Anatomy of a Book: The Diary of a Nobody, by George & Weedon Grossmith

My dear wife Carrie and I have just been a week in our new house… (p.11)

And so begins the comedy of The Diary of a Nobody, as printed as excerpts by Punch in the 1890s, and originally attributed to Anonymous. It is written as though recounting the mundane life of Charles Pooter, and his 1890s trifles with scrapers, meat orders and dinner invitations.

“I do believe I’ve been poisoned by the lobster mayonnaise at the Mansion House last night”: she (Carrie) simply replied, without taking her eyes from her sewing: “Champagne never did agree with you.” (p.40)

Though it seems intended to be the dull diary of a Nobody, in jest to the (arguably) dull diaries of Somebody’s that were being printed at the time, this changes early on.

We have not seen Willie since last Christmas, and are pleased to notice what a fine young man has grown. (p.51)

Interestingly many of the diary entries would be equal to the average Facebook post, in word length and content, and occasionally a Twitter tweet. More importantly though is how the introduction of Willie changes the diary. Rather than concerning dull occurrences, Willie’s involvement introduces change to life and house emotions.

“Oh, it’s all right! I’m engaged to be married!” (p.65)

While the book is funny (though maybe less so than pre-1900s), it is also comical to notice how classic elements of a good story were introduced to make it this more engaging.

Changing Status:
Willie Pooter returns to live at home, later to reveal he has lost his job and that he intends to be married. Charles Pooter also has problems fitting into his new social environment and a changing position at his work.

The Worst:
Charles worries what is to be done for Willie, and other events along the way. Though importantly for a comedy the worst is not to be considered horrible by the reader. The Pooter’s, while not extravagantly wealthy, are rich enough that their problems can be laughed at. Consider this:
When bad things happening to rich people it is funny. They’re rich. They’ll be ok. The reader knows the problem will not last. When bad things happen to poor people it is sad. They’re poor. They’ll suffer.

Believable Characters:
It is perhaps the short entries that make the world believable. When people lie they often explain a lot, inventing the world with added, and unnecessary, detail. By excluding the non-essential detail, the reader’s imagination fills in the gaps and makes the characters real.

Time Pressure:
This is a short book, and the benefit of the Facebook length diary entries is that events are frequently quick to occur and change.

This is life in the late 1800s, with its professions and daily chores. While that is interesting in the setting, on the whole this book does not educate. In general comedies struggle to integrate humour with teaching a topic or showing how to deal with a situation. When they try, the danger is they can sound flippant in the grab for comedy, and the topic or situation feels devalued.


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