arrowsmith first edition shows many differences. First and most obviously, the Grossmiths shaped the serial episodes into seventeen chapters, and supplemented them with seven newly-written ones. The first entry of the new eighteenth chapter is dated “April 8,” or two and a half weeks after the date of the last entry given in Punch. It starts by saying “no events of any importance” have happened in the meantime.

The authors also made numerous changes to the Punch text, by adding, substituting and occasionally  deleting material. New scenes which they inserted included the bow tie incident at the theatre, the vexing Blackfriars Bi-weekly News episode, and Burwin-Fosselton’s Henry Irving imitations. They corrected minor typographical errors and altered the punctuation and paragraphing. They adjusted some dates: for example, someone must have noticed that the Pooters and their friends had played the game Consequences on a Sunday evening (3 June 1888) a social occasion at which Gowing, typically, had “over-stepped the limits of good taste”. So for the book they shifted it back a day to the Saturday evening. They replaced the thinly-disguised names of places with their true names (eg the original “Broadsteps” becomes the real “Broadstairs,” a popular resort town). They updated some of the song titles by substituting more current ones. They also got rid of the occasional false note; for example, one case where, inaptly, they had put the French phrase “sans ceremonie” into Pooter’s mouth. They deleted Burnand’s editorial note and added the introductory paragraph supposedly by Pooter himself, starting “Why should I not publish my diary?”

The final important addition was the thirty-three witty pen and ink sketches by Weedon Grossmith, which in mood and style now seem so integral to the text. Weedon toured the photographers’ shops on the Euston Road looking for models for the main characters, especially for a child’s picture hideous enough to help with the portraiture of that spoilt brat, Master Percy James.[3]

Various significances have been read into the Diary’s first entry, dated “April 3,” which was a Tuesday in 1888, the day after the Easter bank holiday. House leases traditionally started on Lady Day, 25 March, but that seems to contradict the opening sentence, which says that the Pooters have been in their new home for just a week. (Providing we assume that this undated opening is supposed to be part of the first dated entry.) The simplest explanation may be that on the day they composed or started the first episode the brothers counted back a set period, perhaps six weeks, and fixed the date of the opening entry that way. Surely they did so to open up a window of time so that entries could mention whatever public events had happened in the meantime that were amenable to comic treatment. In the event, they made small use of this.

To increase the effect of immediacy the brothers were careful to make the entry dates conform with actual dates in the calendar. For example, the very first episode in Punch has separate entries for every day between 3 April and 8 April inclusive, and the last two entry dates are identified as a Saturday and a Sunday, which they were in 1888.[5That was maintained throughout, so that every entry date does correspond to actual dates in 1888-9.

A further important point is that when they revised and extended the text the brothers preserved and continued the original dates from three years before, so that the dates of the new entries (running from 8 April to 11 July) still match the 1889 calendar, not the 1892 one.

With respect to this, one noteworthy detail relates to the entry which in Punch is dated “Sunday, November 4.” This day was indeed a Sunday in 1888. But when they revised this episode for the book the Grossmiths made a mistake. For some reason they re-dated this entry “November 5, Sunday” and so continued to be one day out in the rest of the entries up to the end of the year. For example, the very next entry is “November 6,” which was a Tuesday in 1888, yet this entry is clearly supposed to be a Monday, just as it is in the Punch version, being the first available business day when Lupin can attend Mr Perkupp’s office to find out about his job offer. Furthermore, Guy Fawkes Day is the fifth of November, which fell on a Monday in 1888. So in Punch the Bonfire Night party at Cummings’ house does take place correctly on the Monday evening, rather than a day later, as in the book.

 (If Guy Fawkes Day had fallen on a Sunday, no fireworks party could have been held on that day, of course. Perhaps this played some part in the Grossmiths’ later confusion about, and manipulation of, the date, particularly as they had already shifted another inappropriate entry away from a Sunday.)

The Grossmiths forced the dates back on track when they correctly labelled the entry for 30 December 1888 a Sunday. Doing so introduced another anomaly, however; for the astute reader will notice that if 26 November was a Sunday, and it is so described, then 30 December cannot be one as well. [6]

The Pooters of Holloway – Charles, his wife Carrie and troublesome reckless son Lupin – are part of that class of literary characters with which educated people are acquainted by allusion, even if they have never read the book in question. The ineffable Pooter has given his name to the language, in the form of a noun or adjective, ‘pooterish’. In fact, its usage, and presumably therefore the general perception of what a ‘Mr Pooter’ is shorthand for, is increasing. The term does not appear in the 1933 edition of the OED or its Supplement, but has acquired multiple entries in the online edition. 

Most Victorian humour has not survived very well into the 21st century, but most readers find this isn't true of The Diary of a Nobody. This is partly because the Grossmiths themselves mock the traditional, earlier sources of Victorian humour, such as a taste for execrable punning and puerile practical jokes. The type of humour in the Diary does not rely on punitive satire, but is the self-deprecating, petty bourgeois humour of modern television situation comedies. We are invited to share and empathize more than to guffaw. (But actually the reader’s response is, and was probably intended to be by the authors, more complicated than that.) The Pooters occupy a recognizably modern world, a liminal world of small anxieties and small triumphs, and their interests, trials and tribulations, their social and material successes and disasters, are familiar enough: the do-it-yourself attempts, the trials of dinner-party entertaining, and the excruciating faux pas. James Hammerton in an excellent article on George Grossmith says that he wrote the Diary specifically for the elite, encouraging and validating their sniggers at upstart aspirants. No doubt that is partly, or even largely true, but the fact remains that, not being quite sure how far the Grossmiths are laughing at Pooter, we are not sure how far we want to stand revealed as potentially Pooterish ourselves by laughing with him. 

Apart from being very funny, the Diary is a mine of small, striking details of social history which reflect tellingly on more canonical contemporary texts such as ones by Gissing and Hardy.  The world of 1880s England is sufficiently different from the present to be intriguing: the Pooters’ dealings with servants and tradespeople, for instance; or their domestic amusements; or Pooter’s commuting habits and his relationship with his boss and his underlings, and his son; or his repeated and usually futile attempts to assert his patriarchal authority.  It raises more serious questions about feminized masculinity in Edwardian fiction, the satisfactions and tensions of companionate marriage, the emerging notion of the ‘fast’ young man or woman, and so on.

The Diary has never been out of print since 1892. Examples of other editions are: Arrowsmith (1905); Arrowsmith, intro. J.C. Squire (1924); Everyman/Dent, intro. Squire (1940); Collins, ed. Pryce-Jones (1955); Folio, intro. ‘J.H.’, 1969; Penguin (1945, 1965, 1979); Collins, intro. Hanks (1981);  Elm Tree (1984); Sutton, intro. Matthew (1991); Arrowsmith, intro. Joseph (1992); Oxford, ed. Flint (1995);  Bloomsbury (1997); Prion, intro. William Trevor (1999); Penguin Classics, ed. Glinert (1999).   

Given its popularity and the fact that there have been editions from so many different publishers, it is rather astonishing that there has been no more enterprising edition of The Diary. The Oxford UP edition in the ‘Oxford Popular Fiction’ series, introduced by Kate Flint, and Penguin edition introduced and with notes by Ed Glinert, are the only ones directed at students. Flint explains a few of the contemporary allusions in her introduction, but her edition has no notes on the text at all. Her select bibliography has under 20 items, and misses some important articles published well before 1995, for example MacGillivray & Beam’s ‘Acceptance in Holloway’ which appeared in the Queen’s Quarterly in 1970. Glinert has notes on the text, and is good on topography of suburban London and the Grossmiths’ theatrical careers and references, but Glinert's grasp on late-Victorian literary culture is much weaker than Flint’s, and his notes are silent on many points that are explained in the present annotated edition. The Diary is so extremely ‘English’ in its allusiveness and assumptions that slight misinterpretations are easy to make. For example, Arlene Young in her recent Culture, Class and Gender gives, as evidence of Pooter’s self-satisfied obtuseness, his telling admission, having described his ‘nice little back garden’, that it runs down to the railway. But it is not that simple: the Grossmiths were really capturing an ambivalence in British lower middle class attitudes about such a situation: it was noisy and dirtier, but it has the strong advantage that one’s garden is not closely overlooked. Finally, no previous edition prints any contemporary reviews, comments, or contextualizing extracts, which I hope will be found interesting.       


 


1. Punch, 95 (26 May 1888), 241.

2.   In an interview in 1896. See Banfield (1896), 550.

3.   Weedon made 33 drawings for the first edition. Some editions do not reproduce all of them.

4.   Carr (1954), 481; Grossmith (1933), 201.

5. Glinert, in his notes to the Penguin Classic edition (1999), xxv, says that the first Punch episode “ends with Pooter ordering fresh eggs (7 April)” but this is an error.

6.  In his edition, Pryce-Jones (1968), 19 noticed part of the anomaly, but did not explain how it had come about. There is a fuller but still incomplete account in Waterhouse (1984). All entries after 30 December 1888 are correctly dated up to the last one of Thursday 11 July 1889, with the exception of 3 July, which is miscalled a Sunday.